Police unit's cases in jeopardy

Court papers show some city officers embellished reports

September 14, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz and Gus G. Sentementes | Julie Bykowicz and Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporters

Working as a close-knit group, often in civilian clothes and cars, the police officers trolled the streets of Southeast Baltimore for drugs and guns.

But a review of documents and interviews with attorneys show the officers habitually drew up sworn court papers with fictional or embellished scenarios to justify arrests.

Police and court documents suggest that the officers, part of the department's Special Enforcement Teams, operated with little control as they worked in city neighborhoods beset by drugs and crime.

Allegations of misconduct led police to disband the unit about a month ago, and an internal investigation is looking into the officers' activities, said police spokesman Matt Jablow. But defense attorneys say city prosecutors began asking questions about the SET unit months ago.

None of the unit's members -- six officers and a sergeant -- has been charged criminally; neither have any been demoted, Jablow said. The officers could not be reached for comment last night.

Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said the union has been talking to the officers and that police officials had not accused them of any wrongdoing.

Asked yesterday about the unit, Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said he would not comment until the department's investigation is complete.

One hundred or more cases built by the officers are in jeopardy, and city and federal prosecutors have begun dropping them.

Court documents reviewed by The Sun illustrated several cases of questionable policing:

The statement of probable cause in Todd Little's drug possession case from March says the SET unit pulled him over because he was driving a Cadillac with "dark tint on all the windows," which is illegal. But photographs show that his windows were not tinted. The case was dismissed in July.

In May, the officers wrote that they "received information" about drug deliveries and saw Antonio E. Walker toss 100 grams of suspected heroin from his car window. The defense attorney, a former city police officer, found the statement of probable cause so improbable that he accused the officer who wrote it of lying. Instead of answering questions under oath, the officer skipped court. The case was dismissed in July.

During a November 2005 traffic stop in Highlandtown, SET officers requested a complaint number for a handgun violation -- suggesting that they had found a weapon -- at least 20 minutes before a dog trained to sniff out guns arrived on the scene, police documents show. But the statement of probable cause in the case of Craig Kemp asserts that it was the dog that found the gun.

The case is set for a Baltimore Circuit Court trial next week.

Timothy M. Dixon, the former police officer who represents Walker, said he has several other clients who have encountered Southeastern SET unit officers.

"Their conduct is just -- it's a different level of integrity," Dixon said. "It's just rogue. That's the only way I can describe it."

Peter M. Semel, a former federal prosecutor and now defense attorney who represented Little, said he usually admires the work of police officers. But he said the unit is out of bounds.

Judges have taken notice.

Semel said that District Judge Nathan Braverman, upon hearing the tinted windows story as he presided over the Little case, wondered aloud about the possibility of a civil lawsuit.

And after hearing considerably different testimony from another SET officer and the man she had arrested in April, Circuit Judge Robert B. Kershaw had this to say: "I don't have anything very positive to say about the credibility of either witness."

The Baltimore Police Department created two Special Enforcement Teams in July 2005. One works on the east side of the city and one on the west. Each has about 30 officers who are organized into smaller units led by a sergeant.

Those units are deployed as violent crime problems emerge. According to the department's annual report last year, SET officers made more than 7,000 arrests, mostly in drug and nuisance cases, seized 266 guns and reported 141 handgun violations.

The SET unit that was disbanded was led by Sgt. William Harris, a 15-year veteran and former internal affairs investigator, court documents show. Other SET units remain in operation throughout the city, Jablow said.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a Democrat who has raised questions about police practices over the past year, said he was not surprised to learn of the allegations.

"These units, as I've said in the past, are not being monitored appropriately," Harris said. "It is my belief that some of these specialized units should be dismantled. Ninety-nine percent of our officers are doing a great job. But we've got some bad apples out there. We need to be doing more internal monitoring of these units."

Jablow said: "We monitor our employees as rigorously and as professionally as any organization in Maryland."

`Tinted' windows

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