An arresting offer: guns for freedom

October 25, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Two police officers dropped the handcuffed man on the brick steps before Sheila Harding's front door, she says.

From his knees, 23-year-old Richard William Rogers Jr. pleaded to the woman who helped raise him. "They're locking me up," he remembers saying. "But if you give them a gun, they'll let me go."

It was a startling proposition, Harding says: Trade a gun to avoid a criminal charge.

Interviews and court documents reveal this is a common deal offered by Baltimore police to the suspects they arrest, usually in minor drug cases. It's so typical that one lieutenant recently declared it a regular procedure within the Police Department's Southern District. And some officers developed forms to complete when conducting such exchanges.

"That's kidnapping and holding for ransom," says Harding, a 59-year-old South Baltimore resident. "And because they have a badge and a gun, they're allowed to get away with it."

Guns-for-freedom trades have persisted in Baltimore for years, largely unchecked by police department leaders and entirely unsanctioned by the rest of the criminal justice system. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and residents say it raises serious concerns about the authority being exerted by the Baltimore Police Department.

The deals aren't legal or enforceable, experts say.

Residents such as Harding say the practice promotes unwarranted arrests. Criminal defense attorneys say the deals are frequently broken, prompting distrust of police. Prosecutors say police are usurping the power of prosecutors and judges.

"How is that justice?" asks Cheryl Jacobs, the chief prosecutor of the city state's attorney's narcotic division. "That's not the way our system of justice is set up to work. ... It's laudable to get guns off the street, but this is not the way we go about it."

Unofficially, officers and supervisors say it can be a good way to get a deadly weapon from someone arrested on a minor charge unlikely to yield punishment.

`What's the problem?'

"If you lock up somebody for a joint or one pill, unless they're on probation or parole, what do you think the court is going to do to that guy? They're not going to do anything," says one officer who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. "If you can get a handgun without a foot chase or a pursuit and nobody got hurt, what's the problem?"

Police say that since being asked about the practice by The Sun, they have begun drafting a policy to ban such deals.

But some high-ranking commanders defend the intent.

"It was a worthwhile and beneficial effort to take crime guns off the street," says Maj. Frederick H. Bealefeld III, the Southern District commander. "I can't apologize for our intentions. Our intention was 100 percent public safety."

Told of the practice, Mayor Martin O'Malley says he had heard about it previously, but it now appears to be more common than he knew. "It's certainly something we can look at," says O'Malley, a former prosecutor, "and certainly something the police commissioner should look at."

At issue is a basic tenet of policing - discretion.

One of the best demonstrations of that discretion occurs when police stop a speeder. Officers can let the driver go, issue a formal warning, write a lesser ticket, issue a ticket for the actual speed or make an arrest.

But gun trades go beyond discretion to negotiation, prosecutors say. Once police arrest, they cannot determine who is set free. They can question suspects, experts say, but in exchange for information or guns, they can offer little more than a promise to put in a good word with prosecutors.

"This is in a murky area," says professor Abraham Dash, a criminal law professor at the University of Maryland. "They're carrying discretion, I think, a little too far."

It works like this: Officers will either have a suspect lead them to a gun or allow the suspect a phone call to arrange the drop of a gun, possibly in a trash canister, according to officers and court documents.

"If it's an ends-justifies-a-means thing, that's problematic," says Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York police officer and prosecutor. "That's not our legal system. The means matter in our legal system."

Officers say top city police officials haven't specifically ordered gun trades, but they revel in the resulting statistics, officers say. Baltimore police seized more than 3,000 guns last year, though it's unclear how many earned suspects freedom. Prosecutor Antonio Gioia says the deals occur in specific areas or districts where commanders favor them.

Reviewing policy

The process has been discussed several times this year within the department.

In May, police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark issued an order banning use of the unofficial gun-trade form officers had developed. "Effective immediately discontinue using the unauthorized form to document an individual's release in exchange for information about illegal firearms," he wrote. But the commissioner stopped short of condemning the practice.

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