Panel suggests suspension for officer in fatal '95 crash

Policeman acknowledged racing through red light on way to assist colleague

May 27, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

In a ruling a lawyer for the victim's family called a "slap on the wrist," an internal police hearing board has recommended that a Baltimore officer be suspended 16 days for a car collision five years ago that killed a Randallstown woman.

Officer Keith N. Devoe acknowledged during a hearing Thursday that he sped through a red light while on duty in East Baltimore about 2: 30 a.m. on New Year's Day 1995. The seven-year veteran apologized for the crash that killed Valerie Lynette Taylor, a 22-year-old college student who was returning home from a midnight church service.

A three-member trial board, headed by Maj. Kenneth Blackwell, found Devoe guilty of several administrative traffic charges. The punishment recommendation will be reviewed by Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who has the authority to issue a harsher punishment, including termination.

A department spokeswoman said yesterday that Norris had not yet reviewed the file.

The board acquitted Devoe of making a false statement -- a conviction that carries automatic termination -- even though he had told investigators on five separate occasions that the light at North Caroline and Orleans streets was green when he drove though at a speed of more than 60 mph.

At Thursday's hearing, Devoe said: "In my heart, I knew the light was red."

City police officers are required to stop at all red lights and stop signs, even when responding to emergencies, before going through.

Devoe was responding to a colleague's call for help arresting a drunken man a mile away, even though he had not been dispatched. His lights and siren were activated when he broadsided the car Taylor was driving.

He was not charged criminally. A Circuit Court civil jury awarded Taylor's family $2.1 million in 1996, but the city appealed and the amount was reduced to $500,000. The lawyer who represented Taylor's family, Marvin Ellin, said relatives were outraged by the trial board's decision.

"He was a new cop, and he was going to use that police car and play cowboy, and one woman died," Ellin said yesterday. "This slap on the wrist will not serve as a warning to other police officers."

Devoe's lawyer, Michael Davey, called the punishment "very fair." He argued that his client, who has remained on duty and is still assigned to the Eastern District, initially thought that the light was green when he went into the intersection.

"Just because he thought the light was green doesn't mean he intentionally lied," Davey said. "He made a mistake."

The lawyer, who works for the police union, complained about the five year wait for an administrative hearing. "Discipline should be prompt and swift," he said. "For five years, Devoe has lived with the fact he was involved in an accident in which someone died. That's punishment enough."

Norris is trying to speed up trial boards and clear up a backlog of old cases such as Devoe's.

Sean Malone, the Police Department's chief legal adviser who prosecuted the case, said he believes the board members, who included the major, a lieutenant and an officer, were troubled by the delays.

"Officer Devoe served the department well during the intervening years, and this is a case that became very clouded because of the old system's inefficiency," Malone said.

"This is a very tragic case for everyone involved," Malone added. "The department extends its deepest condolences to the family for their tragic loss. Officer Devoe also apologized to the family from the stand. I hope this brings this sad affair to a close."

The chairman of the trial board, Blackwell, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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