Officer retiring, but not his ideas He wants review panel for incidents involving use of force by police

July 26, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jim Haner contributed to this article.

Even before Charles J. "Joe" Key Sr. took charge of the Baltimore Police Department's weapons training program in 1985, he had a firm reputation as a maverick -- the kind of guy who could get in his superiors' faces.

So it was no surprise when a high-ranking commander questioned the sanity of the man who had put Key in charge of the police firing range: "Are you out of your mind? He's a loose cannon."

But Maj. Patrick Bradley ignored the warning. Then director of the Police Academy, he was sitting on a scandal. Rampant cheating on test scores at the range had led to the ouster of the entire staff.

"He would do what was right because it was important to him to do what was right," Bradley, now retired, said of Key. "If that meant he got fewer Christmas cards, he didn't care. He didn't need people to like him to do his job."

Key, who has been on the force for 25 years and is considered one of the state's foremost experts on weapons, tactics and the use of deadly force, just retired. But his mark on the department may be felt long after he leaves to raise buffalo on a ranch in Virginia. A farewell party will be held this evening.

Long critical of his department's tendency to give only a cursory look at officers who use force to subdue suspects -- unless a shooting or serious injury is involved -- he is recommending that Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier create a five-member departmental review board with broad investigative powers.

"It was my final gift to the Police Department," said Key, 50. "This agency has got to make changes to satisfy the public. Since Rodney King, everything is under scrutiny."

The fact that it was Key who wrote the plan makes it hard for department commanders to dismiss it. Even those who have gone up against Key praise him for his dedication to seeking the truth.

"He's a stand-up guy," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the police union, which has faced off against Key in trials involving police shootings. "He simply looks at whether something is right or something is wrong, and he doesn't allow any outside distractions to influence his decisions."

Key trained officers in defense and firearms tactics for more than 10 years, and helped write state laws governing when officers are justified in hitting or shooting someone.

He was a founding member of the department's Quick Response Team, or SWAT unit. And he took judges, prosecutors, private lawyers and everyday citizens through the firing range in a program he designed to help civilians understand how an officer makes the split-second decision of whether to pull the trigger.

When Key was promoted to lieutenant, an officer asked another what their new boss was like. "I can promise you one thing," came the reply. "Key will never stab you in the back. He will look you in the face and stab you in the chest."

Born in Tennessee, he speaks deliberately with just a hint of a Southern twang. And he moves with the bearing of a boot camp drill sergeant.

Uniform starched to perfection, shoes spit-shined, he strode the firing line amid spent shell casings, kicking up dirt and bellowing orders above the din of a dozen guns being fired. Profane, scolding, demanding, he scared more than a few rookies.

But there's always the glimmer of mischief in his eyes, hinting at the wry humor that fuels his conversation and classroom speeches. Key is, above all else, a subversive. He revels in challenging the status quo and the everyday assumptions people make.

In a 1994 lecture to a group of civilians, he described one police shooting incident this way: "Here, we had a Baltimore cop driving down the highway -- going 105 miles per hour by his own account -- chasing a bad guy with one hand on the wheel and one eye on the road, blasting away at the guy's tires with his service weapon like he's John Freakin' Wayne.

"And when the incident is over, his commander puts him in for a commendation for heroism. Well, he should have been written up for felony stupidity."

A woman said afterward, "I have to be honest. I came here expecting them to tell us how cops are never wrong, but that's not how it was."

And so it is that when Key talks, people listen.

'An outstanding job'

"He's a pro, there's no question about that," said Assistant State's Attorney Timothy J. Doory. "He has done an outstanding job in training the police and training the public on what the police go through. For someone to evaluate police conduct, there is no equal in Baltimore City.

"When he tells you there is a problem, there is a problem. When he tells you things are OK, I think you can take that to the bank."

Six years ago, concerned that many shootings by officers might have been legally justified but that the officers put themselves in the position of having to use their guns by violating department policies, Key first proposed that an independent review board be set up.

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