How police operate is as important as results

March 13, 2002|By Gregory Kane

TO PARAPHRASE a popular saying: This ain't quantum physics, folks.

The dispute from hell continues to rage. Maj. Donald Healy of the Baltimore Police Department, who resigned after a memo he issued regarding the capture of a rapist, remains unemployed. The rapist remains unapprehended. But the debate still rages.

It raged all last week, with Healy supporters arguing that the memo -- which said "stop all black males" at a bus stop in the 1500 block of Woodbourne Ave., not "all suspects fitting the description" in the police report attached to it -- was not important. Catching the rapist is far more important, they claimed.

Let me suggest that those who adhere to this line just don't get it. The memo, and how it was phrased, is every bit as important as catching the rapist. The memo represented police policy. It was a statement of how they do things. And the policy as stated in the memo, as police Commissioner Ed Norris has said repeatedly and must be tired of saying by now, was illegal.

Thus, Healy had to go, although the motives of the anonymous sender of the memo to radio talk-show host Larry Young must be questioned. Police don't have the luxury of having people think they conduct business illegally. Norris recalls the members of the Street Crimes Unit in New York who wore T-shirts extolling the "hunting of men." He found the shirts and the quote idiotic.

How police catch a rapist is just as important as catching a rapist. Sending cops out with the instructions to "stop every black male" may have repercussions. Have we forgotten even recent history? Let's go back a mere three years.

Members of that New York City Street Crime Unit with the daffy motto about "hunting men" are out looking for a rapist. They stumble upon an African immigrant named Amadou Diallo "acting suspiciously." As Diallo pulls out his wallet, the four cops shoot at him 41 times. Nineteen of those shots hit him.

Many were genuinely outraged by the shooting. But just as many were OK with it. Fatally shooting an unarmed rape suspect, they figured, was a small price to pay. After all, cops were looking for a rapist. If innocents get shot dead in the process, that's just collateral damage. There's something Osama bin Laden-ish in that sort of thinking, wouldn't you say?

Let's go back to 1989. Charles Stuart, looking to collect some insurance dough, shoots his wife to death in their car on a Boston street. He then shoots himself in the abdomen to cover his crime. When police arrive, Stuart has his story ready. It was a robbery.

"Black guy did it," he tells the cops.

Boston police go on a manhunt of every black man in the city. They even arrested one eventually, who might be on death row today if Stuart's brother hadn't come forth and dimed him out.

Are you starting to see where some black folks get a little nervous about memos that say "stop every black male"? You should even understand why black legislators get nervous about it, even though here in Maryland it's understandable to mistrust the motives of almost everybody in the State House.

Stopping "every black male" has led to some tragic consequences. When the four cops who shot Diallo went on trial for murder two years ago, they were acquitted. Again, the reaction to the verdict was split. Many blacks expressed outrage. Some whites considered it payback for the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, apparently not aware the jury had just given cops carte blanche to shoot innocent, unarmed suspects.

You can bet a fellow named Joseph Schultz has quite a bit of sympathy for Diallo and his parents today. Schultz is another unarmed innocent victim, except he's white and lived to tell his tale.

On March 1, FBI agents in Anne Arundel County surrounded the car Schultz's girlfriend, Krissy Harkum, was driving. The agents approached Harkum's car with their M-4 rifles drawn. Schultz was in the front passenger seat. One of the agents shot him in the face.

A case of mistaken identity, the FBI tells us, which doesn't make Schultz's wound any less damaging or painful. The agents were looking for a bank robber who wore a baseball cap that looked just like the one Schultz wore. The car the robber drove looked like Harkum's.

It looks like police work just isn't an exact science, which is why descriptions of suspects, especially in police memos, should be as precise as possible. Mayor Martin O'Malley and Norris have branded Healy's memo as exactly what it was. Healy has paid for it.

Those who want to claim some kind of moral high ground by expressing sympathy for the rape victim had best keep in mind that potential suspects might meet the same fate as Diallo and Schultz.

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