The lieutenant's job: policing his colleagues

November 16, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

The halls sometimes grow quiet when Howard County police Lt. Herman L. Charity walks them.

He's gotten used to the silence since December 1993, when he returned from his job as patrol sergeant on Route 1 to head the Internal Affairs Division -- the office that polices the Police Department.

He says he can't engage in too many informal conversations with co-workers, who become nervous at the thought of volunteering the most casual information to the department's chief watch dog.

But it's a job that Lieutenant Charity says is key to establishing trust in the community.

"There's a need to maintain the integrity of the Police Department," Lieutenant Charity says.

Already this year, the department has logged 146 of complaints against police officers, surpassing last year's total of 122. Lieutenant Charity attributes the increase to the department's effort to inform residents of how to make complaints and to the 39 rookie officers who graduated from the police academy last December.

But it's not just inexperienced officers who make mistakes.

Dale Hill, a retired Howard County police officer, Monday entered a plea agreement in Circuit Court on charges that he choked his 5-year-old daughter in a drunken rage during a domestic dispute with his estranged wife in June. A judge ordered Mr. Hill to two years' probation and to attend counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous classes.

Howard child abuse detectives arrested Mr. Hill, a 10-year veteran, in August, and Internal Affairs sustained the charges after its own investigation.

"I have to do my job," Lieutenant Charity says. "But it hurts when police officers commit some of the infractions they're accused of.

"It gives the profession a black eye."

Internal Affairs investigates complaints from citizens or those filed by officers about any of the Police Department's 300 sworn police officers and probationary recruits, 71 civilian workers and 25 crossing guards.

Any employee accused of wrongdoing is put under an administrative investigation for infractions to police policy and conduct, whether on or off duty. Anyone accused of a crime would be subject to a criminal investigation.

Disciplinary proceedings include a hearing of accusations, a final decision by police Chief James N. Robey on punishment and the employee's option to appeal the finding to Circuit Court.

Although administrators say the Police Department has been effective at holding itself accountable, skeptics exist, says Sgt. Greg Marshall, an Internal Affairs investigator.

"It's natural [for other officers] to be suspicious," Sergeant Marshall says.

Of the 122 complaints against Howard County's police department in 1993, most involved officers' performance and "conduct unbecoming," with five complaints of brutality.

Of all last year's complaints, 35 were sustained, 10 could not determined to be true or false and 23 were ruled unfounded by internal affairs investigators. In 21 cases, officers were exonerated and their actions upheld.

Thirty cases were closed administratively with no disciplinary action taken against officers, except perhaps additional training, Lieutenant Charity says.

Three of last year's complaints are still being investigated, he says.

Lieutenant Charity says his concern for fairness is heightened because of his experiences as the first black officer hired by the department in 1970.

The head of internal affairs is assigned by the police chief and answers only to the chief.

The people perhaps most concerned with the fairness of the division seem to agree that Internal Affairs does a decent job of monitoring police behavior.

"For the most part, they try to do the right thing," says Dan Besseck, secretary of the Howard County Police Officers Association, a union that represents 240 sworn officers.

Department administrators say Lieutenant Charity's division is respected.

"That's not a comfortable job for anybody," says Lt. Jeffrey Spaulding, head of the Vice and Narcotics Division. "But it's a very critical factor in the department. "

Officers say Lieutenant Charity has established a degree of trust in his 24 years with the department, but the lieutenant says the job is often a thankless one.

"Citizens get mad if it doesn't go their way, and officers are dissatisfied if it doesn't go their way," Lieutenant Charity says. "It's a no-win situation. And people do express their dissatisfaction."

For instance, the department has been criticized severely by Joseph Malouf, a Washington attorney representing the family of a Hispanic man who died last Christmas Day in the custody of police and fire personnel.

Although Lieutenant Charity's investigation found no wrongdoing by four officers who responded to a domestic call in Elkridge that ended in the death of Jose Inez Melendez, Mr. Malouf says the case will end up in court when he files a civil suit against the county, charging police and medical technicians with negligence and brutality.

The state medical examiner's office said Mr. Melendez died of alcohol intoxication and a county grand jury cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

The case prompted a proposal by the Howard County chapter of the NAACP for creation of a citizens review board to oversee police policy and scrutinize internal investigations.

Not surprisingly, Lieutenant Charity says such a panel is unnecessary.

"They're are enough safeguards in place to make sure we do our job. People are always watching the watchers."

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