Sworn duty

September 17, 2006

Murders in Southeast Baltimore are down; so, too, are serious shootings. That's progress the police can't claim citywide. Officials attribute the significant declines in Southeast homicides (47 percent) and nonfatal shootings (29 percent) over last year to the hard work of officers, including a special unit patrolling the toughest areas there. But now that same unit is under investigation, raising anew concerns about police misconduct.

The latest accusations suggest the six officers and sergeant who were assigned to the Police Department's Special Enforcement Teams stretched the truth or falsified information to make arrests in drug and gun cases. These allegations, as reported by The Sun's Julie Bykowicz and Gus G. Sentementes, follow rape and misconduct charges filed against three plainclothes officers in the Southwestern District; the indictment of a 12-year police veteran on charges of raping a female suspect in the Southeastern police station; the bribery conviction of a former city cop who extorted money from a suspect in exchange for failing to testify; and charges against a Northeastern District officer accused of stealing tire rims off a car that was seized by police. And that's just the cases this year.

Shall we go on? The dozen or so cases of police misconduct indicate that either the department is doing a better job of policing itself or it's not doing enough.

The allegations against the Southeastern street squad originated with complaints by defense attorneys, which led city prosecutors to scrutinize various cases. After sharing their findings with police officials, that one squad was disbanded and the officers placed in administrative jobs until the internal investigation is completed - all the right moves.

But a city that strives mightily and daily to drive down crime, that depends on citizens to help convict criminals, and that struggles against witness intimidation, must have a police force that is beyond reproach. The department can't be distracted from its mission, and rogue cops are a distraction; they cut corners and commit worse sins. But, more to the point, they undermine the credibility of the many police officers who do right by their badges and uphold their sworn oath.

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