Police drawing less criticism Complaints fell in 1995 after 30% rise in 1994

February 26, 1996|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Howard County Police DepartmentSUN STAFF

The number of complaints filed by civilians last year against Howard County police officers returned to normal after a 30 percent leap the year before.

Citizens filed 115 complaints against police last year, including one that resulted in the sex assault conviction of a Howard County police sergeant.

Last year's number was lower than the 159 complaints filed in 1994 and 122 lodged in 1993, according to statistics released recently by the department's internal affairs unit.

Much of 1994's increase in complaints against officers were on charges of "conduct unbecoming" -- when an officer acts unprofessionally -- including rudeness, cursing at citizens, drunkenness and assault, police said.

That category of complaint -- one of 10 categories police track -- fell to 30 reports last year after doubling to 62 in 1994.

"I think we do a good job, but we can do better," said Lt. Herman L. Charity, head of the internal affairs unit. "Overall, we're respected in the community. I think citizens think we handle all complaints they have appropriately and fairly."

But a community activist, the Rev. Bowyer G. Freeman, said that despite the drop in complaints, a need remains for a civilian review board -- citizens who would investigate official complaints against officers and review the department's policies and procedures.

"The fact that there are complaints is reprehensible," said Mr. Freeman, vice president of the African-American Coalition of Howard County, which represents 50 organizations countywide.

"What is questionable is the response to the complaint. What's being done?" he said.

Police Chief James N. Robey was on vacation and could not be reached for comment last week. He has said, however, that creating a civilian group is good in theory but would hinder officers' efforts to do their jobs.

William Geller, an author and national researcher on police procedures, said most departments see complaints against police as "the cost of doing business," but he said law enforcement agencies should improve public relations before the complaints are lodged.

"You've got to update the quality of a police department so you don't need to wait for somebody from the outside to beat you up and make you do the right thing," said Mr. Geller, director of the Midwest office of the national Police Executive Research Forum in Chicago, a group of several police departments.

Within the past few years, the Howard County Police Department has been the subject of scrutiny, both inside and outside the force, in cases involving a sexual assault and claims of excessive force.

For example:

* Feb. 13, former Howard police Sgt. Thomas M. Martin was sentenced to four years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman in his patrol car last summer.

* A federal lawsuit from the family of Jose Inez Melendez -- an intoxicated man who died shortly after Howard officers arrested him in December 1993 -- hasn't gone to trial yet. Family members seek more than $36 million from the county.

* In another federal lawsuit, filed in August 1994, a Pittsburgh research psychologist and his wife are seeking $29 million in damages from the department and two of its officers -- charging that the man was beaten and permanently injured during an arrest in Columbia in 1991.

* In July 1994, the county settled for an undisclosed amount a $6.5 million federal lawsuit alleging that police officers beat twin brothers while breaking up a party in a Jessup motel in 1990.

After each of these cases, complaints also were filed with the police department.

"All of the complaints are important," Lieutenant Charity said. "Each one impacts on the reputation of the police department."

Of the complaints filed in 1994, 38 were "sustained" after investigation -- meaning there was sufficient evidence to support the complaint. That number was only slightly higher than the 35 cases sustained in 1993.

So far, 87 of last year's 115 complaints have been investigated with the following outcomes:

* Fifteen complaints were sustained.

* Fourteen could not be determined to be true or false.

* Twenty-three were ruled unfounded by investigators.

* In 10 cases, officers were exonerated and their actions upheld.

* Twenty-five complaints resulted in nondisciplinary sanctions, such as training or counseling.

Twenty-eight claims from 1995 still are being investigated.

"The outcomes of the investigations are important," said Cpl. John D. Paparazzo, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association, a union that represents about 240 of the department officers ranked below sergeant.

"More often our officers have been doing the right thing, and investigations bear that out."

Police were not able to explain what made complaints in "conduct unbecoming" double in 1994 and then decrease by about the same amount in 1995.

They speculate that high-profile cases alleging police misconduct -- such as the Rodney King beating and O. J. Simpson murder investigation in Los Angeles -- may have encouraged citizens to complain more.

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