Repairing a reputation

Our view: Police scandal proved costly

August 08, 2008

One day, Baltimore police Sgt. Robert L. Smith is accused of supervising a rogue investigative squad whose members are charged with rape, and the next, he's the recipient of a six-figure apology from the department, complete with a statement of his dedication that he can hang on his living room wall. This is not a Back to the Future moment. It took 2 1/2 years for Sergeant Smith to clear his name, and the Police Department's decision this week to settle the officer's lawsuit should put an end to the embarrassing saga of the defunct Southwest District "flex squad."

The turmoil began in late 2005, when a woman caught smoking marijuana accused three of Sergeant Smith's flex squad members of sexually assaulting her in the station house. The flex squads were investigative units housed in police districts. A follow-up search of an office used by the Southwest squad found illegal drugs and confiscated items that should have been stored as evidence.

The incident led to the disbanding of the flex squad system, new screenings of officers in local investigative units and the indictment of three Southwest flex squad officers. But the case against Sergeant Smith's men eventually unraveled: The main suspect in the rape was acquitted, and prosecutors dropped the charges against the two others.

But as the supervisor of the unit, Sergeant Smith was named in the initial warrant against the officers - although he was on vacation at the time of the alleged attack. Another squad member, Officer Vicki Mengel, also was named in the warrant - despite her transfer from the unit days before. These mix-ups should have been corrected at the outset; instead, Sergeant Smith's reputation suffered, and the department is now paying $290,000 to Sergeant Smith and Ms. Mengel, who has since left the department, and offering a rare public apology to settle their civil claims.

The Southwest flex squad proved troublesome for the department in several ways. But it shone a spotlight on the importance of integrity within a police department and the problems that occur when reputations are tarnished without just cause.

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