Undercover officers barred from public forums

Aim is to avoid appearance of spying

April 14, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's acting police commissioner and mayor decided yesterday to bar undercover officers from attending community forums to avoid any appearance that the department is spying or keeping secret files on public debate.

The move came a day after a city councilman complained that two plainclothes members of the criminal intelligence unit had monitored a church meeting April 3 at which speakers criticized the Police Department.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that though there was no "malicious intent" to gather intelligence, he would have preferred that the officers be in uniform and from the local station house, where they would be known by many of the attendees.

The mayor recalled the previous administration, during which undercover officers reported to the police commissioner on a public meeting on race relations and a private meeting of black officers.

"I had great problems with that then, and I have great problems with this now," he said.

O'Malley has repeatedly promised that his police force will be "more open and transparent" and one that "people will have confidence in." The incident April 3 at Unity United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, he said, "certainly gives the appearance of running counter to that."

The complaint was lodged by Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr., who is pastor of the church where the meeting was held. Handy, who said he was tipped off that undercover officers were at the meeting, confronted police officials at a City Council hearing Tuesday.

He said later that he was not given satisfactory answers. Police initially defended attending the forum, saying the officers went only to record citizen complaints of abuse, discourtesy or excessive force. They said no report was written and no names of dissenters were recorded.

After meeting yesterday with acting Commissioner Edward T. Norris and the department's deputy commissioners, Barry W. Powell and Bert L. Shirey, the councilman said he was satisfied with their response.

"They were very open and forthright about my questions and my concerns," Handy said. "They have changed the ground rules so that when persons are there representing the Police Department, they will be conspicuous about their uniform and will be from community affairs."

The councilman said he is convinced that "there [was] no clandestine motive to gather intelligence" at the April 3 meeting. "They were not there to spy on people, as had been my initial suspicion," he said.

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