Police colonel's `sting' on officer leaves mark

Cruiser `theft' ploy makes major livid

Norris rebukes all 3

January 31, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Believing a Baltimore police lieutenant was abusing his privilege by driving an unmarked cruiser home to Carroll County, a top-ranking commander set up an elaborate sting to snag the culprit.

Under the cover of darkness three weeks ago, a colonel used a spare key and surreptitiously took the green Chevrolet Cavalier from the driveway of Lt. Regis L. Phelan's Westminster home.

Col. James L. Hawkins Jr. apparently hoped that Phelan would panic when he woke up Jan. 5 and discovered the car gone, and then either acknowledge he had taken the vehicle home without permission or lie to explain how it disappeared.

But the plan backfired when Phelan, whose boss told him he could take the car, reported the apparent theft to the Maryland State Police. They launched an investigation and, believing Phelan was targeted because of his job, assigned extra troopers to patrol his neighborhood.

Phelan's boss, Maj. John L. Bergbower, wrote a fiery memo demanding that Internal Affairs investigate Hawkins for "unprofessional conduct" that wasted valuable police resources from two law enforcement agencies.

Now Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris says everyone involved is in trouble:

Hawkins ran an unauthorized investigation. Bergbower had no authority to allow Phelan to take the car home. And Phelan should have known better than to use the vehicle on personal time.

Memo makes it worse

Making everything worse is Bergbower's incendiary memo, which Norris said one "should assume will fall into the media's hands and embarrass the Police Department."

"I am very disappointed and angry at everyone involved," Norris said last night.

"Everyone is culpable to some degree. This is exactly the kind of behavior I'm trying to purge from this agency."

Norris added that the members of his department, especially supervisors and commanders, "need to get into the crime-fighting game and stop all this internal nonsense."

No comment from officers

Hawkins did not return phone calls to his office yesterday. Bergbower and Phelan could not be reached for comment.

Hawkins' one-man investigation of Phelan did not stop with taking the unmarked cruiser.

Hours after Phelan's auto theft report was filed with the state police, Hawkins parked the cruiser in the middle of a North Baltimore street, blocking traffic, and made an anonymous call to communications to report a suspicious vehicle.

Officers recovered the cruiser, wrote another round of police reports and called in crime laboratory technicians to examine the car for clues -- all for nothing.

Investigation continues

Meanwhile, state police continued to investigate the incident. City police said they told troopers on Jan. 19 that the theft wasn't real; state police said yesterday that the case remains open, at least until today.

In his Jan. 9 memo, obtained by The Sun, Bergbower said he overheard the call for the car on his radio and immediately became suspicious. Phelan had previously told him of the apparent theft.

Bergbower wrote in his memo that he had given Phelan permission to take the car home during a six- to seven-week period in which Phelan served as a fill-in commander.

"There was no secrecy involved, no attempt to hide the facts or of any great conspiracy," Bergbower wrote. "Lieutenant Phelan was allowed to use a vehicle in the best interest of this agency."

The memo is unusually harsh in tone, especially since Bergbower is complaining about a member of the department's command staff. Bergbower contended that Hawkins was motivated by long-standing animosity toward Phelan.

"I believe that Colonel Hawkins' actions in this matter were totally improper, irresponsible and unprofessional," Bergbower wrote. Bergbower noted that two police agencies investigated the false theft and put the car's description on a national computer crime database.

"Departmental resources such as response units, a tow truck and our crime lab were used when it was absolutely unnecessary," he wrote.

Bergbower added that if Hawkins thought a major could not authorize a police car to be driven home, "a simple inquiry and request to discontinue would have brought the matter to a speedy conclusion."

Norris is undecided on what to do next. But he made it clear that the three are in it together. "It's either everybody or nobody," he said.

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