Dishonoring the uniform

Our view: The latest scandal involving police and a towing company represents a blot on the integrity of the entire force

February 24, 2011

In the confusing moments after an accident that disables your car, you're likely to welcome a policeman's offer of help. The last thing on your mind is that he's breaking the law.

On Wednesday it became apparent that some Baltimore police officers have been secretly enriching themselves and the tow companies that paid them under the table for years — until this week, when city Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein announced the arrest of 17 officers charged with taking kickbacks from a towing company that was not authorized to do business with the city. The arrests exposed an elaborate extortion scheme in which Majestic Auto Repair of Rosedale paid officers up to $300 for every vehicle they steered to the company's towing operation.

The most disturbing thing about the indictments is the scope and brazenness of the alleged misconduct they revealed. So far, at least 30 officers have either been indicted or suspended as a result of a two-year investigation by the Baltimore City Police Department, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI that began in 2009. If so many officers are suspected of directly cashing in on unsuspecting motorists, how many others in the department must have known what was going on and chose to ignore it rather than blow the whistle on their colleagues?

Commissioner Bealefeld and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake were right to denounce the conspirators' alleged wrongdoing as a blot on the integrity of the entire force. The public can't be expected to trust the police to uphold the law when the department's own members violate it so flagrantly. If an unscrupulous tow truck company can bribe officers to illegally send business its way, what else are officers willing to do for the right price? The corruption breeds contempt for the vast majority of officers who work hard and do their jobs honestly.

Unfortunately, scandals involving devious tow company operators and city police officers are nothing new in Baltimore. Allegations of bribery and kickbacks aimed at prying exorbitant sums out of luckless motorists have dogged the city for decades. (Though it's not yet clear in this case whether the motorists came out financially worse for the wear.) Each time, calls for tightening supervisory and internal-security procedures at the police department to prevent such episodes from recurring went unheeded. And despite repeated changes in the law over the years regarding how the towing business is regulated, the problem has stubbornly persisted.

Mr. Bealefeld is to be commended for thinking hard about how to use this week's arrests to send an unmistakable message that no officer is above the law and that the kind of official malfeasance his officers are accused of will not be tolerated.

But he cannot let the matter end there. The wiretapped conversations between the officers — who called themselves the "untouchables group" — and Majestic Auto Repair owner Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia showed them to be much more interested in lining their pockets than stopping crime. The FBI intercepted a series of text messages between Mr. Mejia and one of the officers, Jhonn S. Corona, as he was at the scene of a shooting and possible homicide. It's damaging enough to the department for people to wonder whether officers supposedly helping them at the scene of an accident are really working to enrich themselves. It's even worse if personal enrichment comes ahead of investigating crime.

Mr. Bealefeld's active cooperation in the federal case so far — it actually started as a departmental investigation — suggests that he will help in any way he can to assist in the prosecutions. Sending policemen who break the law to jail will send a powerful message. But in the meantime, Mr. Bealefeld needs to continue to make an example of these officers to the rest of the department so they — and the city as a whole — know that police officers' job is to serve the public, not themselves.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.