Measure seeks protection for police whistleblowers

Bill would affect officers who refuse orders to underreport crimes

March 03, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Legislators are pursuing whistleblower protections for police who refuse orders from their superiors to underreport crime, the latest fallout from the politically tinged debate over Baltimore police practices.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, and Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said they want to make it a crime for local police departments to knowingly report false crime statistics. They also want to shield street-level officers from reprisals if they refuse to report false crime statistics.

The lawmakers said their effort dovetails with another bill being sponsored by Carter and Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat, to require a statewide audit of crime statistics.

The proposal has become a hot topic in the governor's race. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan have accused Mayor Martin O'Malley's Police Department of underreporting crime statistics to make his record look better. All three are running for governor this year.

"There is no way to get an accurate picture of what's going on in our streets if police departments are being used as tools for political games," Jacobs said. "A crime audit will not work if police officers are being pressured or fear they will lose their jobs for refusing to report false statistics."

The mayor has claimed that violent crime has dropped in Baltimore nearly 40 percent since he was elected in 1999, a nation-leading reduction. But criminologists and critics say the drop might not be as great as portrayed because the baseline 1999 crime figures were revised upward after the mayor ordered an audit of that year's statistics. WBAL-TV has aired news reports showing that some crimes have gone unreported.

O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said the mayor welcomes "a fair, unbiased statewide audit because the Baltimore Police Department crime statistics are accurate." But he said the motivation behind both bills is clearly political.

"This is the second press conference on the same legislation, and they still have not produced a scrap of evidence that this is anything but political," Kearney said. "In fact, by teaming up with the Republicans it's even clearer that this is more about public relations than public safety."

Carter said she is not motivated by politics and simply wants to protect police officers so that they can "tell the truth."

"It's an insult to the public when you keep saying it's politics and there are people out there saying they've been robbed or stabbed or shot and there's no crime report of it," Carter said.

Paul Blair, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, which has been supportive of Ehrlich in the past, said it is unheard of for officers to make false reports. Doing so is a crime, he said.

Any errors in filing and recordation crime reports result from human error or the ordinary paperwork delays that are to be expected in a department that handles 20,000 incidents a month, he said.

"The only thing I've ever heard command ask for is a true and accurate report, make sure you do a complete and thorough investigation," Blair said. "I'd be shocked if officers are coming out there calling politicians and saying `Oh, yes, I downgraded a report.'"

Ehrlich has been supportive of a crime audit - his administration is conducting one of Baltimore and four other jurisdictions - but he has not taken a position on the Carter-Jacobs bill, said his spokeswoman, Shareese L. DeLeaver.

Duncan spokeswoman Jody Courser said the county executive supports the legislation.

"We need a statewide audit of crime statistics, and Doug applauds everyone who is lining up in support of this effort," Courser said. "The only person resisting getting to the truth is the mayor of Baltimore."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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