O'Malley stands behind solicitor in row with police

Zollicoffer's interference termed an `aberration'

Norris backs his officers

May 02, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber and Caitlin Francke | Del Quentin Wilber and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley stood behind the city's top lawyer, who has acknowledged interfering with a police investigation of his nephew and who officers say threatened their jobs while accusing them of using "Gestapo" tactics.

O'Malley expressed strong support yesterday even though his police commissioner raised concerns about the actions of City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. and his ability to represent the department in court. The mayor called Tuesday night's incident an "aberration."

"Clearly, he recognizes the mistake he made and wishes he could have those words back ... and it won't happen again," O'Malley said. "It's not a good thing. It's a very regrettable thing. It's a stark contrast to the person I have known since law school and a person in whom I have a great deal of trust."

Zollicoffer has apologized for the confrontation with police at his nephew's home in Northeast Baltimore. But he denied officers' allegations that he threatened their jobs and used racially inflammatory language.

Among other things, officers asserted in their reports that Zollicoffer referred to them as "white Gestapo."

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he was "concerned about Zollicoffer representing the Police Department if he feels that way about officers."

Norris said he believes his officers' version of events and that he backs them "100 percent."

"They acted absolutely appropriately," Norris said.

The incident unfolded Tuesday night in the 1900 block of E. Belvedere Ave. when officers were arresting Zollicoffer's nephew in his home. They were waiting for detectives to return with a warrant to search the house when Zollicoffer arrived. Exactly what transpired is in dispute. But officers and Zollicoffer disagreed about whether detectives needed a warrant before entering the home.

"For God's sake, all I wanted them to do is get a search-and-seizure warrant," Zollicoffer said yesterday. Still, he said he regrets the confrontation.

"The bottom line is, I was interfering. I shouldn't have been there," Zollicoffer said. He characterized his behavior as acting "in the heat of the moment."

"Your family calls, you go," he said. "But clearly I should have comported myself better while I was there. I shouldn't have lost my temper. I should not have made any statements at all."

Police union officials, who have a contentious relationship with Zollicoffer, said they will likely file complaints with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, the city ethics panel and the state prosecutor.

"I'm disappointed in the mayor if he doesn't do anything about it, and we'll proceed down other avenues," said Gary McLhinney, president of the city police union.

Some legal ethicists said Zollicoffer's actions constituted a conflict of interest, because public officials should not use their power to help relatives.

"You shouldn't start throwing your weight around as a public official," said Richard W. Bourne, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who teaches legal ethics. "He shouldn't have gotten involved."

This is the second time O'Malley has had to throw his support behind a member of his administration who made embarrassing public fumbles. In December 2000, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano was arrested by police after making anti-gay, sexually explicit comments in a Fells Point bar. O'Malley attributed the comments to Graziano's alcohol problem, for which he has since received treatment.

The confrontation Tuesday stemmed from an undercover investigation that began Monday, when police bought $30 worth of suspected crack cocaine from Zollicoffer's nephew, Lawrence D. Hutchings, 22, in Northeast Baltimore.

The next day, officers found Hutchings walking in the 1800 block of E. Belvedere and were going to arrest him but he did not have identification, police said. Hutchings accompanied the officers to his house in the 1900 block of E. Belvedere to find identification. Police secured the house about 6:30 p.m. and began waiting for detectives to return with a search warrant.

Zollicoffer said he received a tearful phone call from his sister Carolyn Hutchings, Lawrence Hutchings' mother, who told him officers said they did not need a warrant to be in the house.

Zollicoffer spoke by phone with Sgt. William Davis, who was in the house. Davis wrote in his report that Zollicoffer demanded that he leave the home and began yelling. Davis said he hung up because Zollicoffer was being "hostile."

Zollicoffer arrived about 10 minutes later, Davis wrote, and told officers to leave. Zollicoffer tried to reach Norris by phone and asked the sergeant if he liked his job, Davis wrote.

"Well, you are not going to have it tomorrow," Davis reported Zollicoffer told him.

Zollicoffer denies saying that, but said he did tell the officers that their actions at the house could subject them to an internal affairs investigation.

"I did question sincerely their probable cause for being there, and I did tell them it could be an IAD violation," he said.

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