A Baltimore police officer was charged with criminal misconduct yesterday after authorities said he fell for a random, undercover sting and falsely arrested a city resident on drug charges.
Officials said the case represents the first failure under random integrity checks that are being conducted by Internal Affairs detectives and FBI agents to rout out corruption under a new city police administration.
Officer Brian L. Sewell, a six-year veteran assigned to the Central District, surrendered to authorities yesterday; he had been suspended since the incident occurred last month.
"This is a horrible breach of the public trust," Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said at a news conference yesterday, adding that since he took over in April, he has "heard a lot from the public about false arrests and evidence being planted."
Prosecutors said charges filed against the man Sewell arrested Sept. 4 will be dropped. But they acknowledged that that man, identified in court documents as Frederick L. McCoy, 18, spent three hours locked in Central Booking before he was released.
"If an innocent citizen is arrested and charged with possession of narcotics he did not possess, that's outrageous," Norris said.
Police said undercover detectives put crack cocaine on a park bench in West Baltimore and placed a phony call complaining about drugs to the department's nonemergency 311 line.
Sewell responded and wrote in his report that he saw McCoy "placing a clear plastic bag into a crack of a park bench."
Sewell was charged with perjury and misconduct in office. He could not be reached for comment yesterday, but his lawyer, Henry Belsky, questioned the legalities of using random, undercover sting operations to uncover corruption.
"My officer says he did not commit perjury," Belsky said. "He did what he believes was appropriate police work."
The tough internal policing was promised by Mayor Martin O'Malley and Norris, who came under fire by introducing a crime-fighting strategy that calls for aggressive patrols and more arrests to bring down a high crime and homicide rate. Critics voiced concern that the strategies would give officers a green light to be brutal and corrupt.
O'Malley said yesterday's arrest proves the critics wrong.
"We said this city needs to do a better job policing our own police," the mayor said. "We owe it not only to the people of this city, but we also owe it to the 99.9 percent of our officers who every day risk their lives to protect the rest of us."
The biggest concern for police commanders is whether this case is isolated. Norris said other officers who responded along with Sewell to the drug call are being questioned.
Police officials would not disclose how many sting operations they've done nor describe them.
City officers have been arrested in the past for forming allegiances with violent drug dealers, stealing Oriole playoff tickets from scalpers and taking money from Hispanic residents.
Residents who live where drug dealing is prevalent have long complained that the narcotics trade is so open it could not exist without complicity on the part of police.
In a recent private consultant's survey of officers - to which 80 percent of the 3,200-member force responded - 23 percent said they believed that more than a quarter of the department "is involved in stealing money or drugs from drug dealers."
Attorney Jack B. Rubin said he has had clients complain about corruption. He represented former Officer Erick McCrary, who in 1998 was sentenced to five years in federal prison for conspiring with a drug lord to abduct and kill a narcotics dealer.
"Occasionally, I've heard it from six people, none of whom know each other, and it's the same cop," Rubin said, adding that any drug cases Sewell is involved in will most likely be dismissed.
State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a West Baltimore Democrat, called for federal intervention and said in a statement that the arrest confirms his fears "that there are officers ... who are manufacturing cases, and in some cases, planting evidence on innocent citizens."
Norris rejected the plea for outside monitoring and said FBI agents have been working with his Internal Affairs Division since April.
"We are way ahead of Senator Mitchell's proposal," he said.
The incident that led to Sewell's arrest began Sept. 4 when Internal Affairs detectives placed a plastic bag containing seven smaller bags of crack cocaine on a park bench in the 400 block of Presstman St., in the Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore, and then called police to report it.
Police said Sewell picked up the drugs from the bench and then responded to a burglary call in the 1900 block of McCulloh St., two blocks away. He said he saw McCoy leave through the front door of the Druid Heights Development Corp.