Value of police integrity `stings' creates debate

Authorities in Baltimore carry out 202 internal checks

2 are indicted

`Waste of time' or `necessary'?

December 31, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

On the surface, results of the Baltimore Police Department's random integrity stings during the past three years would seem to suggest a spotless police force: Not a single officer has been caught stealing drugs, money or items planted by internal affairs detectives in more than 100 tests.

But former police commanders and outside experts say the fruitless results suggest that the stings are an ineffective way of uncovering corrupt behavior. Union officials call the tactic an inefficient use of resources.

"They are a waste of time," said George Parry, a former federal and state prosecutor in Pennsylvania who investigated scores of police corruption cases and tried about two dozen officers on charges ranging from drug dealing to bribery and theft.

City police officials defended the tests, saying they provide a vital check against corruption.

"These stings, as we call them, are necessary," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark. "I think they have been quite effective. ... We're trying to get at the truth."

Police officials refused to describe how detectives conducted the department's 202 random integrity tests since 2000.

Police spokesman Matt Jablow would say only that the majority of the stings involved internal affairs detectives planting drugs, money or property to see whether officers would pocket the items.

Sources familiar with the stings say that percentage of such tests is between 70 percent and 90 percent.

The remainder use different tactics or are designed to detect other problems, police officials say.

Two officers - including one acquitted Dec. 16 in Circuit Court - have been indicted on perjury and misconduct charges stemming from the arrests of innocent bystanders in the random stings.

The two officers were accused of lying in court documents by saying that they had witnessed the bystanders hiding drugs, which were actually bits of soap placed in public areas by internal affairs detectives.

Police officials said they were not conducting such tests to see whether officers arrest innocent people, but Jablow and others said the two cases nonetheless revealed integrity problems.

Experts and some former city police officials said the results raise serious questions about the purpose of the tests.

"It's the sort of investigative technique that can generate a lot of statistics without a whole lot of effort," said Parry, the former federal and state prosecutor in Pennsylvania. "It's more of a public relations ploy than a serious investigative technique."

The stings were promoted by Mayor Martin O'Malley in his 156-page plan issued in 2000 for reducing city crime and re-engineering the city police force.

At the time, that crime-fighting plan reported 70 percent of officers surveyed by private consultants believed that at least some of their colleagues were stealing from drug dealers.

Since then, the stings have been hailed by city leaders and police commissioners as an effective way to root out and prevent corruption.

For example, Clark testified before the City Council in October that his agency had conducted 87 integrity stings since February, when he took over the top police job. He attributed three arrests to the stings.

However, police officials later conceded that only one arrest - that of one of the two officers accused of arresting an innocent person - resulted from the tests. The other two investigations were not connected to integrity stings.

David W. Marston, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania who also investigated police corruption, said the random tests were generating such lackluster results because officers on the street probably know what internal affairs detectives are doing because of widespread publicity about the tests.

"You might as well put up a big billboard and say they are trying to catch you with this sting tactic," Marston said.

Bert F. Shirey, a former deputy commissioner of the city force, said the sting results indicated that police were "fishing in a dry hole." He added that internal affairs detectives working on the random stings could be put to better use by having them investigate officers stealing from drug dealers in the community.

"If [officers] are doing it at all, they are coming up on a [dealer] on a corner, snatch him, pat him down and take the money before kicking [the dealer] in the butt and sending him on his way," Shirey said.

Although the stings have resulted in no officers being caught stealing the planted phony drugs or money, departmental officials said the operations have proved valuable in uncovering problems with the way officers handle the drugs, money and other items planted by detectives.

Such errors by the officers or their supervisors usually resulted in stepped-up training and administrative punishments.

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