City police probed arrests for loitering Nine officers earned hundreds of hours in overtime

Charges rarely pursued

Brief appearances in court meant 2 hours of extra pay

October 24, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Nine Baltimore police officers arrested scores of people on a loitering charge that prosecutors rarely pursue, drawing complaints that the lockups were a ruse for them to rack up hundreds of hours of overtime.

The officers were dubbed members of a so-called "9-0-1 Club" in an anonymous complaint to the mayor because they punched the court overtime clock at 9 a.m. and punched out one minute later when they learned the cases would be dropped.

Each 60 seconds of service earned them the minimum two hours of overtime pay. The nine officers accounted for 34 percent of all arrests in the city on charges of loitering in drug-free zones from January through April.

No disciplinary action was taken, but an internal memo obtained by The Sun shows that investigators closed the case because they lacked confessions from the nine officers who work the Eastern District midnight shift.

The allegations are difficult to prove because the officers were following orders from their district commander.

Some prosecutors and judges are wary of the constitutionality of the law that makes it easier for police to clear people from designated streets and corners known for drug trafficking.

To prove the officers did anything wrong or illegal, investigators would have to show they arrested people only to collect overtime -- not an easy charge to document. Even though prosecutors routinely drop the loitering charge, police commanders argue the arrests are lawful.

"They were out aggressively patrolling," said the officers' boss, Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr. "They were following my orders in picking up the pace."

The major said the strategy has resulted in an 18 percent drop in violent crime in some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods.

"All of the people who live in this district do not want to look out their windows and see people hanging on their steps," Major Sistrunk said. "We use the drug-free zone law to move them, and when they refuse, the officers have no other alternative but to arrest them."

349 arrests

The report noted that from January through March, the nine officers arrested 349 people on loitering in a drug-free zone charges -- accounting for more than one-third of all arrests made by officers citywide for the offense.

"This is a significant number of arrests being made by a small group of officers," wrote Maj. Robert C. Novak, director of the internal investigation division. During the same four months officers department-wide averaged two arrests for the charge, the report says.

Major Novak concluded that "without a confession on the part of the parties involved, which is highly unlikely," he could not determine the motive for the unusual number of arrests. He recommended that the officers be monitored.

A department study showed that the nine Eastern District officers each averaged 39 arrests. Two made more than 65. None of those arrested was prosecuted.

The report says that during the first four months of this year, the loitering charge accounted for most of the arrests made by the nine officers. "Several officers have made arrests for robbery, stolen auto, [drug] violations and handguns, but these numbers do not approach the numbers for [loitering]," the report says.

A review by The Sun of one officer mentioned in the internal report shows that he has made 386 arrests since he joined the force six years ago -- 110 for loitering in a drug-free zone. Ninety-three of those arrests were made this year.

The report also concluded that the shift under review "consistently is the highest for court overtime when compared to other district midnight shifts." A department spokesman said figures on which that conclusion was based were not available.

In the report, Major Novak -- who declined to be interviewed -- said he met with Assistant State's Attorney Katherine Hudson, who said officers tell her that they make loitering arrests to clear crowded corners.

"She has no knowledge of officers making arrests just to get overtime," Major Novak wrote.

The prosecutor said that the loitering cases are routinely thrown out because "officers do not totally understand what constitutes a violation of the statute."

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said the drug-free zone law has never been found unconstitutional. "Until the judiciary is willing to do that, we have to jump through these hoops to satisfy to us what appears to be a legal directive from the communities we serve," he said.

911 calls

Major Sistrunk said that nearly half the emergency 911 calls from residents of the Eastern District are from people complaining about loiterers.

In August, Major Sistrunk issued a memo saying that car stops, field interviews and arrests for drug-free zone violations were "insufficiently low." He ordered officers to step up enforcement.

The report identifies the officers as Richard Heymann, Eric Mentzer, Richard Ingelhart, Curtis Moore, Mark Warble, Richard Waybright, John Wollen, Tom Simpson and John Paradise.

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