Coincidences' in officer's case defy belief

February 17, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

MICHAEL GREEN, lawyer for Charles Smothers, the former Baltimore police officer who received the Order of the Shaft in late 1997, remembers the day he represented his client at a Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation hearing in April of last year.

``The [Police] Department representative submitted two pieces of paper,'' Green recalled. ``Both papers said the No. 1 reason for the discharge was the Lexington Market shooting. The representative tried to brush off the No. 1 reason as an administrative/personnel department snafu. But the statement said it was per a supervisor. Personnel people don't make up those reasons. They threw in everything they could.''

Everything but the kitchen sink, in an attempt to railroad a good officer, silence public criticism and stave off a possible lawsuit. Smothers shot a knife-wielding James Quarles at Lexington Market on Aug. 9, 1997, in an incident recorded on videotape.

According to the ``employer's statement'' the Police Department gave to DLLR, Smothers was ``found guilty by a police department trial board for reckless conduct which caused the death of a citizen.'' Reason No. 2 was ``improper discharge of a firearm.''

The second charge, Green said, also pertained to the Lexington Market incident. Reason No. 3 was ``pointing and discharging service weapon at his former girlfriend and her new male friend.''

That was the April 1995 ``domestic violence'' incident widely reported in the media. Reason No. 4 was unspecified ``various other charges.'' The document goes into more detail of a telephone conversation between a DLLR representative and Police Department personnel specialist Carolyn Melenyah:

``Last incident was where the citizen was killed. He did not follow proper police procedures in the high profile incident. He was cleared by a board outside of police department but when it came back to the trial board he was terminated. Ref/Maj. Dutton. Latest charges that caused death of a citizen, failed to follow correct procedures. No specifics, violation of company procedures. Incident in 1995 not latest thing. It was one of the things also that contributed to his determination. I can only go by what the police department has said and that is what you already have on the reasons for termination.''

The ``Maj. Dutton'' referred to is Maj. Diane Dutton, head of the depart- ment's personnel selection. Dutton said she remembers talking to someone in the personnel department but couldn't remember specifically if it was Melenyah. The inaccurate information passed on to the DLLR representative was, according to Dutton, the result of ``misunderstanding and miscommunication.''

Dutton had the folder on Smothers' termination on her desk as she talked yesterday. The domestic violence charge alleged that Smothers' handling of his weapon ``created a substantial risk of death or serious injury.''

To further confuse matters, Dutton continued that she did discuss the Lexington Market incident with the personnel specialist. But why discuss that at all if all the personnel specialist wanted was the reasons for firing Smothers?

``It was in the news,'' Dutton said. ``Everybody talked about it.'' The major said she didn't realize the personnel specialist had ``mixed it all up together.'' She repeated police spokesman Rob Weinhold's assertion that Smothers had no trial board for shooting Quarles.

``It was what we call a good shooting,'' she said of the Lexington Market incident.

How noble of them to agree.

So Smothers was, according to this department, fired solely for what happened in that ``domestic violence'' incident on an April night in 1995. Smothers being sent before a trial board in late October 1997 - less than three months after the Quarles shooting and after trial boards had been suspended for two years - is just one of life's little coincidences.

That funny feeling in the pit of your stomach is the skepticism oozing out of you. We're called Balti-morons, but folks in these parts are just a wee bit smarter than that.

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