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Baltimore officer pleads guilty to armed drug conspiracy

Drug TraffickingJustice SystemFirearmsTheftAnthony BattsFBI

To rack up arrests and look good for his bosses, Officer Kendell Richburg decided to ensure that his confidential informant could continue dealing drugs and funneling him information.

He paid the unnamed informant with city funds, a standard procedure, but also gave him seized drugs to resell, according to court records. Richburg told the informant about the whereabouts of law enforcement in the Pimlico area where he operated, and the informant would tell Richburg about drug activity.

By looking out for the informant while carrying a service weapon, however, federal prosecutors say Richburg became an armed participant in a drug trafficking conspiracy. On Monday, the 13-year veteran pleaded guilty to two charges and now faces a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life.

Baltimore prosecutors are reviewing dozens of city cases that involved Richburg to see whether they can move forward.

In court papers, the officer would misrepresent the informant's tips about drug transactions, making it seem that he had personally witnessed them.

"I'll write it up like I saw a hand-to-hand." Richburg, 36, told the informant in one recorded phone conversation about a drug deal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney A. David Copperthite said in court that Richburg, an officer in the unit formerly known as the Violent Crimes Impact Section, was expected as a member of that unit to maintain high numbers of arrests. His attorney, Warren Brown, said that pressure permeates the department and led to his client's criminal conduct.

"I listened to hundreds of hours of wiretapped conversations in the case," said Brown, who also has represented drug clients who allege similar police misconduct. "And I can tell you that if the curtain was pulled back, you would see that his M.O. was standard operating procedure. That's the way a lot of them work, because they're being judged by those numbers."

But authorities rejected any notion that what Richburg did was an expected or tolerable result of internal pressures. U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said Richburg's conduct was "treacherous" and harms all police officers. Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts called his behavior "unacceptable criminal actions that are an affront to the law enforcement profession."

"To justify his actions under the guise of pressure is absurd," said Anthony Guglielmi, the Police Department's chief spokesman.

Janice Bledsoe, a defense attorney who worked as a police misconduct investigator for State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, said such cases raise troubling questions about police work.

"The officer's credibility is often the strength of the case," she said. "How do you disprove a negative — how do you disprove that the officer didn't see what he says he saw? You can't, unless the defendant happens to have some incredible alibi."

Bledsoe says that as such cases come to light, defense attorneys gain greater leverage to question assertions made by officers. During Bledsoe's tenure, the state's attorney's office brought charges against an Eastern District officer accused of lying in a search warrant. And in November, another officer who worked out of Richburg's unit was also charged with lying in a search warrant to raid a Canton home.

The Violent Crimes Impact Section was a unit of plainclothes officers deployed to traditionally high-crime areas. Initially praised as a key part in reducing shootings and homicides, it became a source of complaints about the conduct of some officers.

Last year, Batts moved detectives out of the unit and into patrol positions. He also changed its name to the "Zone Enforcement Section" and placed it under the supervision of the patrol division.

Brown, Richburg's defense attorney, said his client didn't put drugs on the street for his own profit or shake down dealers.

In a high-profile case last year, Officer Daniel Redd was convicted of dealing drugs out of the parking lot of the Northwestern District station. And several years earlier, officers William King and Antonio Murray were sentenced to hundreds of years in federal prison for robbing drug suspects.

Richburg admitted in his plea, however, that he skimmed some of the department funds that he paid the unidentified informant. The investigation began when the FBI received information that Richburg was selling stolen property. Agents later used a source to purchase goods from Richburg, including iPads and iPhones.

As Richburg conspired with the informant, the two discussed plans to set up innocent people. In one recorded phone call in September 2012, Richburg directed the informant to plant a gun in the vehicle of an unlicensed cabdriver, known as a "hack," so that Richburg could arrest him on a firearms violation, according to court records. Prosecutors said the plot was not carried out.

"You get in a hack and drop the burner in the hack," Richburg was recorded saying, according to his plea agreement. "Get a hack for three blocks. Drop it. We got to think outside the box to get this done."

The informant dealt drugs from a parking lot off Park Heights Avenue referred to as the "Panyard," which police have deemed a high drug and violent crime area. On Sept. 4, records show, other officers were zeroing in on the informant, and Richburg sent him a text messages that read: "Get off Belvedere [Avenue] … they on you."

Later, the informant sent him a message: "Its safe for me to come back out[?]"

"Yeah yo you good," Richburg replied, records show.

In another instance, Richburg helped the informant plot a robbery. On Oct. 9, 2012, Richburg searched an unidentified man without probable cause and found between $1,500 and $1,800 in cash, according to court records. The man said that he was an employee of a Popeye's restaurant and the money was from his paycheck. Richburg let him go but suspected he was lying based on his behavior, records show.

He then called the informant and told him about a "[n----] walkin around with 1500 in his pocket."

The next day, the informant robbed the man with a .380 semi-automatic handgun to further the drug conspiracy, prosecutors say.

Brown said that the majority of Richburg's contacts with the informant were about making low-level drug arrests, and that such arrests are a big part of the Police Department's enforcement strategy. "The department will deny that they have quotas, but they do," Brown said. "They grab these guys with one bag of weed, and the quality of the arrest is never scrutinized."

Guglielmi disputed that. He said arrests have plummeted in recent years as police administrations have emphasized quality over quantity. The number of people released without being charged, one indicator of a poor quality arrest, has almost completely evaporated, according to department statistics.

The day prosecutors say Richburg asked the informant to give drugs to a woman so he could write up the arrest, court records show a 52-year-old Gwynn Oak woman was charged with possession of marijuana.

She pleaded not guilty and received a one-year suspended sentence.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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