Questions raised for years about city `flex squad'


On the streets, they're known as "knockers" for their aggressive style. The Baltimore Police Department calls them "flex squads" - teams of officers given the freedom to chase down suspected criminals in neighborhoods dominated by drug dealing and violence.

But as one flex squad's officers cruised the Southwestern District, questions mounted about their activities. Defense attorneys, prosecutors and community members say they have heard for years about allegations of misconduct that included planted drugs and troublesome practices about how suspects were treated and charged.

A woman's allegation that one member of the flex squad forced her to have sex in exchange for her freedom has opened a more expansive inquiry into a squad whose members, according to a search warrant affidavit, kept heroin, cocaine and marijuana stashed in their desk drawers and lockers.

Police commanders disbanded the squad, suspended the officers and replaced each of its seven members.

A Sun review of court and other records shows that allegations of wrongdoing have dogged some of the squad's members for several years:

In a warrant police used to search the flex squad office last month, investigators noted that previous allegations against Officers Jemini Jones and Vicki Mengel "have been made as to the planting of controlled dangerous substances on citizens in an effort to knowingly make false arrests."

The warrant, obtained by The Sun, also states that two officers "have been implicated in the theft of cellular phones belonging to arrestees."

During a court case last year, a public defender accused Jones of using strikingly similar language in more than 30 charging documents. City public defenders wrote a letter to prosecutors pointing out the formulaic nature of the paperwork, which they said "is more than coincidental," raising concerns that the charges were contrived. Prosecutors responded that they saw no problem with Jones' work.

Prosecutors were so troubled by the possible role that Mengel played in an April 2004 shooting that they recommended police not charge the suspect. Witnesses reported that Mengel and another officer had dropped off a teenager who was wearing his gang colors in rival gang territory. The teen was beaten, and he returned days later and shot somebody.

Three officers were indicted Jan. 6 on rape charges. Three others, including the squad's supervisor, Sgt. Robert Smith, have been implicated in wrongdoing. Mengel is facing gambling charges in an unrelated case.

Prosecutors have compiled a list of about 375 District Court and Circuit Court cases investigated by the officers indicted on the rape charges, saying they are no longer credible witnesses.

"This places a dark cloud over policing," said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, a lifelong Southwest Baltimore resident and a former pastor of the First Baptist Church in East Baltimore. "It enhances the mistrust that citizens already have of police. It makes citizens more reluctant to work with them."

Judging other squads

The inquiry in the Southwest has prompted concern about flex squads in other districts - each of the nine has at least one. In a statement, the Police Department said it was examining "all practices and procedures" of every district's "flex" and drug enforcement units.

A department spokesman said that internal affairs will soon begin conducting annual evaluations of every officer in those units.

"There is no issue more important to me than restoring and maintaining the integrity of this department," Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said in the statement. "I am well aware that my officers will need the trust of the people they serve to continue making Baltimore a safer city. I simply will not tolerate officers who fail to abide by our high standards."

Troubles in the flex squad became public this month with the disclosure of the rape allegation.

Jones, 28; Steven P. Hatley, 27; and Brian J. Shaffer, 28, have been charged with rape, conspiracy to rape, sexual offense, assault and violation of official duties.

Court documents allege that the three brought two women, ages 18 and 22, to the stationhouse in handcuffs two days after Christmas.

Jones is accused of raping the 22-year-old in exchange for not charging her, and the other officers are accused of doing nothing to stop it.

The woman told investigators that after the incident, she was driven back to her neighborhood and given back her drugs.

Kenneth W. Ravenell, who said he has been hired by the 22-year-old to "protect her interests," said another woman reported several months ago "improper sexual behavior" by some of the district's flex squad officers.

He said that woman - the girlfriend of one of his clients - was interviewed last week by prosecutors, who he said are investigating.

Supervisor suspended

Police announced Friday that Smith, the sergeant who guided the squad, was suspended for failure to supervise. He was on vacation when the alleged rape occurred.

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