Media made police officer a target of anti-cop frenzy

February 13, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

CHARLES SMOTHERS sat on the couch of his mother's Northeast Baltimore home, telling of his 18-month battle against unemployment.

"[One area police department] told me they had an opening," Smothers said. "I thought I had the job. Then a guy asked, `Are you the police officer involved in that Lexington Market situation?' " Smothers answered truthfully. The opening was suddenly filled. He was told the agency would call him when the next opening became available.

That "Lexington Market situation" has dogged Smothers since Aug. 9, 1997. Smothers received a call that day about a man with a knife near Lexington Market. He and other officers went to the scene and -- according to witness statements -- ordered the man, James Quarles, anywhere from six to 30 times to drop the knife.

Smothers said Quarles not only didn't drop the knife, but crouched, gripped it firmly and took a step toward him. Smothers fired one shot and killed Quarles -- in a scene caught on videotape by a bystander and aired across the nation.

Smothers applied to a couple more police departments and several private investigating agencies. He's still waiting to hear from the Maryland Transportation Authority Police who, he said, told him they would call him at the end of January.

He's damaged goods now, this ex-Officer Smothers. The media are mostly to blame for that. We're the ones who dredged up the 1995 "domestic violence" incident that the Baltimore Police Department claims led to Smothers' dismissal. We're the ones who whipped the public into a frenzy by asking -- inaccurately, as it turns out -- why a police officer convicted of domestic violence was on the streets carrying a gun.

Smothers was a loose cannon, we slyly implied. Smothers received probation before judgment -- which is not a conviction -- in the "domestic violence" incident. We failed to question if the April 1995 fight between Smothers and another man was "domestic violence" or a case of simple macho idiocy: two men duking it out over a woman.

The incident smacked of macho idiocy, and the department burned Smothers for it anyway. But if they dismiss every cop guilty of macho idiocy, there wouldn't be a man left on the force.

Once Smothers was tagged with the "out-of-control" label, the anti-cop wolf pack of the streets swung into action. Quarles was merely a confused lad who meant no harm to anyone and was about to drop the knife when the murderous, woman-beating Smothers fired, the mob shouted. But Brian Czarski, a public safety officer with the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore who arrived on the Lexington Market scene before city police officers, gave a version to the police you probably haven't heard until now.

"I was dispatched on a call about a gentleman standing in the mall holding a knife. I went to the scene with two of our other public safety guys. [I] saw a gentleman in a white shirt standing with a knife, with a folding kind of hunting knife or gutting knife, about four- to five-inch blade. I went about 10 feet behind him and watched him from the back and tried to keep people from walking up toward him. While we were observing him, he just seemed to be standing there with the knife blade pointed out. And then a family was coming up the mall, and there was a young boy, about 7, 8 years old. I got within about 5 feet of him and the man with the knife made a sweeping motion, like a defensive motion, in front of him with the knife, toward the boy. The boy stepped back. Naturally, at that point, we decided it was time to get on our radios."

Those italics are mine, in this account transcribed by the police. So much for Quarles being harmless. Czarski gave this account of the shooting to the Police Department.

"The lead officer made a one-step move in. [He] told [Quarles] to drop the knife. The guy looked like he was gonna comply. He got a look in his eye like okay, you know. I finally understand what you're trying to say. He went to put the knife on the ground. The handle hit the ground. He jerked the blade straight up and took, not quite a leap, but a quick step toward the officer, at which time [Smothers] finally fired a single shot and hit him in the upper right chest near the shoulder blade."

Again, the italics are mine. Quarles, according to at least one witness, was indeed a menace to public safety on Aug. 9, 1997. Smothers, showing uncommon courage, actually stepped toward Quarles in an effort to disarm him. Smothers should have been commended for his action. But his department tossed him to the wolves and then settled with the Quarles family in their lawsuit.

Now Smothers has a lawsuit of his own.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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