Officer's 911 call draws critics

Tone of colonel involved in car sting called demeaning

Dixon seeks demotion

May 04, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A black Baltimore police commander who ran a sting to trap a subordinate is coming under fire for disguising his voice in a fake 911 call some view as demeaning to African-Americans.

Col. James L. Hawkins Jr., one of six high-level officers of that rank and a 27-year police veteran, stuttered during the recorded call and altered his vocal tone and inflection in a way that critics say mimicked a stereotypical and condescending image of blacks.

Hawkins denied in an interview with The Sun yesterday that his comments could be construed as offensive. He said he was trying to disguise his voice so the dispatcher wouldn't recognize him and "foil the actual objectives of the investigation."

The colonel said he "wasn't trying to mimic anybody," and said the tape was of a conversation between himself and a dispatcher. While a 911 tape is considered public information, Hawkins said his call was not tantamount to giving a public speech. "Had I given a public presentation of that sort, I could understand why people would be upset," he said.

Portions of the 911 tape were broadcast Wednesday night on WBAL-TV news, prompting criticism from politicians, clergy and fellow officers.

City Council President Shelia Dixon, who is black, said she will ask the police commissioner, who promoted Hawkins to colonel in May last year, to demote him. Commissioner Edward T. Norris has not made a decision on the case.

"It was very demeaning, the way he projected his voice," Dixon said. "People were pretty furious about it. It shows a sense of ignorance. ... He should be demoted."

Sgt. Richard Hite, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, which represents black officers -- there are 1,100 on the 3,200-member force -- likened Hawkins' performance to a racially insensitive minstrel show.

"We're not in support of anyone who misrepresents the African-American community or fails to understand the cultural issues we face as African-Americans," Hite said yesterday.

The sergeant added that Hawkins "ought to know that there was a time in our history that this was the only way African-Americans were depicted. ... It was a poor choice of dialect."

The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, which represents about 200 pastors of predominantly African-American and inner-city churches, called the 911 call "an error in judgment."

Perkins said Hawkins' probe was "a waste of police efforts and taxpayer money."

The Sun first reported in January about the controversy surrounding the propriety of Hawkins' investigation of a lieutenant who he believed inappropriately took an unmarked police car home to Carroll County in December.

Hawkins used a master key to take the car from Lt. Regis L. Phelan's Westminster home, hoping Phelan would lie to cover for taking the unmarked car. Phelan reported the car stolen, sparking a state police investigation.

That night, Hawkins parked the vehicle in the middle of a city street in North Baltimore and placed a fake 911 call, pretending to be a resident who found an abandoned vehicle.

"I was simply trying to give the impression that I was stuck in traffic," Hawkins said. "I stuttered to make it appear that I was having trouble seeing the tag in the dark and that I didn't have the vantage point to see."

The television airing of the 911 tape has added a new dimension to the controversy.

A department spokeswoman said yesterday that the incident remained under investigation. Norris told The Sun in January that "everyone is culpable to some degree" and labeled the episode "internal nonsense."

Hawkins' elaborate sting backfired when Phelan, who had permission from his major to take the car, reported it stolen.

State police sent extra patrol cars to Phelan's neighborhood because they were concerned he had been targeted because of his job.

Hawkins then parked the car and called 911 -- completing the ruse of a stolen, and now mysteriously recovered, police car. The dispatcher sent an officer to investigate, and the officer had the car towed to headquarters, where members of the crime lab were ordered to dust it for fingerprints.

The major who authorized Phelan to take the car home, John L. Bergbower, wrote a scathing letter to department commanders complaining that Hawkins had wasted the time of two police agencies while running an unauthorized investigation.

Norris criticized Hawkins in January for not obtaining proper permission. Hawkins said yesterday that he discussed his sting beforehand with Internal Affairs. He defended it, saying the car's absence when Phelan took it home hindered officers from catching criminals.

"Detectives were saying that we can't go out and get these guys because we don't have access to the cars," Hawkins said. "And here we have a car being driven to and from home by somebody who had a desk job. ... The issue at hand is that a member of this agency violated the rules."

Norris, while criticizing Hawkins for his actions, also has said Phelan was wrong to take the car; Phelan maintained Bergbower, who was then taking some personal leave, had given him permission to use the car often.

Bergbower has since announced his retirement, noting personal reasons unrelated to the incident. Phelan has been reassigned from the warrant squad.

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