Police secret office ransacked for files

Departmental probes of internal corruption possibly breached

January 03, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A Christmas Eve burglary and ransacking of a secret Baltimore police Internal Affairs office has top department officials worried that sensitive investigations involving police misconduct were compromised.

Sources said that several files were rifled, including one involving Officer Brian L. Sewell, who was charged in October with falsely arresting a man on drug charges after an undercover sting run by detectives working out of the office. His trial is pending.

The break-in occurred at a nondescript city-owned building in Essex that is described as the inner sanctum for fighting departmental corruption. Few people, including top police commanders, knew it existed.

"No one should even know where it is," said one top police commander, who spoke on the condition he not be named.

Police acknowledged the incident yesterday only after being questioned by a reporter.

No arrests have been made and police would not comment on whether any suspects have been identified. Detectives said they are investigating it as an inside job because specific items were tampered with. Computer equipment also was damaged.

"The possibility certainly exists that this may be an internal matter," said Ragina C. Averella, the Police Department's chief spokeswoman.

Police confirmed yesterday that detectives were moved out of the Baltimore County office last weekend because its location and purpose were compromised.

The office's existence was kept quiet because the detectives were working on some of the most sensitive cases involving their own colleagues.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris vowed when he was hired last year from New York that he would aggressively fight police corruption, and he began to run undercover sting operations against his officers to test their credibility.

Sewell was the department's first officer ensnared in a trap, in which Internal Affairs detectives planted drugs on a park bench. They charge that Sewell responded to a call, picked up the drugs and later accused a man of putting the drugs on the bench.

Officials would not comment on what, if anything, was taken from Sewell's file, but sources said the folder contained information that had not yet been turned over to prosecutors. How much of the case was compromised, if any, could not be ascertained yesterday.

A source familiar with the case said that up to six files may have been stolen or tampered with, along with lists of citizens who made complaints about officers.

"At this time, the burglary of the Internal Affairs office is a police matter," said Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter, who prosecutes police corruption cases. "We are aware of the situation and will evaluate the situations as matters progress. We have no further comment."

Sewell's lawyer, Henry L. Belsky, said he has only heard rumors and didn't know anything specific. Sewell is scheduled to be arraigned this month, and Belsky has been fighting prosecutors for investigative files to prepare his defense.

Under Norris, the department has stepped up internal investigations of officers. A private consultant found that 23 percent of the 3,200-member force believed that more than a quarter of their colleagues were taking money or drugs from drug dealers.

Norris has vowed to go after rogue officers and has brought in FBI agents to help run undercover stings. Officer Gary McLhinney, the police union president, said officers are not upset at the increased scrutiny of their activities, including integrity tests.

"No one is opposed to a crackdown on bad cops," McLhinney said, adding that he is concerned that the burglary might expose "a lot of sensitive information about individual officers. It's very strange."

Information about the break-in was scant yesterday. Most officials, including the Internal Affairs chief, Ellen Kay Schwartz, declined to comment.

Averella, the spokeswoman, issued a statement that acknowledged the incident, but offered no other information. "Due to the ongoing internal aspect of this investigation, the Police Department does not wish to comment on the particulars of the case," she said.

"However, the agency is committed to ascertaining who committed this act and prosecuting them accordingly. This is certainly something that Commissioner Norris takes very seriously."

Baltimore County released a one-page police report on the burglary that contained little information. Normally, the public portion of such reports contains a summary of the incident and a list of stolen or damaged items. This report contained no details.

The incident is classified as a second-degree burglary reported on Dec. 24 at 3:30 p.m. In the space allotted for an address, the officer typed in the word "confidential," which is repeated in several other places.

The victim is listed as "Baltimore Police Department." Most other boxes on the report are blank. It notes that details are contained in a supplemental report, which police agencies do not consider a public document.

The case is being investigated by Baltimore homicide detectives, who handle sensitive cases, with help from their county colleagues.

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