How A City Police 'Integrity Sting' Came Undone

Sun Exclusive

December 17, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Criminal charges against a Baltimore police officer fell apart last month after questions arose over whether internal investigators had searched his locker before obtaining a warrant, among a number of other questions and inconsistencies, according to a review of documents.

Police have confirmed that two supervisors in the internal affairs division's ethics unit have been transferred since misconduct and theft charges were dropped Nov. 24 against Officer Michael Sylvester, a four-year veteran charged after an "integrity sting." At the time, prosecutors gave no explanation of the reason for dropping the case, but The Baltimore Sun obtained investigative documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The newly released documents open a window into the operations of the troubled unit - which Mayor Sheila Dixon has called a "weak link" - and show how a seemingly slam-dunk case went awry.

Sylvester, who had been transferred to the Northwest District after police received a number of complaints about him, was dispatched to the 3900 block of Carlisle Ave. on Sept. 2 for a report of a suspicious person. In fact, it was an undercover cadet who had been given $394 in marked bills, which he put in his pocket and vehicle console.

Police, recording the incident on audio and video tapes, said Sylvester took $70 in marked bills from the cadet. Upon his arrest, he was found with drugs in his shirt pocket, police said.

Police trumpeted the case, one of the first public moves to clean up the department after a number of negative stories flooded out of internal affairs, including the firing of the trial board prosecutor and the dismissal of more than 50 internal disciplinary cases, the reason for which remains unclear.

But records show that a number of inconsistencies in the sting case arose almost immediately.

"There were a series of mistakes, inconsistencies that drew us to the conclusion that we could not proceed in this case," said Deputy State's Attorney Haven Kodeck.

Perhaps the most crucial discrepancy raised the possibility that officers had perjured themselves by searching Sylvester's locker before obtaining a warrant.

Sylvester was arrested on the night of Sept. 2, and a warrant was received the next morning allowing detectives to proceed with a search of his locker and vehicle.

But photos from the investigation, which show officers searching Sylvester's car and holding drugs allegedly found in his shirt pocket, were time-stamped Sept. 2 - before the warrant was obtained. Separately, detectives acknowledged that they had escorted Sylvester to his locker before receiving the warrant, to remove his gun belt and bulletproof vest, as is standard when an officer is suspended.

Because the photos from the search of his vehicle clearly were taken during the day, it appears likely that the camera displayed an incorrect date. But that, coupled with the admission that investigators had entered the locker earlier to remove the gunbelt and vest, could have presented a significant obstacle at trial.

The issues surrounding the search were not the only inconsistencies, which appear to be more sloppiness than subterfuge:

* Detectives filed three versions of a search warrant return listing items found during the warrant's execution. One was blank. Another said the marked bills had been recovered from Sylvester's shirt pocket, and the third said the money was found in his locker.

* Sylvester was not given a drug test until nine days after he was arrested, despite the fact that drugs were allegedly found in his possession, records show.

* In several instances, investigators misstated the amount of marked bills recovered. The lead investigator, Detective Michelle T. Bolden, wrote in a report to Maj. Nathan Warfield, the commander of the internal affairs division, that $65 - not $70 - had been found, as did Detective Sgt. Reginald McNeill Jr. and Lt. Jeffrey W. Shorter. And the undercover cadet wrote that he was missing $50 in funds from his pocket and $15 from the center console of the vehicle, but concluded that $70 had been taken.

Prosecutors consulted with police and decided to pursue the charge through an internal administrative hearing. That hearing is pending, and Sylvester has maintained his innocence.

Shorter and another supervisor, Sgt. Ron Beverly, were transferred out of the ethics unit and into the unit that handles building security within days of the case crumbling.

Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman, said he could not comment on Sylvester's pending internal charges. He confirmed that Shorter and Beverly were reassigned, but declined to provide details. He said reforming internal affairs remains a top priority for Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.

"The commissioner has made it a priority to focus on training when it comes to internal affairs," he said. "There's no system that's perfect, but we strive to be as close to perfect as we can."

Some have criticized the Police Department's "integrity stings," which have rarely resulted in catching corrupt officers in the act. And even when police have brought charges as a result of a sting, the cases have encountered problems in court.

Kodeck said he believes the stings should continue, saying he likes the idea that officers aren't sure if the person they're searching could be an undercover member of the department. He also said prosecutors need to work more closely with police in building the cases, so prosecutors can spot potentially problematic procedures.

"The earlier we get involved, since ultimately we have to prosecute it, the better everyone will be," Kodeck said.

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