Light duty costs officers their guns Injured police told to return to streets or lose badge, power

July 29, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police officers assigned to desk jobs or other light-duty assignments because of lingering injuries are being given an ultimatum by their commanders: Give up your gun and badge or return to the street.

Several dozen officers have been stripped of their arrest powers as top police officials compile a comprehensive list of officers on light duty. Administrators want to get those who have grown accustomed to easier jobs back on the street to bolster the department's front-line forces responsible for fighting crime.

The order is being challenged by the police union president, who calls it unfair and says it could affect up to 200 members of the force. The order applies to officers who need two or more months to recover from their injuries or other long-term health conditions.

Light duty includes everything from answering telephones to standing guard at Police Headquarters. Two officers assigned to the perimeter of the downtown building are now unarmed, dressed in street clothes and barred from making arrests.

Removing weapons from such officers raises safety questions, particularly in the wake of the shooting of two police officers Friday at the Capitol building in Washington, several officers said yesterday. The Baltimore headquarters houses 500 police and civilian workers and is frequented by the public.

"The department is currently conducting a review of employees who cannot perform full-duty functions required of law enforcement officers," said Robert W. Weinhold Jr., the department's chief spokesman. He said department officials are reviewing the policy and could make changes today.

"Once identified, the officers face the possibility of losing their police powers," he said. "The implementation of this policy decreases liability exposure, serves to prevent abuse and will ultimately place more officers in Baltimore's communities, where they can directly impact crime.

"If an officer is not fit for full duty and takes police action, the officers as well as civilian safety may be jeopardized," Weinhold said.

The new policy is imposed by the Police Department, and is not required by state or federal law. The officers involved have not been suspended from duty; they continue to work. Their pay is not affected.

Ordinarily, the department only revokes the police powers of an officer charged with a crime or a serious administrative offense.

Weinhold said police commanders have identified "several dozen" officers over the past two weeks, but said an exact count was not immediately available. He said commanders are trying to compile a more comprehensive list of officers who may be affected.

Weinhold said some officers voluntarily returned to street patrol rather than have their badges and weapons confiscated. That is an indication, top commanders say, that they were ready to end soft duty all along.

The president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, Officer Gary McLhinney, said the department is overreacting to catch "a handful of people who are abusing the system."

The union head said the department's wide net has snared officers who may not be ready for the rigor of street patrol, but whose injuries do not preclude them from making arrests or firing their guns.

"There is one officer who has been there over 40 years," McLhinney said. "They took his gun and badge because he has a severe back injury. Yet he reports to work every day."

McLhinney said disarming officers at front desks and in parking areas around the Fayette Street headquarters has created a safety issue.

"I have expressed my concerns for officer safety, as well as the safety of the people who visit the building," said McLhinney, who will meet with top police commanders next week to discuss the problem.

Security at headquarters was breached in 1995 when the son of an elderly slaying victim walked past a private security guard, got up to the homicide offices on the sixth floor and lunged at the suspect, who was being led from an interview room by detectives.

In 1994, a man being interviewed by homicide detectives in the District of Columbia's police headquarters opened fire, killing two FBI agents and a city officer before taking his own life.

Those two incidents prompted security changes at Baltimore's headquarters building. Employee entrances were restricted and armed officers were stationed alongside private, unarmed security guards.

A visit to headquarters yesterday revealed some changes. Two older officers, who two weeks ago wore uniforms and sidearms while standing near the front doors and parking garage, were in street clothes. They had no guns, and their identification badges simply said, "Police Department employee," instead of providing rank.

"They want us to retire," said one officer who had his arrest powers suspended and who declined to give his name. "I got high blood pressure on this job. I'm just following orders." He referred further questions to the police union.

But asked who is guarding the building, he pointed up to the top floor and said, "the commissioner."

Weinhold declined to elaborate on the safety issue but pointed out that headquarters is full of armed officers and commanders going about their daily business. "The building is secure," he said.

Weinhold said the review has uncovered some officers "who were working light duty and may have been able to perform full-duty functions."

Some officers will be on light duty for several years, if not longer, because of severe injuries. Weinhold said "there is a discretion component built in" to the new rules to make exceptions in some cases. But McLhinney said some officers who had been shot in the line of duty have already been affected.

"Veteran officers have gone through the trauma of having their guns and badges taken," he said. "They go home to PTC communities where people know they are police officers. Now they have no way of protecting themselves or their families."

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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