Presence of officers at meeting criticized

Residents discussed police at church

April 13, 2000|By Peter Hermann and Tim Craig | Peter Hermann and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Two undercover Baltimore police officers attended a church meeting this month to monitor a public debate on crime-fighting strategies, angering a City Council member who said that might intimidate citizens and discourage them from speaking out.

The officers were members of the Criminal Intelligence Unit, a secretive arm of the force responsible for investigating sensitive matters, including death threats against public officials.

"A police officer is welcome at my church," said Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr., who is pastor of Unity United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, where the meeting of several hundred residents took place April 3.

"But if it is a fact the police officer was there to gather intelligence, I have a severe problem," Handy said. "We cannot be afraid to assemble."

Handy said he was tipped off that the undercover officers were at the forum and that he confronted acting Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris at a City Council hearing Tuesday. Another top police official, Deputy Commissioner of Operations Barry W. Powell, confirmed the officers' presence April 3.

Police defended their actions, saying the officers were interested only in recording complaints about excessive force, quality of service and insensitivity on the part of patrol officers.

"We were not there looking at any individuals or any individual philosophies," said Maj. Michael Bass, a department spokesman. "We have no interest in that." He said no report was written and that the officers did not stay for the entire meeting.

The meeting was sponsored by radio talk show host Larry Young, who was concerned about officers being overly aggressive in fighting crime. Many speakers said they did not want Norris, a former New York police commander, to lead the city department.

Some residents have long been concerned about monitoring of public activities by police. Many such complaints were lodged during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when the department kept files on protesters.

In 1997, Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier came under fire for sending a member of the Criminal Intelligence Unit to a meeting of a city agency responsible for monitoring allegations of racial discrimination, at which several officers testified about strained race relations.

Frazier called the decision "an error in judgment" and blamed a lieutenant. "We don't engage in domestic spying," he said then.

Norris appeared before the council Tuesday to explain his policing strategies and address concerns about possible abuse by officers. Handy raised his concerns about the April 3 meeting at the end of the council hearing.

"I have grave concerns if this is true," Handy said to Norris. When he learned intelligence division officers were there, he said, "I'm flabbergasted."

Powell refused to elaborate at the public hearing but promised Handy that he would discuss the matter in private.

Handy said he was not placated by Powell's explanation. "I don't think I got an answer," he said yesterday. "I'm not sure at this point what the motive was."

"They were not there to gather information on [people's] beliefs, their political affiliations or their animosity to the department," Bass said. "We have no interest in that, nor should we."

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