Dogged pursuit of a cause

Activist: Charlene Y. Edmonds, president of the Frederick County NAACP, says her struggle over the `black book' goes to the heart of an unjust system.

May 04, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - Like many in town, Charlene Y. Edmonds is dying to know whether public officials are named in the "black book" of an alleged prostitution ring broken up by city police.

Hers is more than idle curiosity, though.

Edmonds, president of the Frederick County NAACP, says she has been told that local elected officials were on the client list and covered it up. The state prosecutor said this week that he will look into her claims.

At first glance, it's an odd cause for an NAACP leader, since no African-Americans are reputed to be involved. White officials and some black residents in Maryland's second-largest city have grumbled that Edmonds is flogging the controversy in a feud with the mayor and police chief or using it as a springboard to run for office.

For Edmonds, the black book is about more than race or politics. She contends that the quiet, almost secretive disposal of that case last fall was designed to protect white politicians, while complaints black residents have made about police harassment and brutality over the years have largely been brushed aside.

"Our problem is not with her," Edmonds says of Angelika Potter, the German-born operator of an escort service and X-rated Internet site who paid a $100 fine in a plea bargain closing the prostitution investigation. "It's with the system. It's about justice and equality."

Edmonds, 44, has shown no reluctance to do what it takes to press her cause, whether in her knack for getting publicity or in switching at will between conciliation and confrontation.

"We need to realize that as fast as our county is growing, changes need to be made," she says.

Blacks make up 15 percent of the city's 52,000 people, and she contends that they are targeted for "racial profiling" - traffic stops solely because of their race - and other forms of discrimination.

She says she and her family know firsthand about the extra scrutiny she says black residents get from the police. She and her husband were stopped on a drive home from the courthouse a couple of years ago, ostensibly because the officer thought the car windows were too darkly tinted.

Her activism began, she says, soon after she moved to Frederick in 1992 with her Army husband and three children. Police stopped one of her teen-age sons while he was riding his moped and charged him with driving without a license. The officer was "very nasty," she recalls. "That let me know there was a problem in Frederick."

Until then, the New York City native says, her only activity outside of work and family had been in her Pentecostal church.

She was elected president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1998 but had to run again when complaints prompted the national office in Baltimore to order new balloting. She easily won re-election recently to another two-year term.

Edmonds has been a vocal critic of City Hall and especially the police chief, Regis R. Raffensberger, whom she accused last year of having his officers spy on her.

An investigation ordered by Frederick Mayor James S. Grimes confirmed that the chief had sent an officer to check on visitors to her house. The surveillance purportedly was to find out what news organizations she was meeting with about a claim of police mistreatment of a black couple at a local 7-Eleven store.

The mayor suspended Raffensberger for two weeks and demoted him over the incident. But the punishment angered Edmonds, who says he should have been fired.

She then alleged that an anonymous tipster had revealed the existence of the black book, a list of client names found in Potter's computer when it was seized by police. Edmonds charged that the Police Department used the list as leverage to influence city officials. Police and other officials have vehemently denied that charge.

It's unclear if the truth will ever come out. Grimes ordered the list returned to Potter, thwarting efforts of two news organizations to determine whether any officials were on the list. The Frederick News-Post and a county resident have since filed suit seeking the documents, some of which Potter's lawyer says he shredded.

Edmonds says she did not start out to pick a fight with the chief or the mayor. She once agreed to serve on a panel advising the chief how to improve police-community relations, angering other activists who want the city to establish a civilian police review board.

"When I first met the chief I really liked [him] and trusted he would be truthful with us," she says. "That just dissolved."

The break came more than a year ago, when she called for his ouster over less than sympathetic remarks attributed to him in a newspaper article about three men shot to death at a public housing complex here. She also accused the police of overreacting in the 7-Eleven incident, and she asked the FBI to review the store's security camera videotape for possible civil rights violations.

Nothing came of that complaint, but the flap prompted the alleged spying incident.

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