Did Baltimore police mishandle call on truck?

CRIME SCENES

Department reviewing call made before Hopkins student was killed

  • Miriam Frankl
Miriam Frankl
November 13, 2009|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Nicholas F. Walters saw a white pickup truck weaving between lanes. He tried to follow the erratic vehicle but later told a Baltimore police operator, "I couldn't keep up with it." He noticed a company decal on the back of the Ford F250 and called the number, but a representative denied it was theirs.

Walters said he saw the vehicle speeding up Broadway, "blowing through three lights." He said he watched the driver "jump out of truck and urinate right there by Patterson Park."

That's all from Walters' Oct. 16 call to police, which he made after he saw the truck on Broadway north of Fells Point. It's a call he insists police didn't take seriously, and he made it at least 90 minutes before authorities said a white pickup struck and killed Miriam Frankl, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscience student, as she tried to cross St. Paul Street.

And a review of recordings released by the Baltimore Police Department after a Public Information Act request raises even more questions, not just about how the call was handled but about what police did afterward. A department spokesman said the entire case is being reviewed.

When Walters first saw the truck in Highlandtown, he said, it was "weaving in and out of lanes," enough to draw his attention but not, he said, to call the police. He decided to follow it and flag down an officer. But after it sped up Broadway, he said, he changed his mind.

Walters dialed the 311 nonemergency number, because, he said, he wanted police to be on the lookout, and not necessarily to immediately respond to his location. After he got a recording, he hung up and dialed 911.

He told the operator, "I'd like to report something."

Walters wanted to report a breaking crime.

The operator apparently thought he wanted to file a police report. She quickly answered: "We don't make reports over the phone."

Walters answered: "OK, OK, I, I, no. I've just been following this drunk driver around and I called ..."

The operator cut him off: "Where at?"

He answered: "Well, last time I saw him blowing through three red lights on Broadway heading north."

The conversation appears strained - the operator is trying to get specific information; Walters is trying to get across his urgency. He said he felt the operator only reluctantly talked to him. He had to prompt her to ask him for the truck's license plate number.

At the end, he declined to leave his name: "I don't need to do that. I just wanted to let you guys know. Thank you."

The mn police suspect in the fatal hit-and-run, Thomas Meighan Jr., has nine previous drunken driving convictions. A judge revoked Meighan's bail on traffic charges and called him a "danger to the citizens of Baltimore" - even though, at this time, charges against him don't include manslaughter or driving under the influence of alcohol. Meighan told police he had lent his truck to a friend.

Walters came forward to the news media after he learned of the student's death and complained that the police had mishandled his call. In an interview Wednesday, after a full transcript could be viewed, he said he is convinced that police simply "dumped" his call. "I got the impression that this wasn't very important," he said.

But there are even more questions to be asked after Walters hung up the phone.

A dispatcher radioed an officer in the Southeast District:

"I wonder if you can advise on this and I'm going to send this over to Eastern District. Heading northbound on Broadway from 200 block there was a white pickup truck, Maryland tag, Tate Engineering on the back, electrical boxes, et cetera on the vehicle. Caller believes that the guy's intoxicated."

Officer (identified as Baker 10): "How old is the call?"

Dispatcher: "Um, three minutes, maybe, four minutes."

Officer: "Edward No."

The "Baker 10" identified the officer as a supervisor, and "Edward No" means he concluded the call to be unfounded.

The dispatcher didn't give the officer the license plate number, and it appears the officer closed the call without responding, given how quickly he concluded it was unfounded.

Here's one possible explanation: The officer determined that the speeding car had already crossed into the Eastern District just a few blocks away, and having heard the dispatcher tell him he was notifying the Eastern, decided a response would be fruitless.

Anthony Guglielmi, the chief Baltimore Police Department spokesman, said the entire incident is under review by the patrol chief. He said commanders are looking at "not only how this operator and officer handled this, but what happened with other callers."

The spokesman said there are at least four other calls being reviewed; The Baltimore Sun has listened to three of them - two involve complaints of white vehicles and another was a man calling about a construction van that hit his taxi.

"This whole incident, soup to nuts, is being reviewed," the spokesman said, including whether police need to better educate the public to call 911 instead of the nonemergency 311 to report suspected drunken drivers.

"Was everything done right?" Guglielmi said. "Nothing right now suggests anything improper or any red flags. We may discover something we didn't do right." He said if the procedural review uncovers any wrongdoing, a more formal investigation will be launched.

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