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City officer suspended for alleged assault on car theft suspect

TelevisionTheftJustice System

Baltimore police suspended a patrol officer Tuesday after a television news helicopter's camera captured him allegedly striking a teenage car theft suspect who had been detained.

Police are not releasing the identity of the officer or the 14-year-old suspect, who was on the ground at the time of the incident.

Police said they can't provide many details of the pursuit that led to the arrest because it was carried out by the Regional Auto-theft Task Force, a team of city, Baltimore County and state police officers. The boy has been charged as a juvenile with motor vehicle theft under $10,000 and unauthorized use of a vehicle, said a Baltimore police spokesman, Sgt. Eric Kowalczyk.

The suspension and investigation were prompted by a WBAL TV news report that showed a police pursuit in Northeast Baltimore about 6 p.m. Monday.

The news camera captured a green Honda Accord speeding north on Belair Road before it lost control and slammed into a vehicle on a used-car lot. Police officers were shown converging and pulling the suspect from the passenger door.

The alleged assault occurred after the suspect was on the ground and surrounded by several officers.

"The commissioner and myself are troubled by what we saw on that video," Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said Tuesday. "We did not like what we saw."

Police initiated the investigation themselves, Rodriguez said.

"We are troubled by it, and once again the message is clear," said Rodriguez, who heads the bureau that oversees internal investigations. "We will not tolerate officers breaking the law to enforce the law."

The officer being investigated has been suspended with pay, Rodriguez said.

Robert F. Cherry, president of the Baltimore police union, said he did not know the identity of the officer but, after watching the video, called the suspension "premature." He said the video did not clearly show what occurred. A suspension could have been issued later by internal investigators if warranted, Cherry said.

"Suspensions should be used for the most egregious cases we have — such as integrity issues, corruption," Cherry said. "The video doesn't show either the actual strike nor does it show whether the defendant or suspect was arrested or in custody with handcuffs on."

Baltimore police are currently operating with about 120 unfilled sworn positions because of attrition. But with suspensions, medical and military leaves, Cherry said, that number is more than 400.

"As short as we are, we just can't afford to have an officer suspended," Cherry said.

Baltimore police have policies that govern both the use of force and the conditions under which officers can initiate a pursuit, but Rodriguez said it was too early to know whether any rules were broken.

Police pursuit policy prohibits officers from chasing suspects, except under "exigent circumstances." Those include instances in which an officer believes immediate action is necessary, failing to pursue could lead to injury or death and there isn't time for alternatives, a copy of the policy says.

Dispatchers must be notified "within 10 seconds" of a pursuit. Officers are also supposed to get permission from shift commanders, Kowalczyk said.

Generally, supervisors will call off pursuits that were triggered by traffic violations, though they can give the go-ahead if drugs or weapons are suspected, Kowalczyk said. Shift commanders are required to monitor the pursuits and can call them off if they feel there is a risk to the public.

The Regional Auto-theft Task Force's pursuit policies are different from Baltimore police guidelines, Kowalczyk said.

Initial reports indicate that officers initiated a pursuit after "they had a stolen hit" when they ran the car's tag through a police database, Kowalczyk said.

jgeorge@balsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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