Charges Against Baltimore Officer Dropped

'Inconsistencies' In Police Sting Cited By Prosecutors

November 25, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Baltimore police were hearing complaints that Officer Michael Sylvester was stealing from drug dealers and decided to put him to the test.

An undercover internal affairs officer went to a corner in Northwest Baltimore with two stacks of marked bills, while dispatchers sent Sylvester to investigate a report of a suspicious person. Investigators recorded the ensuing exchange, and later recovered marked bills and what appeared to be cocaine from Sylvester's locker.

But on Tuesday, city prosecutors dropped all charges against Sylvester, pointing to "inconsistencies" in the case compiled by police. Neither police nor prosecutors would comment on the flaws, but sources said the state's attorney's office is pushing for police to involve prosecutors in investigations to help guide the process.

Earlier this decade, integrity stings were hailed by city leaders and the police commissioner as an effective way to stop and prevent corruption. But some criticized the effort after more than 100 such stings from 2000 to 2003 failed to catch a single officer. At the time, union officials and outside experts questioned whether the stings were an effective use of resources.

The agency has continued to have mixed success with integrity stings. In August 2008, an officer who punched an undercover internal affairs detective during an integrity test was acquitted on assault charges.

Anthony Guglielmi, the Police Department's chief spokesman, said police stand by the tactic but could not elaborate on breakdowns in the Sylvester investigation. Guglielmi said there remains a "very much active, ongoing internal investigation" into the allegations against the officer.

"People have to have faith in the system, and we have demonstrated that we will hold people accountable," Guglielmi said.

Sylvester did not speak during a court proceeding Tuesday or to reporters outside the courthouse, but his defense attorney, Howard L. Cardin, said Sylvester maintains that he is innocent. Cardin said prosecutors dropped the charges before turning over evidence, perhaps to shield details of the case.

Before the sting, Sylvester, a four-year veteran, had been transferred from the Central District's Pennsylvania Avenue task force after police received numerous complaints that he was stealing cash from suspected drug dealers, Guglielmi said in September.

According to charging documents, the police Integrity testing unit placed a call to a dispatcher about 9:45 p.m. Sept. 2 reporting a suspicious person - in reality, an undercover officer - who was "acting strange" at Carlisle Avenue and Mount Holly Street. Sylvester was dispatched to the call with a police trainee he was paired with and quizzed the undercover detective. He ordered him to empty his pockets and sit on the curb while Sylvester searched his vehicle.

The undercover officer was carrying $259 in marked departmental money, which he put in his pants pocket, and $135 that had been placed in the armrest of his vehicle. The undercover detective was released and later determined that $50 was missing from his pocket and $20 was missing from the vehicle.

Officers wrote in charging documents that the incident was recorded on video and audio, with several officers listening in, and officers conducted surveillance on Sylvester throughout his shift. On Sept. 3, officers executing a search warrant found the $70 in marked funds. In his locker, police said, they found a plastic bag containing a rock substance suspected to be cocaine.

Guglielmi said Tuesday that rooting out corrupt officers is a top priority for Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, with a new internal affairs commander placing senior detectives in internal affairs to "stack the deck and put good people in there who know what they're doing."

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