Baltimore’s police commissioner personally helped arrest more than a dozen city officers this morning who allegedly got thousands of dollars in kickbacks for steering accident victims to a towing company that was not authorized to do business with the city.
Federal authorities outlined a broad scheme in a 41-page criminal complaint and at a news conference in which 17 police officers conspired for two years with two brothers who own Magestic Auto Repair Shop in Rosedale.
The brothers, identified as Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia and Edwin Javier Mejia, were also arrested, along with 15 officers who were lured to the city's police academy under the ruse of and equipment inspection, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said. Two officers had not been arrested as of this afternoon.
Bealefeld, in a calm voice, told reporters at a news conference at the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office (photo above by The Sun's Kenneth K. Lam shows Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein at the podium, flanked by Baltimore's FBI director, Richard A. McFeely, and Bealefeld).
that he thought for months about how he would explain the arrests to the citizens of Baltimore. He said he wanted the arrests done in a "very deliberate way" that was "meaningful and respectful," but also sent a stern message to the 3,000-member force.
The commissioner and the special agent in charge of the Baltimore FBI office, McFeely, had the accused officers line up at the academy and Bealefeld took each of their badges. He said he told them, “I’m here to reclaim our badge.”
He then handed the badges to a academy recruit who was allowed to witness the arrests. He lined them up on the floor as a demonstration to his classmates. Bealefeld, a 30-year veteran of the city force, told reporters, “I know what service means.” Of the way the arrests were handled, the commissioner, said, “You can consider the ramifications of that to infinity.”
Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said that the charges the officers face — extortion — are similar to charges against several Prince George's County police officers in a case that includes the higher echelons of that government.
But Bealefeld and McFeely said that unlike in Prince George's County, the case in Baltimore began at the local level and was given to the FBI. Bealefeld said, "We cannot give quarter to corruption."
Rosenstein singled one section of the affidavit. One police officer, caught on an FBI wiretap, tells the car repair shop owner that he told a citizen with a damaged car, "I would not let anything bad happen to you, I am a policeman." The affidavit says the officer "added that what he really meant was, 'Ia m here to earn myself some $300."
"Police officers are supposed to work for the Police Department, not the highest bidder," Rosenstein said.
The court documents allege the scheme worked this way: Officers involved, upon being dispatched to an accident, would contact one of the tow company owners by cell phone. The officer gave him the type of car, the extent of damage, type of insurance and location.
If the owner wanted the car, the officer would then tel the owner that he knows a tow operator who could help save him money, provide a rental car and waive the insurance deductable. The complaint says the officer would convince the car's owner to "not call their insurance company until after speaking" with the tow company owner.
The complaint alleges that the officer would then either falsify a police report noting that the owner had requested his own tow company, or simply leave that box unchecked. For each car deliver, the court documents say an officer got $300. One officer pocketed more than $14,000 over two years, according to Rosenstein.
Police officers are supposed to allow people with disabled cars to use a towing company of their choice, unless the car has to be towed quickly in an emergency. If a person's tow company can't arrive in 20 minutes, police are supposed to call one of the tow companies authorized to work with the city.