Lawsuit highlights race in firing of Baltimore police chief

City officials deny claims made in class action suit

December 12, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The federal class action lawsuit filed last week against the Baltimore Police Department introduces an allegation of racism into the public back-and-forth between fired Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The lawsuit, filed by 21 current and former officers who claim they have endured persistent and oppressive racism, notes that O'Malley retained Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano despite a drunken 2000 incident in which Graziano was arrested and briefly faced charges after he made loud homophobic remarks and refused to leave a bar. But O'Malley fired Clark "for only an unsubstantiated domestic dispute for which no charges were ever brought," according to the lawsuit.

Graziano is white; Clark is black.

The federal case also makes numerous allegations against Labor Commissioner Sean R. Malone - a close ally of the mayor, a former Police Department lawyer and the target of recent accusations by Clark.

"Defendant Malone routinely abused his discretion as head of Legal by interfering with and obstructing [Internal Affairs Division] investigations, by reversing IAD findings sustaining charges against white members of the BPD, and by reducing penalties for white members of the BPD," the lawsuit states.

City officials said last week that they ensure equal treatment for employees.

"I'm sure that the lawyers who filed this suit are well-intended," said spokesman Steve Kearney. "But in the short period of time we've had to review this complaint, it has become very clear that they did not do anything to independently verify these allegations, as they relate to this administration. Many are demonstrably false. Others are simply fabricated."

The lawsuit appears to mark the newest chapter in the bitter exchanges between the mayor, who swept into office five years ago on a promise to reduce crime, and his third police commissioner, whom he recruited from New York last year and once hailed as one of the nation's finest. Since Clark's ouster, he has made very few public statements, but he has engaged City Hall in a public exchange of allegations.

On Nov. 10, O'Malley fired Clark and said that domestic abuse allegations against the police commissioner, though unsubstantiated, had proved a distraction to fighting crime. He also pointed to what he said were eroding trust and communication.

A week later, Clark filed a $120 million lawsuit disclosing private electronic messages between himself and the mayor. They included swearing by the mayor and were put forth as an effort to buttress Clark's argument that O'Malley had meddled in internal police investigations.

Clark's lawsuit also alleged that the mayor had fired him as he was investigating pornography found on Malone's city computer. Clark had obtained the computer after it was stolen from Malone's house and recovered by police.

In the days after the lawsuit was filed, O'Malley indicated the commissioner knew he was being dismissed when he stepped up the Malone investigation. And city officials said they had concerns about the way Clark investigated Malone.

Clark is not a plaintiff in the federal suit filed Monday, and he is not on the list of police commissioners who are defendants, despite allegations made about actions during his tenure.

The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, which collaborated with law offices in Baltimore and Washington to file the lawsuit, declined to elaborate last week on its allegations or the decision not to name Clark as a defendant.

"I can't talk too much about our own strategy of choices of who we named," said Susan Huhta, an attorney who directs the group's Equal Employment Opportunity work. "Out of respect for him, we just don't feel comfortable commenting."

The federal action claims that former Internal Affairs Chief Zeinab Rabold - a close adviser to Clark and a plaintiff in the suit - "discovered evidence that showed an effort by certain white members of the BPD to remove former Commissioner Clark."

Clark's lawyer, Stuart O. Simms, declined to comment on the federal lawsuit. Simms said he is aware of the suit but is not "officially engaged or involved."

The lawsuit alleges that African-American officers have received harsher punishments than their white counterparts, endured a hostile workplace and been denied promotions because of race. It also states that the city has failed to fix problems made clear in public racism reports issued during the 1990s.

It claims that during Malone's tenure in the Police Department, from 2000 to 2003, he was at the center of the discipline system manipulation. It describes the department's former professional standards unit as a group that ensured fundamental fairness in discipline, but it accuses Malone of stripping the group of its authority.

The federal lawsuit also revisits the issue of Malone's computer, stolen from his house in early October and recovered later that month by detectives. It alleges that when Malone left the department in September of last year he refused to return the computer to Rabold. After she learned of graphic material on the computer, she was fired, the lawsuit states.

Police officials have said it is a city computer, but not a police computer, and they have said that high-ranking commanders surrounding Clark turned Malone from a crime victim into a suspect through a highly unusual search of his computer.

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