A police break-in at wrong apartment and common sense

CRIME BEAT

March 12, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

Bureaucracy, almost by definition, doesn't move fast, and it certainly didn't move fast enough to get Eduardo Perez's door fixed after police officers kicked it in looking for a woman screaming rape.

That took more than six weeks, after lots of phone calls, a terse rejection letter and the intervention of the Baltimore County police chief. Soon, officials promise, Perez will get a check to repair the hole in his checking account created by the bill to repair the hole the police made in his home.

Cops all over break doors and windows, ransack homes looking for people and tear apart the furniture looking for drugs and guns. Most of the time, they target the right house, and taxpayers don't foot the bill for repairs. Sometimes officers bang down the wrong door by mistake, and taxpayers do have to pay. Sometimes it is not clear-cut.

Let's say a woman was screaming rape inside Perez's Randallstown condo, and cops broke down the door only to discover she was fooling around. I'd say the cops did the right thing, and Perez would be on his own. Fortunately for Perez, a 74-year-old retiree, that's not what happened.

On Jan. 22, while he was volunteering at a hospital, a neighbor called police to report a woman screaming that she was being attacked. The caller told an officer that the noise came from a second-floor apartment and pointed to a window above Perez's garage. That window is someone else's apartment, but the neighbor pointed to Perez's front door as the way to get inside. Police knocked the door down only to discover the screams came from another apartment, from two teenagers who were, in fact, playing. An honest mistake by the cops. But still one I think they should make right for Mr. Perez. Instead, the cops apologized and told him to call his insurance company. He wrote to Baltimore County instead.

On Feb. 26, he got a letter from liability claims adjustor Mary Racey denying his claim, citing legal precedent and using all sorts of legal jargon, such as the Police Department "is not legally responsible for such monetary damages, given that police and public safety functions are characterized as 'governmental,' for which the County is afforded immunity from damages."

Perez then wrote to me. I contacted Bill Toohey, the Baltimore County police spokesman, who delivered Perez's letter to the chief. I then got a call back from county spokesman Donald I. Mohler III, who assured me the county will pay for a door. Before sending a form letter, he said, the insurance department should have called the police and pulled the report.

Then common sense would have taken over.

"It took me about 20 minutes to sort out his issue," Mohler told me. "I spoke to the chief, and I think he's very comfortable with his decision, that this citizen should be made whole. This one is so clear-cut.

"In these economic times, when people are hurting more and more and lots of people are calling looking for help, we have got to make sure that our front-line people ... give them help. ... That's the goal, to have government work for people and not be a roadblock."

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