Police union bristles at crackdown

January 18, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

As Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier cracks down on a record number of "preventable" car accidents in the department, the police union is challenging his power to punish officers exonerated by administrative boards.

The union is threatening to sue the Police Department by next week over Mr. Frazier's decision to overturn board decisions in two minor accidents. Those actions violate state law, according to Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3.

"It is unfortunate that under Commissioner Frazier, Baltimore City police officers will not receive the same rights that are afforded to criminals of Baltimore City," the union said in a strongly worded memo posted on union billboards at police stations throughout the city. And the union's president said officers fear that the hearing process on which they have relied will be meaningless if Mr. Frazier can overturn decisions.

The issue won't easily be resolved.

"The commissioner feels as though the final decision with regard to disciplinary decisions rests with him," said Sam Ringgold, the agency's chief spokesman. "The union disagrees. It will be resolved in court."

In 1993, the year for which the most recent statistics are available, 250 out of 476 accidents involving patrol cars were designated preventable -- an all-time high, Mr. Ringgold said.

Mr. Frazier said he overturned board decisions in two cases involving unrelated, minor accidents that occurred within the last two years. Both officers, he said, received guidance and counseling as punishment, the most lenient the department can order.

One accident, he said, involved an officer who drove a car all day even though a warning light indicated that the anti-lock brakes were failing. The brakes failed and the car hit another vehicle, the commissioner said.

"The board said that was equipment failure," Mr. Frazier said. "I disagreed and said it was human failure."

Neither union nor police officials would identify the officer. The union said he will identified in the suit when it is filed.

The union says the second case involves Officer Robert W. Weinhold Jr., who now works under Mr. Ringgold as one of the department's spokesmen. The accident occurred two years ago, before Officer Weinhold was assigned to the public affairs office.

The commissioner, who called the accident a "right of way violation," said the officer went around a car that was stopped, apparently crossing a double yellow line, and was hit by the car when its driver pulled out.

Officer Weinhold declined to comment yesterday, saying, "I do not wish to discuss departmental procedures with the public."

Both officers took their cases before a hearing board, which consists of three commanding officers selected by the department to review cases. The accident board operates on the same principle as trial boards, which investigate officer conduct.

If the board finds an officer guilty, it recommends a punishment to the commissioner. He can accept the proposal or change the punishment, which can include counseling, loss of vacation, fines or suspension.

The union does not dispute that power, but it does question Mr. Frazier's claim that he can reverse a not guilty finding by the board.

"It makes the whole [trial board] decision a sham," said Herbert R. Weiner, a lawyer who represents the union.

Officer Gary McLhinney, the union's president, said the Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights, which is part of state law, "clearly states a not-guilty finding terminates the action."

"This has absolutely nothing to do with accidents," he said. "It has to do with due process. . . . If a panel finds you not guilty, then you are not guilty. I understand we have a problem with accidents that needs to be addressed, but the commissioner playing God isn't going to help the matter."

Mr. Frazier says an agreement with the union gives him the authority to reverse board decisions for car accidents -- but the union disputes this. "My legal staff assures me I have the right to do what I did," he said.

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