A lesson in police misconduct unlearned

This Just In...

January 10, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

IS IT A BAD, bad thing that Col. Ronald Daniel, the new mayor's selection for police commissioner, signed a letter recommending that a fired city officer -- fired for beating a handcuffed prisoner -- be allowed to obtain a handgun permit through the Maryland State Police?

Maybe not a bad, bad thing.

Maybe just a bad thing.

Especially for Daniel, a respected career cop who recently said that one of his earliest childhood memories from West Baltimore taught him an important lesson about police conduct.

He was 8 years old, Daniel told a City Paper reporter, and he was playing outside one day when he saw another kid drop a Popsicle stick on rowhouse steps. The woman of the house called police. When they arrived, they chased the boy into his house and hit his pregnant mother with a baton.

"It was a big, ugly mess," Daniel told the City Paper. "It taught me that police need to be respectful of how they treat citizens."

As commissioner, Daniel said, he would not tolerate anything but respect for citizens.

And yet, he thinks Richard L. Waybright was unfairly treated by the previous police commissioner, Tom Frazier.

Waybright kicked, punched and dragged a handcuffed prisoner in the booking area of the Eastern District station house in 1995.

Kicking a handcuffed prisoner. Not a bad thing.

A bad, bad thing.

Frazier fired Waybright.

After his departmental trial and dismissal, Waybright requested a handgun permit from the state. He wanted the gun for a new job with a private security company in Harford County. Waybright didn't go to Frazier for a reference letter.

He went to Daniel.

And Daniel vouched for him.

Daniel's letter to the state police did not assert that Waybright was the greatest man who ever wore blue. But neither did it mention that Waybright had been fired. The letter said he had been involved in scores of felony arrests, had been threatened "on a number of occasions" and had a "genuine fear of reprisals."

The other day at a news conference, Daniel said he didn't see what one matter -- Waybright's violent treatment of a handcuffed prisoner -- had to do with the other -- whether he should be allowed to have a handgun in Maryland.

But that dog won't hunt.

The colonel knows quite well what one has to do with the other, and why this is an issue today. Daniel told Mayor O'Malley about the Waybright letter before O'Malley appointed him commissioner last month. He must have known the letter could come back to bite him.

In Maryland, state police conduct background checks of handgun applicants to avoid issuing permits to people with violent histories. It has something to do with public safety. It's an important function of the state police.

Richard Waybright had not been convicted of a felony -- that would have automatically disqualified him for a permit -- but he had been found guilty by his peers of using unnecessary force, and the police commissioner, Frazier, had fired him.

Daniel knew all this and yet he didn't mention it to state police?

Timing is important here.

Daniel wrote the letter for Waybright in December 1998, at a time when the colonel was in exile at City Hall, assigned to the mayor's office, after calling Frazier a racist. Because of the way he had been treated by the Frazier regime, Daniel might have felt a special kinship with Waybright. Or maybe he liked the guy, and wanted to see him get a break -- and get on with his life. Maybe Daniel was just being generous.

But, even giving him that, Daniel didn't serve public safety by omitting key facts from his letter. (It's possible state police would never have issued Waybright a permit had they known he'd been fired for kicking a handcuffed prisoner.)

The strangest part of all this is Daniel's statement that the firing of Waybright was unfair. He thinks Frazier's action was too harsh. He thinks a five-day suspension would have been sufficient punishment for a cop who kicked and punched a handcuffed prisoner.

Five days. That's not exactly passionate commitment to the lifelong ideal of a police force that respects the rights of citizens.

Statue of its saint

St. Leo, one of Christendom's earliest peace negotiators, who, as Pope in the fifth century, managed to get Attila the Hun to take a chill pill and leave Rome alone, ascends to new heights this week at the historic church in Little Italy that bears his name. A 450-pound bronze statue, commissioned by parishioners Victor and Pat Lancelotta, will be hoisted by crane and installed high in the brick facade of the 119-year-old church, filling a niche that has been empty for decades.

You have to crane your neck at a sharp angle to see the arched niche. A good three stories above the Exeter Street entrance of the church, it probably was designed to hold a statue of the church's patron, but no one in Little Italy can remember seeing one there. Some believe that a statue, installed for a brief period in the 1950s, was destroyed by lightning.

"We think at one time there was something there, a statue, but nobody knows for sure what happened," said the Rev. Michael Salerno, pastor of St. Leo's with a gregarious personality and a thick Brooklyn, N.Y., accent. He'll preside at noon Thursday with Bishop Gordon Bennett at the installation of the statue. "There'll be a crane, a cherry picker, the whole thing," Salerno says.

St. Leo served as pope from 440 to 461. He gets credit for stopping Attila the Hun from invading and sacking Rome, as he had other civilized areas in Europe. Leo is said to have calmed the barbarian with his eloquence and majestic presence. He persuaded Attila to take his act elsewhere. After saving Rome in 455 from the Vandals, he became known as Leo the Great.

If I'd lived in Rome at that time, that's what I would have called him, too.

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