Police halt operations of internal sting unit

Activities `on hold' amid investigation into office burglary

January 19, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

An elite Baltimore Police Department unit that conducts undercover stings on officers has suspended operations as an investigation continues into last month's mysterious burglary at the unit's office.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said yesterday that the detectives' activities "are on hold" because "it's a little tough to have integrity stings" while the Integrity Unit is the subject of a probe.

Norris said the investigation, run by the homicide unit with help from the FBI, is focusing on the 15 people who had access to the secret integrity office in Essex. Most are undercover detectives.

The commissioner said that members of the unit have been given polygraph tests, and that at least two came back questionable and are being redone. The unit will not be disbanded, he said, but might be staffed with different people.

The unit is part of the department's Internal Affairs division and was created last summer to test whether any officers were corrupt.

Norris also said that gathering enough evidence for an arrest in the burglary is proving difficult. "I think we're going to know who did it," he said. "Prosecuting it is something different."

In the Christmas Eve burglary, computers were destroyed and sensitive files were rifled or stolen. The office location was one of the department's biggest secrets, kept even from top commanders who were not directly involved with Internal Affairs.

Police have said that most of the stolen items were recovered by a Southeast Baltimore man who found two bags of files, a Rolodex and other equipment on Dec. 24 in a trash bin behind a doughnut shop on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore County.

Investigators have confirmed that one of the files rifled was that of Officer Brian L. Sewell, who has been charged with planting evidence on a man and falsely arresting him - the first officer caught in a sting operation run by the Integrity Unit.

During a court hearing on Jan. 11, prosecutors acknowledged that parts of the Sewell file were compromised by the burglary.

Missing evidence, they said, includes a folder of 13 pictures of the sting. Other photos that were in the file, but which had not been turned over to prosecutors, also are gone.

Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter said the missing evidence would not harm the case. Mayor Martin O'Malley has echoed that statement, saying the photos are irrelevant because police have eyewitnesses to Sewell's actions.

Privately, however, top police officials are concerned that the high-profile Sewell case, the department's signature bust to prove it is serious about going after allegedly bad officers, is in jeopardy.

Sewell's lawyers argued that the case against their client is tainted because they believe some of the missing evidence might prove the officer's innocence.

The defense team has asked the state to turn over its investigative materials in the burglary, arguing they are essential for Sewell's pending trial.

The break-in and its connection to Sewell has many police officials speculating that the burglary was a direct effort to compromise that case. But officials have said at least six files were rifled.

Norris said he does not believe any one police corruption case was targeted. He said if that were the case, a suspect would be easier to spot.

"It could be just a disgruntled employee," he said.

Norris said the burglar alarm was intact and operational after the break-in. No wires were cut, indicating someone simply turned it off.

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