Norris sting probe grows

Second in command, Powell, entangled in police car episode

`Colossal waste of time'

Dixon, O'Malley express dismay over Hawkins' 911 call

May 05, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

An investigation of a high-ranking Baltimore police commander who orchestrated an elaborate, and possibly inappropriate, sting on a subordinate has expanded to include the department's second highest-ranking officer.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said Deputy Commissioner Barry W. Powell, who runs the force's day-to-day operations, might have helped a colonel set up a trap designed to catch a colleague in a lie about a take-home car.

"If any of this is true, it is a colossal waste of time, especially when you contrast this with the level of violence in this city," Norris said in an interview, during which he added that Powell is "part of my investigation."

The commissioner has criticized the sting as "internal nonsense" and an inappropriate use of time and money. The car matter, Norris said, should have been turned over to Internal Affairs or dealt with directly by confronting the lieutenant involved.

The December sting was orchestrated by Col. James L. Hawkins Jr., who used a master key to take an unmarked department car that had been repeatedly driven home by Lt. Regis L. Phelan, who lives in Westminster. Hawkins later explained that the car was needed by officers on a warrant task force.

Hawkins said he thought Phelan would lie to cover his tracks. But instead, Phelan called Maryland State Police, who began investigating the apparent theft. Hawkins parked the car on a city street and placed a fake 911 call, pretending to be a citizen who had just found an abandoned vehicle.

That call prompted a city police investigation of what was believed to be a stolen police car - and triggered criticism that two law enforcement agencies unnecessarily investigated a non-crime.

Yesterday, high-ranking police sources said Hawkins had driven to Phelan's home several times before taking the car. They also said that Powell accompanied Hawkins once, apparently on a secret scouting trip to Phelan's home.

Compounding the problem is Hawkins' 911 call, broadcast on television Wednesday night, in which the black colonel disguised his voice in a way deemed by some to be offensive to African-Americans.

City Council President Sheila Dixon said Thursday that Hawkins should be demoted.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday: "I can't really blame her. ... You don't expect a lapse of judgment like this from someone who is a high-ranking member of the command staff. It is embarrassing and disappointing."

Powell, a 30-year veteran, was on vacation yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Hawkins also could not be reached yesterday. He defended his actions during an interview on Thursday, saying he was legitimately trying to stop an officer who was breaking the rules.

But Norris said the sting went overboard. Hawkins is in charge of all criminal investigations, including homicides, shootings, burglaries and rapes, and should be spending his time coordinating the department's critical crime-fighting efforts, Norris said.

Phelan has been reassigned from a warrant task force indirectly overseen by Hawkins. Maj. John L. Bergbower, who has said he gave Phelan permission to take the car, has announced his retirement.

But Hawkins has remained in his job since the bungled probe became public in January, despite Norris' statement at the time that "everyone is culpable to some degree."

Some police commanders have privately complained over the past several months that pressure from City Hall prevented Norris from disciplining Hawkins, whom he promoted last May. Hawkins is one of the top-ranking black commanders on the force.

O'Malley said the complaints about pressure are unfounded. "Commissioner Norris makes all the command decisions," the mayor said. "Norris has one mission, to make sure this department saves lives and lock up criminals. Whatever he needs to do, I'm going to do my very best to back him up."

Norris said yesterday that he will decide Hawkins' fate soon. "I'm not going to make a decision prompted by any news coverage," he said.

But the commissioner added that he is "probably a little more angry" now than he was in January, particularly with Powell's apparent involvement. "This is and has been taking up too much command-level time," Norris said.

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