A frightening and costly encounter with police unit

September 20, 2006|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

They were in the house, Yvonne Rice says, four figures dressed in dark sweat shirts, their hoods drawn tight around their faces. They had rifled through her son's bedroom, she says, where he kept a large amount of cash.

When she confronted the people at her son Craig Kemp's East Baltimore home that chilly November night, Rice says, she thought she might be about to die. Terrified, she bolted from the house, ran down the street and called 911 on her cell phone.

"I need the police," she says, breathless, during the tape-recorded call.

But the people Rice saw in her son's home - they were the police.

The encounter described by Rice, Kemp and other relatives was with a "SET" unit that was disbanded in early August amid allegations of misconduct. Led by Sgt. William Harris, that unit of the Special Enforcement Teams worked mostly in plain clothes and unmarked cars in Southeast Baltimore.

Prosecutors have stopped letting the officers testify in court, believing they routinely drew up sworn court papers with fictional or embellished scenarios to justify arrests. One hundred or more cases built by the officers are in jeopardy; city and federal prosecutors have begun dropping them.

One of those dropped cases was against Kemp, who passed a lie detector test about the incident with police that led to his arrest on gun charges. The test, reviewed by The Sun, said there was "no deception indicated."

Interviews with Kemp and his mother reveal another layer of allegations against the SET unit, that the officers searched cars and homes without warrants and took drugs and money.

"The way they were dressed, and the way they acted - I find it all to be very menacing and intimidating," says Christie P. Needleman, Kemp's attorney, "almost like they were a gang."

None of the officers in question has been charged with a crime. None could be reached for comment. Police spokesman Matt Jablow said he could not comment on Kemp's story because the SET unit is under investigation.

Some local defense attorneys, including Kemp's, say city prosecutors have been investigating the SET unit for months. They say prosecutors have interviewed and requested polygraph examinations of several people arrested by the unit.

A source close to the SET unit investigation says that Kemp and others made believable claims about money and drugs taken - but not accurately documented in police paperwork - by the officers, raising questions of theft.

Court documents detail the SET officers' version of Craig Kemp's arrest.

While driving his Chrysler late Nov. 2, 2005, Kemp was pulled over in the 400 block of Clinton St., stopped for speeding, according to the statement of probable cause written by Officer Shakil Moss. Police searched the car using a police dog, and the dog found a gun in a hidden console, Moss wrote.

Police Department communication records indicate that Officer Agustin Rodriguez requested a complaint number for a handgun violation at least 20 minutes before the police dog unit arrived. The apparent conflict shows the officers might have searched the car first, then called for a police dog unit to validate their search.

Kemp says he saw an officer find his loaded .38-caliber revolver, package it and put it in the trunk of the marked police car. Then, he says, he saw officers retrieve the gun, take it out of the package and return it to his car, just before the police dog arrived.

He tested "truthful" about that scenario in the polygraph examination.

Craig Kemp, 24, graduated from Lake Clifton High School and studied pharmacy at the Community College of Baltimore County. Court records show he has no criminal record. The father of a 5-year-old boy and newborn girl, Kemp says he works in construction and sells cars.

In April 2005, Kemp received about $34,000 in a worker's compensation settlement and offers documents that verify that. Kemp says that he is a big tipper at a local strip club and that he recognized one of the officers who pulled him over Nov. 2 as a fellow patron. Kemp thinks the officers might have targeted him.

During the traffic stop, officers asked Kemp whether he had guns or drugs at his home, according to his pre-test interview with the polygraph examiner. He told the officers he did not, though he noted he had cash there, the polygraph report says.

Kemp says he had $28,000 cash locked in the bedroom of his rented home the night he was pulled over. He says his bedroom was unlocked and in disarray after the plainclothes police officers searched it. He says his money was missing.

"They probably figured I was a drug dealer and I wasn't going to say anything about the money," he says. "But that was my own money. They took it. That put me behind on my bills, put me in debt."

His lawyer, Needleman, says Kemp was "devastated about the money" when he contacted her about his arrest.

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