Daniel defends helping man seeking gun

Police commissioner says fired officer needed protection

January 08, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's new police commissioner defended his letter of recommendation used by a fired city officer to obtain a handgun, saying yesterday that the weapon was needed as protection against scores of people the officer had arrested.

Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel said the only issue he addressed in his letter to the Maryland State Police was a legitimate "fear of reprisal" against Richard L. Waybright, who had been convicted of administrative charges in 1998 for beating a handcuffed prisoner.

The city's top officer said at a news conference yesterday that he didn't think Waybright's conviction on administrative charges of using unnecessary force was relevant to whether his former colleague needed permission to carry a weapon as a civilian.

"One to me had nothing to do with the other," said Daniel, who was forced to confront his first controversy less than a week after he was appointed to the top police post and three weeks before he appears at a City Council confirmation hearing.

Daniel, then a colonel, wrote a one-paragraph letter on Dec. 30, 1998, to the Maryland State Police Licensing Division on behalf of Waybright, an 18-year veteran who had been fired two months earlier. The discharge cost Waybright his gun privileges.

Waybright used the letter, written on City Hall stationary, to justify obtaining a permit to carry a handgun so he could work as a private security guard. State police recently revoked the permit after receiving complaints that Waybright's application was rubber-stamped for approval.

Such recommendations are routinely made by city police commanders, who keep a form letter available on their office computers. "We just punch in the name and send it along," one high-ranking police official said.

Commonly, they are written for retired officers who want legal permission to carry guns after their police powers expire. One source said he makes sure the applicant is free of disciplinary action before he sends the letter. "I have never been asked to write one for a fired employee," the source said.

State authorities said they are investigating whether applicants with recommendation letters from top city police commanders are approved without the rigorous background checks conducted in other cases.

Capt. Garrett L. Linger, commander of the Maryland State Police Licensing Division, said all applicants should be checked. He denied that anyone gets preferential treatment. "It is not an automatic thing," he said.

Daniel did not say in his letter that Waybright had been fired. He said he received no follow-up calls from investigators seeking additional information. State police said they are trying to determine whether employees who approved Waybright's gun permit knew of the former officer's questionable history.

Asked whether a firing for beating a handcuffed prisoner should send a red flag to investigators deciding whether a former officer is qualified to carry a gun, Linger said: "I would think it would be a huge consideration."

Waybright was convicted in August 1998 by a three-member Police Department trial board for hitting the prisoner while in the booking area of the Eastern District station house in 1995.

Two officers testified against Waybright, accusing him of kicking, punching and dragging the prisoner. Waybright told the trial board and repeated in later interviews that he struck the prisoner in self-defense after getting head-butted.

The disciplinary panel recommended that Waybright be suspended for five days. But then-Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier upped the punishment to termination.

Waybright has long argued that he was unfairly fired, and he has denied statements from police sources about a history of abuse complaints against him.

Daniel said yesterday that he believes the recommended five-day suspension would have been sufficient. He noted that the police panel found Waybright not guilty of more serious charges of using excessive force.

"I had some concerns about how the case was conducted," Daniel told reporters yesterday. "I believe that officers in the department deserve a fair shake."

State and city police officials had refused to make the letter about Waybright public Thursday. But Daniel's office released a copy yesterday after The Sun and a television station publicized the story.

Daniel wrote it while he was assigned to City Hall as acting director of the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice. It is slightly more expansive than the form letter routinely used by commanders.

In the letter, Daniel said he had known Waybright for about 15 years and supervised him:

"He has been involved in over 1500 felony CDS [drug] arrests. He has also been involved in scores of handgun and violent crime arrests. He has been threatened on a number of occasions and has a genuine fear of reprisals as a result of his actions as a police officer. I am therefore recommending that he be granted a Handgun Permit."

Mayor Martin O'Malley knew about the letter before he appointed Daniel on Monday with orders to restructure the force, crack down on officer misconduct and reduce crime and homicides.

Tony White, the mayor's spokesman, said Daniel told O'Malley about the letter before his appointment to head off criticism from competitors who, he thought, would leak the letter. "He realized it could be something that could be used against him," White said.

The spokesman said that when Daniel wrote the letter, "in his judgment, Officer Waybright was a credible person." The brutality case, the spokesman said, had been dealt with and was considered an isolated case.

"It wasn't a situation where you had a record of inappropriate conduct by this officer," White said. "He may have acted inappropriately on one occasion. You don't want to banish an individual in their career pursuit forever."

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