Frazier cracks down on 35 Police chief suspends officers facing misconduct charges

Street patrol duties halted

They get desk jobs and are stripped of their guns and badges

September 18, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's police chief has ordered that 35 police officers facing misconduct charges be stripped of their guns and badges and pulled from street patrol until their cases are resolved.

The suspension, one of the largest in recent memory, has triggered an internal review of top police commanders to determine why officers the department wanted to fire were put back on the street while their disciplinary hearings were pending.

It comes more than a month after Officer Charles M. Smothers II was videotaped killing a man armed with a knife outside Lexington Market. Smothers was on duty despite being on probation for shooting at a former girlfriend and her boyfriend in 1995.

"We do have a number of officers who we feel should have their police powers revoked," Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said at a news conference yesterday.

The officers newly targeted by Frazier include 24 who have administrative hearings pending and nine who are under internal investigation on allegations of domestic violence or use of unnecessary force.

Two of the officers have been convicted of domestic-violence offenses, one of them nearly 20 years ago. A new federal law prohibits anyone convicted in a domestic violence case, no matter how long ago, from carrying a weapon.

Most of the newly suspended officers, who will be assigned to desk jobs, are in the patrol division. The highest-ranking one is a sergeant.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, accused Frazier of suspending officers out of "public relations" concerns stemming from the Smothers case.

In one domestic violence case, McLhinney said, the officer's girlfriend wrote to Frazier saying she had made up the charges. "Yet this officer has lost his police powers," the union president said.

"It just means we will have fewer police officers on the street," McLhinney said. "We are hearing that some officers are being offered hearings and others aren't. If that's the case, we will be in court."

Frazier said the biggest problem has been the haphazard way of dealing with officers in trouble. Many of the officers suspended yesterday were briefly suspended when they were accused but were then allowed to return to duty by a commanding officer who was not required to fill out paperwork or offer an explanation.

That will change. Frazier said each of the 35 suspended officers will receive a hearing before a colonel. If the colonel decides an exception is warranted, he or she must provide a written explanation to Frazier, who makes the final decision.

The problem came to light after the incident involving Smothers, who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting of

James Quarles but is on desk duty until an administrative review of the case is completed.

xTC At the time of the shooting, Smothers was facing an administrative hearing in the battery case. He entered an Alford plea in the case and was given probation before judgment.

His two years of probation won't end until November, but he was restored to duty in August 1996 after a probation agent allowed him to get his weapon back and a department psychiatrist determined he was fit for duty.

In an interview last month, Frazier said the department had no written guidelines on returning officers to duty while administrative charges are pending and no way to determine who makes the decision to do so.

Yesterday, the commissioner identified Col. Ronald L. Daniel, former chief of half of the patrol division, as the commander who returned Smothers to duty.

It was particularly embarrassing for the department, which has promised to fire any officer involved in domestic violence.

"We take domestic violence seriously," said a top police commander who requested that his name not be used. "Two years ago, the commissioner said he didn't want domestic-violence people to have a gun."

The source said commanders "were shocked" after the Smothers case. "You got a cop on the street. He's on probation. He hunts down his girlfriend's paramour and shoots at him. How could this have happened?"

Frazier said yesterday that he had made it clear to top commanders that officers accused of serious offenses need to be pulled from the street. "I made perfectly clear what my standard is, and I would be surprised if there is any misunderstanding in the future," he said.

The commissioner said that of the 35 officers he suspended, two dozen "are in very serious jeopardy of termination."

Administrative trial boards have been on hold for about a year while department officials have answered concerns about racial bias in disciplinary cases.

About 200 officers await disciplinary hearing for alleged violations of departmental rules.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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