Officer held in police theft

He's charged in Dec. break-in of unit's secret office

Suspect is suspended

He had been removed from Internal Affairs after domestic trouble

March 13, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore police officer kicked out of Internal Affairs after a domestic incident was arrested yesterday and charged in the December break-in at the department's secret anti-corruption office.

Officer Joseph P. Comma Jr., 33, a nine-year veteran who has been on stress-related leave for at least the past month, was taken into custody about noon at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Northeast Baltimore.

Police officials said they believe the break-in was the work of a disgruntled worker trying to get even with bosses for transferring him out of the Internal Affairs' Integrity Unit because of domestic troubles.

Comma was being held last night in lieu of $50,000 bail at the White Marsh precinct in Baltimore County. He was suspended yesterday without pay.

Police said no specific case file - including his own, which was kept at a separate office - was targeted in the break-in. The office is on the grounds of the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant in Eastpoint in Baltimore County.

In ascribing such a motive for the break-in, top police officials hope to end weeks of speculation that department corruption ran so deep that even its most sensitive 15-member Integrity Unit had been compromised.

"This appears to be an isolated incident," Commissioner Edward T. Norris said last night. "It does not appear that corruption has seeped into the Integrity Unit."

Comma was arrested within hours of being indicted by a Baltimore County grand jury on charges of second- and fourth-degree burglary, theft and malicious destruction of property.

But even if the break-in at the city-owned white clapboard house - where the department's most sensitive files on police misconduct had been stored - was not perpetrated by saboteurs, it helped to destroy one high-profile corruption case.

Prosecutors dropped their case against Officer Brian L. Sewell, charged with planting drugs on an innocent man last year, because his file was among those tampered with during the break-in. Norris said Comma had a minimal role in the investigation of Sewell, but investigators do not believe that to be a motive.

The break-in fueled weeks of rumors inside the department. One, widely circulated but now apparently discounted, was that it was orchestrated to cover up evidence in an FBI investigation of alleged overtime abuse by officers at area Staples stores. That federal investigation is continuing.

Police said Comma was assigned to the Integrity Unit in September but was moved to a desk job Nov. 29, after commanders determined that his domestic troubles posed a conflict in investigating other officers. His girlfriend had complained to police that Comma had scrawled offensive comments on a wall at the house they shared, according to sources familiar with the case.

Despite his transfer from one of the most sensitive and secret units, he was allowed to keep his department-issued car and keys to the office, according to a department source with knowledge of the investigation, and the burglar alarm code was not changed.

Investigators found fingerprints on an air-conditioner that had been pushed out of a window from the inside and said police-issue gloves had been left behind.

Comma was privately identified as a suspect by police investigators weeks ago, primarily because he was the only officer assigned to the Integrity Unit who refused detectives' requests to be interviewed and declined to take a lie-detector test.

Homicide investigators, who led the investigation into the sensitive case, asked Comma on Friday to appear yesterday at the department's main Internal Affairs office, at Kirk Avenue and 25th Street, to be questioned.

Comma was headed there with his lawyer, Michelle Martz-Bowles, when he was arrested at a nearby convenience store.

Martz-Bowles did not respond to requests for an interview yesterday.

The officer's family could not be reached or declined to comment.

Before being assigned to the Internal Affairs unit, where officers spied and ran stings on their colleagues, Comma was a patrol officer in the Central District.

He made the news in 1994 when he and another officer shot and killed a man armed with a knife and a hammer who reportedly lunged at them during a standoff. The shooting was ruled to be justified.

He joined Internal Affairs in the fall and was a detective for a few months before the domestic incident forced him from the unit. The break-in, which embarrassed police officials and put a unit charged with rooting out corruption under suspicion, occurred less than a month later.

Most details of the break-in remain unknown.

The Baltimore County police report on the burglary contains only a few lines. The break-in was discovered Dec. 24, a Sunday, but could have occurred up to two days earlier, after the office was closed Thursday afternoon for the Christmas holiday.

The building is surrounded by a fence chained with a padlock and was equipped with a burglar alarm. Computer equipment was broken, files removed or rifled through and office equipment strewn about.

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