Crackdown on police misconduct

Commissioner seeks to clear backlog of disciplinary cases

Nonpunitive letters sent

A step in streamlining Internal Affairs glutted with minor infractions

April 19, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

In an effort to crack down on possible police corruption and other serious problems, Baltimore's acting police commissioner is clearing a backlog of minor disciplinary cases that he said has tied up internal investigators for years.

Edward T. Norris began yesterday to send out nonpunitive counseling letters to more than 230 officers, warning them that their alleged misconduct is unacceptable but will not result in a permanent mark in their file.

It is the first step in streamlining an Internal Affairs Division that commanders say is overburdened by trivial infractions dating back as long as three years -- such as officers who wear the wrong color socks with their uniform.

Norris stressed that the cases being done away with are internal matters generated by officers or supervisors. He said complaints made by residents and those dealing with public trust, integrity, excessive force and criminal violations will be pursued.

"I thought that Internal Affairs couldn't be effective with the amount of cases they had," Norris said. "They were inundated with hundreds and hundreds of low-level cases that shouldn't have been in there in the first place."

The moves are part of an effort by Norris to assure the public that he will not tolerate abuse and corruption. While promising aggressive policing, the city's new top officer also is warning his department of a stepped-up campaign to get rid of problem officers.

A private consultant's report on restructuring Baltimore's police force recommends that Internal Affairs "be re-engineered to serve Baltimore citizens as guardian against police corruption and caretaker of high professional standards."

Consultants surveyed most of the 3,200-member force and found that 87 percent of those interviewed "believe that some officers are currently taking drugs and/or money from drug dealers."

The survey also concluded that 23 percent "believe that more than a quarter of [Baltimore Police Department] officers are engaged in this kind of criminal behavior."

Norris said he was shocked by the findings. "There is a perception by the cops and the public that there is an integrity problem," he said.

The commissioner is interviewing for a new head of Internal Affairs, and said he will most likely hire an outsider to avoid any questions of friends protecting friends from misconduct.

"I don't want the public to perceive any improprieties," he said.

Norris said he will conduct undercover stings on officers to ensure they are not involved in corruption, and he will track problem officers the same way he tracks crime throughout the city.

`Not proactive'

Baltimore's internal investigators, he said, rarely seek out wrongdoing on their own.

"In New York, you hear about corruption scandals, but a lot of them are found by the Internal Affairs Division," Norris said. "We need to do that here. We're certainly not proactive. We wait for complaints to come in. There is no proactive moving out of officers who should not be on the force."

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the police union, worked closely with Norris to unclog the system that prevented officers with open disciplinary files from getting promoted or transferred.

"No one, including the FOP, is opposed to going after serious cases of misconduct," McLhinney said. "Corrupt officers make all of our jobs more difficult."

The union president said he has "no explanation" for survey results that show that many officers think their colleagues are involved with drugs. "It could be that a large percentage of the people know the small group who is the problem," he said.

Warning

Norris gave a warning with his directive: "Do not view these recent actions as tolerance for police misconduct. I expect the men and women of the Baltimore Police Department to display a professional and disciplined demeanor at all times."

The letter continued, "We are the police, we work in an honorable profession and we will conduct ourselves with integrity and respect for the public we serve. Those individuals whose conduct falls short of his expectation will not be allowed to remain."

From now on, minor rules infractions will be handled by district supervisors instead of being sent downtown.

"Corrective action will be taken immediately," the letter said, "so officers will understand why their alleged misbehavior is unacceptable."

The directive is an abrupt turnaround from rules put in place three years ago. In 1997, then-Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier barred mid-level supervisors from handling disciplinary cases because he was was under fire to revamp the system to end disparate treatment.

A study found that black officers were more likely to be disciplined and fired than their white colleagues for committing the same infractions. Frazier concluded that the problem was at the district level, where some complaints could be disposed of without a trace, or dealt with severely, depending on the people involved.

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