Apologies aside

May 05, 2002

WHEN BALTIMORE CITY Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. received a tearful phone call about the arrest of his sister's son, there was something he could've done to help his nephew -- call a good lawyer.

Instead, Mr. Zollicoffer drove to his sister's house, confronted police at the scene and threw his weight around. Not a smart move for the city's top lawyer, whose duties include representing Baltimore police in civil matters.

An ally and confidant of the mayor's, Mr. Zollicoffer is known for his direct, self-assured manner. On Tuesday night, however, he displayed a belligerence and arrogance that are unacceptable in public officials. When the confrontation became public, he quickly apologized -- and rightly so -- for interfering in the arrest, and attributed his irate remarks to "the heat of the moment."

According to police at the scene, he intimidated them, challenged their presence at the house, tried to phone the police commissioner, threatened their jobs and likened their tactics to those of the Gestapo. To a supervisor, he called attention to the race of the officers, saying "it doesn't look good" that four white officers were in a black house, according to the lieutenant's report. Now, Mr. Zollicoffer is denying that he threatened anyone or referred to race during his outburst.

This isn't the first time Mr. Zollicoffer has taken a personal interest in his nephew's legal troubles. In at least two previous cases, the city solicitor attended the trials of his nephew. His presence in the courtroom was noted, once publicly. And after his name and position were invoked in testimony in one case, Mr. Zollicoffer approached the prosecutor and reprimanded her.

But on Tuesday evening, Mr. Zollicoffer went too far, and the consequences extend beyond the bruised egos of a few police officers.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has made reducing crime his top priority. He has invested his personal and political capital in seeing that Baltimore police officers do their jobs aggressively but respectfully and that all Baltimoreans feel safer because of it. Beyond fighting crime, Commissioner Norris has worked diligently to increase minority participation on the force and promote African-Americans. That's why Mr. Zollicoffer's behavior is troubling. His sentiments about the police exploit community fears of racial bias and undercut the department's ability to fight crime.

Mr. Zollicoffer may have lost his temper, but given his position at City Hall and in the community, he needs to assure the citizens of Baltimore that he can be an unbiased advocate for the Police Department when called upon. And just as important, he should afford police the respect he expects them to show all citizens of Baltimore.

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