City police misconduct charges up Number of officers facing discipline more than doubles

160 in '96 from 59 in '94

It's better policing, not more corruption, commissioner says

February 02, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The list reads like a page torn from a police blotter: rape, assault, bank robbery, stalking, child abuse, child pornography, helping a notorious drug dealer. But the accused are Baltimore police officers.

Like the steady parade of miscreants, thugs and scoundrels they go after, the men and women city taxpayers hire to guard their lives and protect their property have become criminal suspects themselves.

Since September, at least a dozen have been criminally charged and their cases publicized, but there are many other officers accused of beating their wives, stealing money from drug dealers and pilfering advance copies of their own promotional exams.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier says the unusual number of allegations affects a small fraction of his 3,200-member force.

"There isn't any more misconduct going on now than there ever was," he said. "I think we are doing a far better job investigating than we ever have before."

But newly disclosed department records show the problem to be far more serious than the most recent cases suggest.

Awaiting administrative trial boards are 86 officers, including 20 who are charged with using excessive force, 20 with infractions related to violating criminal laws, and 26 cited for filing false statements. Fifty-eight officers face charges serious enough to end their careers.

Those numbers do not include officers who accepted punishment from internal investigators, or who face trial in criminal courts. Police officials say there are up to 100 more cases winding through the system, including 40 officers who face criminal charges of beating their spouses in 1996.

"We are seeing allegations of people making some really stupid choices," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the police union, who says there is no evidence of systemic, organized corruption on Baltimore's police force.

"We have a very good police department," the union head added. "We're held to the higher standard. We have a tremendous amount of authority and trust placed in us by the community. We need to reciprocate that."

The department's most troubling case is that of former Officer Erick McCrary, who in 1996 pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison for 21 months for helping a major East Baltimore drug dealer beat a gun charge.

McCrary was also indicted last month on a charge of conspiring to kill a drug lord; if convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Higher standard

Police officers are held more accountable than workers in other jobs. An officer who fails to file a routine report, for example, can be charged with misconduct. Lying about it can mean termination.

Department officials say that holding officers to a higher standard and then publicizing cases of wrongdoing increases public confidence that complaints will be dealt with, prompting more people to report police misconduct.

Frazier has also created an ethics squad that targets officers using high-tech surveillance cameras and plants money in cars to see if officers steal it.

The commissioner said he has tried to speed the disciplinary process to erase a three-year backlog that he inherited when he arrived in 1994.

Frazier has reduced the backlog to six months with a policy of trying an officer every day, a policy that has worked in fits and starts. His predecessor, Edward V. Woods, had ruled that one officer could be tried a month.

But even now, it can take up to two years to investigate and punish officers brought up on routine charges.

Police commanders complain that officers facing minor charges intentionally demand full hearings before three-member trial boards, clogging the system and delaying action against officers facing more serious charges.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Frazier said. "Everybody in this building agrees that the disciplinary process takes too long. That is to the delight of the [union] attorneys."

Added one of his commanders: "You don't punish a kid two years after he did something. It defeats the purpose."

McLhinney, the union head, said officers are forced to take their cases to trial because the department often refuses to plea bargain. He said that the union has asked for one-person trial boards to accelerate minor cases but that that has been refused.

"The department has become so ridiculous in their punishment that officers are forced to take trial boards," he said. "An officer faced with losing five or 10 days' pay should have a right to a hearing."

The total of 160 cases referred to trial boards in 1996 was substantially more than the 119 the previous year, and more than double the 59 in 1994.

Gary May, the department's chief legal counsel, who prosecutes officers charged with misconduct, said there are several possible reasons. "The cases we're getting now are committed by people hired before standards were tightened," he said.

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