City police board finds officer guilty of extortion

Case revived in drive to clear backlog

September 07, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Accused seven years ago of taking a $3,000 bribe from a drug dealer, Baltimore police Officer Alan S. Johnson continued to draw a paycheck and occupy a desk, the case all but forgotten.

But a new administration intent on rooting out bad officers, and clearing a backlog of hundreds of old misconduct cases, revived the case and found him guilty of extortion yesterday.

His colleagues on a departmental trial board are recommending that Commissioner Edward T. Norris fire the officer, who has spent more than twice as long on suspended duty as he did on active patrol.

Department officials said Norris will concur, most likely today.

"This is the type of case that we want to bring, and this is the type of police officer we want to remove from the Police Department," said Sean Malone, the agency's chief legal counsel, who is in charge of prosecuting officers. "This is a violation of the public trust."

How the case lingered for seven years could not be ascertained yesterday. But it has taken several twists.

The officer was charged criminally in 1993 with bribery, but the case was dismissed because the covertly taped conversation between Johnson and the dealer was not clear. Federal prosecutors, anxious to convict the drug dealer, who was linked to four homicides, gave Johnson immunity in exchange for his testimony.

But the case against the dealer never went forward. The closest Johnson got to a courtroom was in 1994, when he testified about police corruption to a federal grand jury, which "never brought one indictment," said Johnson's lawyer, Michael Davey.

In the intervening years, police lost most of the evidence, including the original audiotape of the incident, and the drug dealer was sentenced to life in state prison for murder. But police still had the transcript, and Timothy Longo, a retired colonel who led the initial police investigation and came back to testify yesterday.

Johnson, who had been assigned to the communication division with his police powers suspended since 1993, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

According to his lawyer, Johnson took the witness stand yesterday and testified that he was approached by a drug dealer who offered him money. He said he met with the man four days later to try to trap him, only to discover later that the dealer was wearing a hidden microphone provided by the department's Internal Affairs Division.

Malone said that in September 1993, Johnson arrested one of the drug dealer's runners with several vials of crack cocaine. The officer, in uniform and driving a marked squad car, confronted the dealer and demanded $3,000 in exchange for protection, arrests of rival dealers and promises that officers would miss court dates on arrests of the dealer's associates.

Malone said Johnson gave the dealer four days to make up his mind and, according to the transcript, threatened him: "If this gets downtown, I'll do a 187 on you." The "187" refers to the California penal code for homicide, street slang in Baltimore, Malone said.

Malone said the dealer paid Johnson a $200 deposit and then went to the FBI headquarters in Woodlawn. The office was closed for Labor Day, so he drove to police headquarters and visited an internal affairs detective.

The dealer told investigators: "We pay off cops, but this is ridiculous. It's too much," according to Malone.

Detectives wired the dealer, he returned to his neighborhood, and the officer took the money from him. The officer was immediately arrested.

Malone said Johnson offered the same defense then as he did at his hearing yesterday: that he was trying to arrest the dealer for bribery. Malone said officers must notify superiors of any such attempt so that they avoid being caught in compromising positions. Malone said no such notification was made.

Johnson was convicted of 25 counts of misconduct by the three-member board, which was led by Maj. Dawn Jessa.

Officials said that no other officers have been charged in connection with Johnson's misconduct and that further fallout is unlikely because the case is so old.

Davey said he will decide whether to appeal the decision in Circuit Court after reading through transcripts of the internal hearing.

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