Beleaguered district mourns another loss


The flag is once again at half-staff. Behind it, the police station house, a red-brick building set among rowhouses in Southwest Baltimore, has returned to its familiar role as a place of comfort.

They gathered here, their badges encircled in black bands, after an officer was shot to death in front of a liquor store two summers ago. They gathered here again yesterday, in the hours after two police cruisers collided a block away, killing another officer.

In the years between, the building took on an uncomfortable role. With some of its officers accused of sexually assaulting a woman who'd come there in handcuffs, it became a crime scene. With some of its officers accused of planting evidence and making false arrests, it became a symbol of the mistrust between police and citizens.

"It has been a tumultuous couple of months for the Southwestern District," said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, a lifelong resident of the community. "I think this will help us to value our officers a little bit more. They risk their lives every day to make the Southwestern District and the entire city of Baltimore a safer place."

Losing another officer, he said, "shows the human side to the police department. Those officers bleed just like each and every one of us do. They have the same vulnerabilities."

As the 8 a.m. shift of officers came into work, a half-dozen stood in the station house lobby comforting one another. Two officers embraced; others walked to their police cars in silence. No one wanted to talk.

Marty Howe, head of the police district's community relations council, said he came to the somber setting yesterday morning to learn about the accident that had taken the life of Anthony A. Byrd, an 11-year veteran, at the age of 31.

"It's a family bond there," he said.

A block away at the accident scene, officers paid their respects either on foot or by slowly driving past the corner.

The scene at the station house was a painful echo of July 3, 2004, the day Officer Brian D. Winder was shot to death at a liquor store in the neighborhood where he grew up. The suspected gunman later killed himself as police closed in.

Last July, at a memorial ceremony near the shooting scene, Chief of Patrol Col. Deborah Owens, the former Southwestern commander, said officers were eager to move on.

"I hope this is a closing point, and I'm hopeful that tomorrow is a new start for all of us," she said. "I hope it is, at least."

But as this year began, stories emerged about misconduct within a specialized unit of the Southwestern District called the "flex squad."

Allegations surfaced about false arrests and stolen cell phones. Investigators searched the flex squad offices and reported finding marijuana, heroin and cocaine in the desk drawers, lockers and personal property of officers. Three officers have been indicted on rape charges.

Marge Owen said the flex squad is not representative of the "pretty darn decent" officers she has encountered over her 36 years living in a quiet neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore.

"The mess down there was kind of separate from the rest of the officers," Owen said. "Most people didn't know the flex squad. They set themselves off from other officers. They were an exclusive little club."

She said the officers who attended the community relations meeting after the allegations came to light in January "were horrified at what went down."

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