Rooting out wrongdoers among city protectors

Police disciplining has been arbitrary and slow, files show

January 28, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Officer Richard Waybright was seen beating a handcuffed prisoner in a squad room booking area. Sgt. Lawrence Ames made offending comments about sex to a fingerprint technician in an evidence room. Lt. Timothy O'Connell was accused of failing to report a racial slur made by a subordinate.

These are just three of the hundreds of disciplinary cases involving Baltimore police, examples of abuse no longer tolerated by a department forced to revamp its antiquated way of punishing the city's protectors.

Accusations of inconsistent treatment in 1996 forced changes to make the disciplinary system fairer. In many cases, the rules got tighter -- officers are being fired or suspended for infractions treated far less severely a decade ago.

As of Dec. 1, Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier had fired or forced the resignations of 153 officers since he was hired in February 1994 -- nearly one a week, except from August 1996 to November 1997 when the system was being revamped.

"It feels good when we get a bad cop," said Maj. Ronald S. Savage, a 31-year veteran who was promoted in June to take over the department's Internal Investigation Division. He said he wants to eliminate a "buddy-buddy" system that protected some officers and persecuted others.

"Those days are over," Savage confidently said. "Now everybody is held accountable."

The department's disciplinary process has been at the forefront of a dispute since Frazier inherited it. Officers complained it was unfair, retaliatory and treated blacks more harshly than whites.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded last month that the department violated civil User.Event 7 was not expected here! rights laws by retaliating against officers who accused the department of racism.

Department officials deny retaliating but acknowledge disparate treatment, and they said they will use the revised disciplinary process to answer the EEOC report. That includes a chart, or matrix, to match infractions with recommended punishment so officers accused of similar offenses are dealt with consistently.

Now, front-line supervisors are stripped of their discretion and must report every wrongdoing to headquarters. Police said that has created an overwhelming number of discipline cases that until a year ago were routinely handled by sergeants who scolded their officers behind closed doors.

A dysfunctional workplace

Critics, including former police supervisors and some top commanders, say investigations into serious corruption have been shortchanged while investigators baby-sit a dysfunctional workplace.

A review of hundreds of disciplinary files reveals a system bogged down in mundane, often complicated cases that have little relevance to public safety. The 153 officers fired over the past four years represent a tiny fraction of the 2,200 cases a year handled by the investigation division.

Detailed probes of allegations of simple wrongdoing have become standard. As a result, some serious problems, such as police-involved shootings, have been given short shrift, critics say.

Police commanders argue that they have streamlined what used to be a cumbersome and sometimes unfair process. Their biggest task now, they say, is to speed up investigations of relatively simple cases. But they are adamant that they target abuse, no matter what its nature.

"We may be spending more time with day-to-day rules infractions," said Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., who is in charge of making sure punishment is consistent. "But we would not have the organization we can be proud of if we didn't handle the small things.

"Just because we go a year without finding a police officer who took money from a drug dealer doesn't mean they aren't out there," Sistrunk added, "but it doesn't mean we aren't interested in cleaning our own house."

Frazier said he is speeding up the process by shifting discrimination and sexual-harassment cases from the Internal Investigation Division to the department's new Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

The cases against Waybright, Ames and O'Connell reveal much about the department and its handling of issues that have troubled its 3,200-member force. They also demonstrate how long it takes to resolve cases. The incidents occurred in 1995 and 1996, and were not concluded until October.

Waybright was convicted by a trial board of kicking, punching and dragging a handcuffed prisoner in the booking area of the Eastern District station. The board recommended a five-day suspension. Frazier overruled the panel and fired Waybright.

"This is all garbage," said Waybright, who had been on the force for 18 years. He said he knocked the prisoner to the floor after being head-butted and kneed in the groin. "I was protecting myself from a guy who was attacking me."

Ames offended a female fingerprint technician by asking her how she liked to have sex. His penalty: a 20-day suspension without pay.

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