'Attack on character'

Police supervisor says she was unfairly reprimanded after suicide of suspect being held at hospital last fall

October 03, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

For Sgt. Carrie Everett, it's a matter of principle.

When a 27-year-old accused of killing his girlfriend wriggled free of his shackles last October and leaped to his death from the 10th floor of Mercy Medical Center, Everett was shaken - but confident that she was not in violation of the department's general orders for keeping watch over a suicidal suspect.

Everett, who was a supervisor that day, and other officers would later be cited under a rule that "department members shall be held strictly responsible for the proper performance of their duties."

Using that vague and sweeping rule, Everett said, she was cited for violations that are not specifically noted in the general orders, or departmental guidelines.

Everett's ultimate punishment was, relatively speaking, a slap on the wrist. But as a former military officer with a spotless record, she has refused to accept it and says she has paid a price.

"I strive to do the right thing, and that's an attack on my character," said the Army veteran, who has been with the department since 1997.

Police have not responded to questions about the incident or about their procedures in cases where officers guard suicidal suspects.

Union officials say such charges are a long-used mechanism to punish officers whose conduct isn't covered by the general orders. Everett and Officer Wilbert Perez, who was assigned to the man, said that in their case, they were made scapegoats for an incident that drew negative attention to the Police Department but which they say was largely unpreventable.

"They've treated everybody unfair," said Perez, a rookie officer recruited from Puerto Rico who was assigned to watch Damon D. Smith that day. "They're trying to put it out there as if it was our fault. But they should change the way of doing things."

Everett says she has been harassed since the incident and that her personnel file improperly reflects that she accepted her punishment. A former internal affairs investigator, she is so concerned that she could be framed on what she believes are bogus charges that she has cleared out her locker and now dresses for work at home or in her vehicle.

"Once they've got a bead on you, when they get you in the crosshairs, they don't stop at nothing," Everett said

Perez said that after working four hours on Mayor Sheila Dixon's executive detail Oct. 28, 2007, he was asked to go to Mercy Medical Center to guard Smith, who had confessed to killing his ex-girlfriend, Coppin State University student Veronica Fludd. Smith had been taken to the hospital for medical evaluation after slashing his wrists in police custody, but Perez said no one told him the details of the situation or gave him instructions, other than to keep an eye on Smith.

Hours later, Everett began her shift as the supervisor in charge for the Southwestern District and was told one of her officers was assigned to Mercy. She went about her work, heading out to the streets and investigating a burglary, she said.

At about 11 a.m., she said, she received a call from another supervisor. "We've got a problem," he said.

Smith had broken free, grabbed Perez and put him in a bear hug as he tried to get his gun. With his leg irons still on, Smith ran out of the hospital room, struggled again with Perez in the hallway, then punched through a nearby window and jumped to his death.

Smith was "determined" to kill himself, a police spokesman said at the time.

The department's general orders did not spell out how many officers should be assigned to a suicidal suspect or how long an officer should guard a detainee at a hospital before being relieved by another officer, only instructing officers not to assist in their medical care. And there were no instructions for supervisors.

But according to internal police documents, Everett was sanctioned for failing to inform Perez that the suspect he was guarding was suicidal, failing to inform him of the procedures for guarding prisoners in a hospital and failing to personally inspect the hospital detail, which was miles from her district.

Superiors recommended that Everett attend remedial arrest training and nonpunitive counseling. A note was tucked into her personnel file indicating that she had accepted her punishment, despite other documents indicating her refusal to sign paperwork, and she said her request for an internal hearing has been ignored. The law enforcement bill of rights, a state law, guarantees the right to hearings in such cases.

She said she has also been written up several times for "insignificant" infractions.

Paul M. Blair Jr., the city police union's departing president, lamented that the supervisor has long been the "fall guy" whenever an incident draws negative attention. But he said the process is largely fair. "Most times," he said.

Perez, who injured his rotator cuff in the incident and is still recovering, said he was told that he would be suspended for two days and has not heard anything since. He is assigned to desk duty.

Police did not respond to the officers' accusations or questions about whether the department's policies have changed, but Mercy has changed its protocols for treatment of prisoners or persons in police custody, now requiring that two full-duty officers be assigned to guard each prisoner.

"Mercy and other Maryland hospitals and the [Maryland Hospital Association] had a number of conversations with law enforcement officials following the several incidents of prisoner-related violence in hospitals across the state," said Dan Collins, a Mercy spokesman. "All affected hospitals emphasized the need for two officers per prisoner patient."

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