A Baltimore police officer who was criminally charged with assault after he punched an undercover internal affairs detective during an "integrity test" was found not guilty in Circuit Court yesterday.
Whether the officer, Jerome K. Hill, hit the detective was not in dispute in the trial. Instead, the verdict turned on whether Hill's action was justified.
Circuit Judge John C. Themelis found yesterday that it was impossible for him to second-guess the instincts of the accused officer, saying that Hill might have had good reason to act aggressively.
"That is the problem in law enforcement," Themelis said. "We put people in dangerous situations where they have to make decisions instantaneously that could be life-threatening."
Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the Police Department, declined to comment. Hill, 35, might still face internal discipline. He has been working in the department's records section with his police powers suspended since the January incident.
Hill declined to comment after the court proceedings. His attorney, Andrew I. Alperstein, said police officers have a "real scary job" and that his client was pleased to be exonerated of the criminal charges.
The outcome of the case appeared to be predicated on two factors. One was whether the undercover detective inadvertently behaved like a real suspect, giving Hill cause to be fearful. The second was the context in which Hill was working.
"Some of the things I've heard that happen in the inner city don't happen in Guilford or Roland Park," Themelis said at one point.
Assistant State's Attorney Thomas A. Krehely challenged him, and the judge clarified that he meant the "tone of voice" officers use in various city neighborhoods would change.
The Police Department's internal affairs division set up a sting operation targeting Hill at the end of January, after receiving a resident's complaint about excessive police force. The complaint was not discussed at the hearing.
In the sting operation, an internal affair ethics squad positioned an undercover detective, John Ferinde, on a drug corner in Hill's patrol area at Clinton and Noble streets near Patterson Park. Detectives placed a bogus 911 call for a "suspicious person" matching the description of the undercover officer, then waited in a nearby van with a video camera.
A grainy videotape shown at yesterday's court hearing shows Hill pulling up in a patrol car, walking toward the undercover officer and punching him, pushing him against a wall and throwing him to the ground. At that point, other officers from the internal affairs squad intervened.
Ferinde testified that he complied with all of Hill's instructions.
"I made no indications that I would run," he said. "Hill gave me an order. Take my hands out. I complied and made sure the palms of my hands were out."
Then, he said, Hill became belligerent and struck him, Ferinde said.
Hill, who took the stand yesterday, said he was patrolling the most violent area of the city, a sector that he described as "insane," "just chaos" and "a haven for drug dealers."
He noted that minutes before his encounter with the undercover detective, there had been a report of an armed robbery in the area with suspects roughly matching the undercover detective's description.
When Hill approached the corner in his car, the suspect turned away from him, causing concern by Hill that he was dealing with a dangerous person, the accused officer said. The tape showed that moment.
Hill said he directed the suspect to show his hands.
"What bothered me is that his hands were down," Hill said. "My training kicked in to know that was a threat."
Then, standing before the judge, Hill held his hands up.
Hill testified that he struck the undercover detective once, in a move designed to "stun the subject" for several seconds.
Alperstein contended that his client was further hampered by the performance of the officer who was supposed to be backing him up, Jacqueline Torres.
She testified that as she pulled up behind Hill, she was paying little attention to the situation and was instead talking to her mother on her cell phone.
Torres' police powers, which had been suspended since the January incident, were reinstated Thursday, the day before the trial.