A Baltimore police officer exonerated by an internal trial board of drug trafficking is being denied his gun and badge by department commanders who say they doubt his credibility and claim he has admitted in the past to dealing cocaine.
In fact, police commanders say they may never return him to patrol.
Officer Eric D. Paige, who has been answering non-emergency telephone lines since the charges surfaced in 1997, said he was vindicated at a public hearing Nov. 20 and he wants his old job back. "Definitely, I deserve it," he said yesterday. "I am an innocent man."
A member of the trial board that found Paige not guilty, Lt. Osborne McCarter, called his own department's investigation "shoddy."
"None of the charges could be substantiated," McCarter said. "They didn't really have anything."
But top police officials point to FBI documents in which Paige admitted to dealing drugs two years before he joined the force and say he was handcuffed and questioned by federal agents investigating a drug gang with yearly proceeds topping $1 million.
Gary May, the Police Department's chief legal counsel, said he was "bewildered" by the board's ruling. "It was contrary to the rules of law and the evidence that was presented," he said.
May said Paige's arrest powers will remain suspended indefinitely until a "further review" of the case.
That could prompt an unusual confrontation -- pitting an officer who has been cleared of wrongdoing against his bosses who say they don't want him on the force.
A dozen street officers and supervisors interviewed this week in the Southern District where Paige had worked said they did not want to serve with him because of his recent troubles. The officers declined to be identified.
"This is the first time I've ever heard from the rank and file that they were upset about an officer not being disciplined or fired," May said.
Paige's lawyer, Robert L. Smith Jr., said his client should be returned to duty: "It was clear from the trial board that these allegations were unsubstantiated.
"He went through the process according to the law," Smith said. "The evidence was presented. It was assessed and he was acquitted. It is unheard of that they would want to object to a not guilty finding."
Paige, 31, had been accused of being a member of the Keith Goodie drug organization in Cherry Hill, which was targeted in 1990 by the FBI under the code name "Flexible Flier."
Fifteen gang members -- including two suppliers from New York who sent 20 kilograms of cocaine onto Baltimore streets each month -- were convicted of drug and racketeering charges and sentenced to a combined 125 years in federal prison. Goodie served 30 months; Paige was never criminally charged.
Paige was hired as an officer in 1992. Colleagues accused him last year of using his clout as an officer to supply drugs to two rival Cherry Hill gangs -- the Hillside Boys and the Veronica Avenue Boys.
A second Southern District officer who worked with Paige also has been accused by the same colleagues of helping the Cherry Hill dealers, but department officials would not comment on his status. He has not been charged, either criminally or administratively.
The Southern District commander, Maj. Elmer Dennis, said he has serious concerns about Paige's returning. "I don't know what we can do with the guy," he said. "Even though a trial board says he's not guilty, you still have these lingering doubts."
The initial tip came from a Southern District police officer who talked to a teen-age drug dealer who detailed schemes that included $1,000 payoffs to get drug charges dropped. After an internal investigation, detectives filed a sweeping administrative corruption case against Paige.
Department officials would not say whether they considered a criminal investigation of Paige. Internal affairs detectives can file criminal charges against fellow officers, but the standard of proof is much lower at administrative hearings.
Investigators charged the officer with 18 counts of violating the department's rules -- misconduct that included alleged bribery, drug dealing and giving criminal suspects warning about raids.
But the young drug dealer, a key witness, could not be found to testify at the hearing Nov. 20. The prosecutor for the administrative charges, Bernard Ilkhanoff, was forced to drop seven charges related to drugs and corruption.
The remaining charges, which centered on how he filled out his job application, were heard by a three-member police panel, which, if it had found Paige guilty, could have allowed the police commissioner to fire him.
The trial board panel -- a major, lieutenant and an officer -- threw out or acquitted Paige of the other charges, despite the testimony of a police detective and several FBI reports.