Police Department so mistreated officer it ought to lose in his suit for $30 million

February 14, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

CHARLES SMOTHERS has filed a $30 million lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department, claiming two counts of wrongful discharge, fraud, violation of rights and civil conspiracy.

I hope he guts the department like a fish, bleeds it dry, makes it pay. In August 1997, Smothers -- then Officer Charles Smothers -- shot and killed a knife-wielding James Quarles at Lexington Market. It was one of the cleanest shootings in Baltimore police history. How did the department repay him? It made him the poster boy for domestic violence and had Smothers suffer for the sins of every Baltimore cop who beat his wife or girlfriend.

After the Quarles shooting, a bunch of rabble-rousers demanded Smothers' head. The department decided to hand it to the mob on a silver platter. Department honchos dredged up an April 1995 "domestic violence" incident in which Smothers fired his service weapon. In October 1997, Smothers went before a kangaroo court that the department cynically called a trial board. When it was over, Smothers was without a job. Police officials had fired him.

Then they lied about it.

It's all in black and white, documented by the state's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (DLLR). Police officials weren't content to fire Smothers in December 1997. They tried to stick it to him again when he went to file for unemployment benefits.

In trying to block the benefits, the department straight up lied about the reason Smothers was fired. Read from the department's January 23, 1998, "employer's statement" to the DLLR giving the reasons for Smothers' dismissal:

"Reason for separation : Discharged. 1. Found guilty by a police department trial board for reckless conduct which caused the death of a citizen. 2. Improper discharge of a firearm. 3. Pointing and discharging service weapon at his former girlfriend and her new male friend. 4. Various other charges."

Rewind the memory tapes in your heads back to December 1997. Any of you remember any Police Department official saying that Smothers was fired for shooting Quarles? Of course not. They insisted Smothers was fired for the April 1995 "domestic violence" incident. Then, in a statement to DLLR, when they thought the public wasn't listening, they said, in essence, "Well, it looks like we fired him for shooting Quarles after all."

This is the same department that made a sanctimonious big deal of firing Sgt. Louis Hopson for making a "false statement" to a grand jury. Exactly how many standards exist in this department for making false statements? Discerning readers will note there are, at the very least, two.

The DLLR hearing examiner in the Smothers case said the department's "evidence is so conflicting and contradictory as to fatally impair its credibility."

City police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr. said that Smothers was fired for the "domestic violence" incident.

"He never had a trial board for the Lexington Market shooting," Weinhold said.

So who's the culprit here? The city police personnel department gave DLLR the information about the reasons for Smothers' dismissal. Police officials were unavailable for comment on Friday, which was being observed in the department as a holiday. Comments from police officials may appear in Wednesday's column.

Were we to give the department the benefit of the doubt, we could assume the misinformation given to DLLR was nothing but a bureaucratic snafu. But let's treat the department the way it treated Smothers: Let's not give the police brass in this city any benefit of a doubt at all. Here's a scenario that's just as likely to have happened as the police personnel department making an innocent mistake.

1. Smothers shoots a knife-wielding Quarles, who was about to slice the five-year veteran officer to ribbons.

2. The shooting is caught on videotape, which renders everyone seeing it an instant expert on the police use of deadly force. The fact that the average cop has forgotten more about the appropriate use of deadly force than any of us will ever know doesn't dawn on us.

3. The media bring up the domestic violence issue, and the Quarles family sues the Police Department. The department needs a scapegoat, reinstitutes trial boards that had been suspended for two years and makes a public big deal of firing Smothers.

4. A nervous department brass, learning that Smothers has applied for unemployment benefits, figures it won't look good if the department doesn't make a challenge. They cite the "domestic violence" incident as a reason, but throw in the Quarles shooting for good measure, in case the public and/or Quarles' family find out.

That's conduct worthy of being nailed with a $30 million lawsuit. Even if a jury finds for Smothers and awards the full amount, it would still be less than what Baltimore's police brass should pay for their despicable treatment of Officer Charles Smothers.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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