Ex-official Lists Alleged Abuses In Police Dept.

July 03, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Justin.fenton@baltsun.com

JoAnn C. Woodson-Branche said she came to the Baltimore Police Department to work on internal disciplinary cases and hold officers accountable. But the former official and career prosecutor said it quickly became apparent that the system was broken.

Backroom deals were struck, recommendations for punishment were not followed and some who were set for termination escaped punishment, Woodson-Branche said. She said she had little autonomy, with many decisions dictated by one of the department's deputy commissioners.

"When I joined [the agency], my assumption was that it would be an open view to the operations of the department. That meant the disciplinary process would be followed as ordered, there would be accountability across the board, that punishment ... would be followed and adhered to," said Woodson-Branche, who was fired in April. "What I observed during my tenure, however, was completely different in some cases."

Mayor Sheila Dixon questioned the timing of Woodson-Branche's comments. She said the ex-official "has some right [to complain], but she also headed the department."

Dixon said Woodson-Branche should have alerted officials, including the mayor, to her concerns as they happened.

Though the Police Department has not commented on why she was let go, the police union and defense attorneys accused Woodson-Branche of manipulating internal charging documents, a violation of state law. The agency subsequently initiated an audit that resulted in the dismissal of 50 cases of police misconduct, including several high-profile cases.

At a news conference Thursday at attorney Warren A. Brown's office, Woodson-Branche hit back at accusations that she botched those cases and demanded that the department clear her name. She said many of the cases were indeed flawed and that she raised concerns that fell on deaf ears. Other cases deserved to go forward, she said, adding that the department is using her as a scapegoat to wipe the slate clean.

She said Deputy Commissioner Deborah Owens, a polarizing figure within the department, exercised "complete control" over the trial board office and closely monitored any actions she took. Woodson-Branche claimed that she was ultimately fired, not because of her job performance, but because she complained about a politically connected contractor brought in to help handle a backlog of cases.

Her comments, much anticipated by many who follow the intricacies of the Police Department, provided little additional insight into the internal investigations process. In a statement released last week, she promised to outline "crimes and malfeasance" occurring within the department, which she referred to as a "cesspool."

But one claim making waves in the department is an allegation that officials quietly agreed to drop a case involving Sgt. Darryl Massey, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, which represents black officers, if Massey agreed that Vanguard wouldn't speak out about a case in which a black officer said his white supervisors made him view a Ku Klux Klan Web site.

Sgt. Kelvin Sewell, who is black, alleged that he was forced to view the racist material, and critics of the department alleged that the case against two white officers wasn't being taken seriously. Woodson-Branche said Massey, facing internal charges that he and seven others were abusing overtime, was prepared to speak out about the Sewell case but agreed not to if his own case was dropped.

When the department cleared dozens of cases this month, both Massey's case and the case against the white officers were among them.

Massey did not respond to requests for comment. Woodson-Branche did not elaborate on who struck the alleged deal with Massey, and the department said it would not respond to any of her accusations.

"The Police Department never publicly disclosed the reasons for Ms. Branche's separation from the agency; that's a personnel issue that we do not comment on," said chief spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "As far as the cases [that were dropped], there were administrative concerns. We're not going to elaborate on the nature of that, and we're moving forward."

Robert Cherry, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said Woodson-Branche's claims back up much of what officers have said over the years about the internal affairs process. But, like Dixon, he questioned why she kept her silence.

"If in fact she's saying that the department is using politics to hold back certain officers, we'd agree with her," Cherry said. "Our only concern is that it's obvious that politics run so deep that it took her to be terminated to come forward with this."

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