Case of 8-year-old, gun exposes police mistrust

School officers' handling of boy draws a sharp rebuke from city commanders

March 10, 2010|By Peter Hermann |

The Baltimore City School Police Force wants to protect students.

The Baltimore Police Department wants to protect the city.

Both goals are laudable, and agencies should be able to accomplish both simultaneously.

But last week, school authorities put their interests first. They waited a day to tell city police that they had arrested a third-grader wandering the halls of Sharp-Leadenhall Elementary School with a loaded handgun. They pointed to the boy's age, 8, and his status as a special-needs student.

Angry Baltimore police commanders complained that the silence set their investigation back, made it difficult to trace ownership of the weapon and delayed by 28 hours getting detectives into the child's home in North Baltimore. They argued that the school system's decision put the rest of the city in danger.

This unusual public clash contrasts sharply with the harmonious relationship that law enforcement agencies so often boast about. It has uncovered mistrust and misgivings between police departments that differ on how this child should have been treated.

Instead of whisking him off to juvenile authorities, who promptly placed him on community detention, city police said he should have been interrogated, and a proper and full investigation should have been launched. The heads of both departments should have been on the phone talking, to ensure that the needs of the school, the child and the city's residents were met.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who has made fighting gun crime a priority, addressed the issue in an interview on WYPR radio, taped on Tuesday and scheduled for broadcast today.

His spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, said the commissioner stressed that the breakdown was "not an indictment [of] school police, but he said it's just that we have some pretty good bells and whistles when it comes to gun crime in Baltimore. We would have appreciated a little more notice so we could have gotten a jump-start on the gun aspect of this case."

Maryland authorities have long complained that restrictive rules and laws governing child privacy prohibit sharing information about students and crime, even between principals and officers. It came to a head last year, when police in Anne Arundel County said they had no idea there were gangs or packs of kids in schools until after a 14-year-old boy was killed in Crofton. Lawmakers in Annapolis are trying during this session to ease restrictions about what officials can discuss, though that does not appear to be an issue in the city gun case.

Leonard D. Hamm enjoys a unique perspective, having served as chief of the city schools police force in the late 1990s and then as commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department from 2004 to 2007. He has seen these things from both sides, and he said Tuesday that the investigation at Sharp-Leadenhall was not handled properly.

"It's never good to have that kind of tension between agencies, especially when a handgun is involved," said Hamm, who is now chief of police at Coppin State University. "School police have a duty to be civil to the kid and be civil to his family, but also to get the mission accomplished. You have to find out where that gun came from. You have got to find out how this kid got the gun."

Hamm said that as soon as the arrest was made, school officials should have been talking with police officials.

"Everybody has everybody's phone number," the former chief of both agencies said.

In a statement issued Monday, a school system spokeswoman said the case was too sensitive to handle by e-mail, so calls were put out a day after the arrest.

Hamm said the child should have been taken in for questioning, accompanied by his parents or guardians and even a lawyer. "There was enough time to do that," he said, adding that school police, while protecting students and schools, "also have an interest in making sure the streets are safe."

It seems that with a little talking, the rights of the boy and the safety of the city at large could have been protected. Every case has its own sensitivities and requires discretion, but it makes it harder for officers to ask residents to trust them if the officers don't trust each other.

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