Zollicoffer owes police apology for his remarks

This Just In...

May 03, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

MARTIN O'MALLEY, the tart-tongued mayor, doesn't seem to fully grasp why the average citizen -- and the average Baltimore police officer -- might feel outrage about the actions and words of his old law school chum, city solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer, so I'll try to explain. (I wish I could draw stick figures with this column, but it's hard to do on a keyboard.)

Zollicoffer, who took an oath as the city government's chief legal officer, got into a snarly thing Tuesday night with police officers as they were in the midst of arresting his 22-year-old nephew on drug charges. (The nephew is accused of selling some cocaine to undercover officers the day before.) The officers spotted Zollicoffer's nephew on the street and went with him to his mother's house. The officers secured the house and were waiting for detectives to arrive with a warrant so they could search it.

Zollicoffer, having received a teary phone call about this from his sister, yelled at the sergeant on the scene and demanded that he leave the house. The sergeant considered the phone call "hostile" and hung up.

But Zollicoffer showed up, all hot and bothered, challenged the legality of the police action and threatened the sergeant on the scene -- either by suggesting that he might lose his job (the sergeant's version of the story) or threatening to call for an internal affairs investigation of the arrest (Zollicoffer's version).

Zollicoffer, not taking a moment to realize the consequences of his actions and words, then insisted on calling the police commissioner from the scene. Ed Norris, the commissioner, found Zollicoffer "hot and agitated" and refused to discuss the matter on the phone. He believed, as any law enforcement professional would, such a discussion would be inappropriate.

Zollicoffer, who is black, referred to the police as "Gestapo" and made reference to the officers' race, which is white. That's the picture, as drawn by police, with little of it in dispute.

On its face, this sounds like an arrogant, quick-tempered guy trying to throw his weight -- and his law degree -- around at a time when police officers were attempting to do the potentially dangerous chore of arresting a man suspected of selling drugs in a city Martin O'Malley has vowed to free from the clutches of drug dealers.

Nothing has happened to Zollicoffer as a consequence of this. Zollicoffer issued a general apology through the mayor's press spokesman.

How did the crime-fighting mayor react to this affront to police officers? He gave Thurman Zollicoffer his full support.

They're old friends and kindred spirits, see, and the mayor says Zollicoffer was just having a bad moment. He called it an "aberration."

"It's not a good thing. It's a very regrettable thing," the mayor said.

This mayor understands what it's like to fly off the handle. He is practiced in the art of the sarcastic, sometimes profane attack, which too many of his fans mistake for brass, daring and political calculation.

So, in his mind, Zollicoffer just got a little carried away -- it was a family matter, after all -- and said things in the heat of the moment he shouldn't have.

We've heard that in-the-heat-of-the-moment defense before. It deserves to be weighed in making compassionate judgments about a man.

But this is also true: Utterances made in heat often reveal something that lies within a person's psyche and belief systems. Utterances made in heat have ended the careers of a lot of otherwise well-meaning people.

O'Malley didn't seem at all troubled by Zollicoffer's race-tinged utterances to the police Tuesday night.

He gave his buddy a pass.

But can you imagine the hotheaded big brothers and uncles of guys arrested on drug charges doing what Zollicoffer did -- yelling, threatening and calling the cops "Gestapo" -- and getting a pass?

Lesser hotheads -- hotheads of no rank and cheaper suits -- would have been arrested for interfering with police.

Here's the other thing.

Zollicoffer is the city's lawyer. His office would be called upon to defend city police officers against, say, racial discrimination lawsuits. How does he defend them when he's betrayed a view of them as Nazi-like secret polizei, underhanded and treacherous? If he feels this way about white cops he should have told Martin O'Malley before agreeing to serve as city solicitor. If he doesn't -- if what came out of his mouth Tuesday night truly reflected nothing more than an avuncular instinct to protect kin -- then he should say so and apologize directly to the cops who were on the scene trying to do the job the mayor asked them to do.

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