City can read between the lines of letters

April 12, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

It was lawyer Bradley L. MacFee Sr. who started the exchange of letters with a perfectly civil and concerned missive to Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm.

Poor MacFee. He must have mistaken Hamm for someone who gives a tinker's damn.

OK, let me rephrase that. At one time Hamm did, indeed, give a tinker's damn, before he became commissioner for Mayor Martin O'Malley, under whom our Police Department, while reducing crime, has exponentially increased in arrogance.

MacFee's March 22 letter was about a case that Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz would eventually write about in a March 27 article. Bykowicz noted in her article that prosecutors dropped drug-dealing charges against Gary Payne, Harold Richardson and Kenneth Richard after Circuit Judge John N. Prevas ruled that personnel records of two of the three police officers involved in the case were permissible.

MacFee is Richardson's attorney. The officers are Daniel Hersl and Frank Nellis. MacFee told Hamm about the 29 internal affairs complaints Hersl has amassed in his seven years on the force and of Nellis' 17 complaints. MacFee wrote that the department ruled as "fact-substantiated" the charge that, while off duty, Hersl poured beer over a woman's head and hit her in the face with a bottle.

Also "fact-substantiated" was a charge against Nellis of punching a man in the face, according to Bykowicz.

"Aside from my serious concern regarding the sheer numbers and types of incidents noted," MacFee wrote in his letter to Hamm, "I am equally concerned regarding the veracity of these officers in explaining them. As Judge Prevas noted from the bench during one of the hearings, certain of your predecessors in the Commissioner's office precluded an officer from testifying if he had one substantiated complaint. ...

"While you will get not argument from me that an officer's job is among the toughest available, it must still be performed with honesty and integrity. No one knows better than you how critical the public trust is to your agency's ability to do its job effectively. Recently publicized misconduct within the Department has eroded public confidence and undermined your mission."

It was at this point in the letter that MacFee dropped his bomb. This guy wasn't just asking for some piddling audit of crime stats.

"In an effort to fortify public trust," MacFee continued, "I am requesting that you consent to the performance of an independent audit of the personnel records of all of your officers and any other department personnel having public contact as an essential part of their job."

Hamm's answer was nine days in coming and, given the notion of the O'Malley-Hamm junta that they're accountable to no one, really wasn't surprising. The snide answer came March 31 through Karen Hornig, the chief legal counsel for the Baltimore Police Department.

"Thank you for your letter of March 22, 2006, which was referred to me by Commissioner Hamm for a response," Hornig wrote. "Your concern about the management of the Baltimore Police Department is commendable, as it is rare for an attorney representing members of violent drug organizations to be interested in strong, effective law enforcement. Please be assured that Commissioner Hamm is committed to enforcing strong, department-wide discipline."

As you might imagine, MacFee had his own rejoinder to the response.

"With regard to the obviously sarcastic tone ... it implies that the department is dismissing the concerns that have been raised which, in light of all of the well-documented officer misconduct ... is shortsighted at best, and just plain dumb at worst. ... [Hamm] has been served a fat one right over the plate here, and by his refusal to entertain this request, he has whiffed a major public relations opportunity.

"With regard to the reference to `representing members of violent drug organizations"... the comment improperly implies several things. First, that the defendants in the dismissed case were guilty. Second, that as a defense attorney I, as well as my colleagues, are advocates for the use of drugs and violence, or that we are anti-police. Third, that because the police are just good, hard-working citizens with a noble mission, the methods they employ in doing their jobs should not be called into question. Fourth, that because an individual may (or may not) be involved in the sale or use of drugs, they have somehow waived their civil rights. ... Finally, that the behavior displayed by Officers Hersl and Nellis that was disclosed by Judge Prevas is somehow acceptable simply because they are police officers. Would it be any more or less tolerable for a plumber to hit a woman in the face with a beer bottle?"

Of the 46 complaints filed against the two officers, only one complaint for each was sustained by the police department, according to The Sun's article about the case.

Yesterday, police spokesman Matt Jablow said that the allegations of Hersl hitting the woman with a beer bottle were "not sustained." Jablow added that Hornig had no response to MacFee's assertion that her letter was sarcastic.

"The letter speaks for itself," Jablow said. "People will read into it whatever they want."

Indeed we shall. But given the alleged police misconduct MacFee referred to, it might not be a reading to the O'Malley-Hamm junta's liking.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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