Focus on police miscues in Stennett case draws officers' heated reaction

March 25, 2001|By GREGORY KANE

"WE WANTED to bring unity in the community," said Sgt. Rick Hite, a 23-year Baltimore Police Department veteran and president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group of black officers.

"People were trying to reach out," Hite continued. "The column was dividing us, not uniting us as a community. Any time there's a death in the community, we all suffer."

Hite was referring to the March 14 piece by a certain Sun columnist which criticized police miscues in the Eric Stennett case. Stennett was charged with murdering Baltimore police Officer Kevon Gavin after his speeding Ford Bronco crashed into the patrolman's cruiser. A Circuit Court jury acquitted him in January. The column was published two days after another officer, Agent Michael Cowdery, was shot and killed in East Baltimore.

Police reaction to the column was, to put it mildly, overwhelmingly negative. In recent days, Hite and Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, verbalized their distaste for the work. For McLhinney, the issue wasn't so much divisiveness as when the column appeared.

"My reaction was more about timing," McLhinney said. "I don't know that people understand what a police department goes through when we lose an officer. I didn't want Mr. or Mrs. Cowdery [the fallen officer's parents] to read it. They were in town from [Philadelphia]. I didn't want my officers to have to read it."

But, McLhinney was asked, should any of us -- police, civilians -- ever stop mourning Cowdery? If the column had to wait until the end of the mourning, it would never have been written.

"That's true," McLhinney said. "But some of us -- myself, the mayor, the police commissioner -- had been up for 24 hours at that point. Our emotions were raw, pretty much spent at that point."

Hite's emotions were spent the Friday after Cowdery's death, when he appeared on his weekly WOLB radio talk show. Hite was particularly upset by a news report he had seen that morning, in which a man suggested that Cowdery had been shaking down drug dealers for money.

"I know the character of this officer," Hite said of Cowdery. "For someone who is misinformed to make statements like that is reprehensible.

"It was an ambush. The officer was doing a routine field interview. The guy appeared and shot him. He had to know he was a police officer."

Police have charged Howard T. Whitworth with Cowdery's killing and several other offenses. Charging documents filed last week said he shot Cowdery in the leg and then stood over him and shot him in the head at point-blank range.

Other officers offered no motive for the shooting, and an article Thursday by Sun reporter Peter Hermann suggested that Cowdery -- who was wearing plainclothes -- might have been mistaken for a rival drug dealer. The article indicated that the official police position is that it is not known whether the shooter knew Cowdery was a cop. For McLhinney, it's beside the point.

"Michael was executed," the FOP president said. "Whether he was executed as a police officer or as a citizen of this city doesn't matter to me."

What does matter is that we -- citizens, civilians, common folks -- put Cowdery in a position to be executed. It is we who demand police hit the streets undercover and in plainclothes. It is we who insist on continuing the "war on drugs," which is mostly a war on privacy and civil liberties. If we had the guts, we would demand that our politicians decriminalize drugs and treat addiction as the public health crisis it is.

But we want our cops to have the guts for us. So Maryland State Police Cpl. Edward Toatley gets shot to death while on an undercover drug sting. Thus do we send Cowdery and others into Baltimore's drug war, with its dealers, stick-up boys who rob and shoot dealers and law-abiding young black men who belong to neither world but buy guns for protection from both elements.

"The term `war' is the wrong term," Hite said of the anti-drug campaign. "In war, you have a calculated risk, and you've decided on how many casualties you will have."

McLhinney had a different take.

"Yeah, it's a war," he said. "There's no doubt about it. But it's a war we're fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. If we continue to fight it the way we're fighting it now, it will never be won. The system that's in place to deal with this is called the criminal justice system, not the victim justice system. Courts seem to be more concerned with the rights of criminals rather than victims."

Politicians don't help, McLhinney continued.

"Project Exile has proven to be a success across the country," McLhinney said of a federal program in which criminals convicted of handgun crimes get stiff sentences. "But because it's viewed as a Republican idea, Democrats won't support it. That's politics, and that's playing with people's lives."

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