Crime Scenes: Police chief says officer who accepted Ravens autograph might have been wrong

Ethics experts looking into situation; could prompt policy change for police

November 18, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

A week ago, the Baltimore County Police Department's chief spokesman said that the officer who accepted an autograph from Ravens star running back Ray Rice during a traffic stop had done nothing wrong.

Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson called The Baltimore Sun on Thursday to say he's not so sure.

The chief agrees that the officer did not forgive a ticket in exchange for the signature. But he's contemplating whether the officer was right to accept the gift, and he said he doesn't necessarily agree with the spokesman's statement that the autograph was not "a gift of monetary value."

"I think it's debatable whether this is, in fact, a gratuity," said Johnson, who would not rule out disciplinary action for the officer even though internal affairs detectives concluded their investigation and recommended the officer be cleared.

The chief said he has ethics experts from universities advising him on the issue, and it might end simply with a clarification or revision of the department's rules forbidding officers from receiving gifts from citizens, especially ones they're investigating.

Johnson said the question for him is whether an autograph by a sports star "is a gratuitous act or merely an act of one human extending some arm of friendship to another. … This is not a closed matter. This is one of those cases that we need to step back on and slowly deliberate."

The officer, who has not been identified, stopped Rice in his white Range Rover on Nov. 8 in the parking lot of an Owings Mills shopping center. The officer verbally warned the player that the tint on the vehicle's windshield appeared darker than the law allows.

About two hours later, Rice posted this on Twitter: "Just got pulled over for my tints … but gave the officer a autograph for his son and he let me go." Later that day, Rice clarified his statement, telling reporters that he had offered his signature after the stop had been concluded.

Johnson said investigators agreed that the autograph was offered and given "after the interaction over the tinted windows had ceased" and that the officer had been walking away when Rice offered the gift, which was for the officer's son.

But what at first seemed a routine offering quickly got complicated when Rice bragged on Twitter about what is essentially getting away with a bribe. He changed his story after questions surfaced.

Rice's signature is not just any signature. It's worth at least $100, according to traders in sports memorabilia, and because of the publicity of this case and the possibility that the signature is on an unusual artifact, maybe even a police document, means it could fetch in the four figures.

Even if Rice's and the officer's version is correct, a simple gesture now looks, at the very least, awkward.

Johnson said it's a clear violation when someone offers an officer a gift in return for a favor, such as escaping a ticket or an arrest. But officers are offered freebies every day, most of them small tokens of appreciation, such as free coffee at a convenience store, and trying to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable is difficult.

The police chief needs citizens to interact with officers, to offer his officers their names and phone numbers, to give tips and advice and ask questions. It's the definition of community policing. He noted that Rice is active in the community and gives money to public safety groups and runs programs for kids in crime prevention.

"You want to develop those liaisons," Johnson said.

So is an autograph for an officer's kid part of community engagement or a way for someone to use celebrity to escape sanction? Last week, the matter appeared closed and the policy clear, even if a bit murky.

Now the police chief wants to take another look.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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