A black Baltimore County police officer has filed a $1.8 million lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the department, including an incident in which a white sergeant is accused of carrying a noose in the presence of black officers.
The noose incident, which allegedly occurred in December 1992 in the department's Western Traffic Division, is one element of a far-reaching suit filed Sept. 11 by Officer Keith Harris, 38, a 15-year department veteran.
"There is a pattern of racial discrimination throughout the department," said Harris' attorney, Rebecca N. Strandberg.
The lawsuit comes against a troubling backdrop: Even as Baltimore County police defend their actions in the case, the department is investigating allegations that a noose was left hanging in the gear rack of a black county firefighter this month.
But yesterday, police officials sought to separate the investigation of the firehouse noose from the allegations in Harris' lawsuit.
Bill Toohey, a police spokesman, said the department's internal affairs division investigated Harris' complaints for 18 months but ruled them unfounded. And the department believes the object was not a noose at all, but a hand-fashioned device used to pry open a locked car door through a partially open window, Toohey said.
"This department did not believe -- and does not believe -- that piece of cable to be a noose," Toohey said. "There was no evidence after a thorough investigation of any racial connotation."
But Strandberg, a Bethesda attorney whose practice handles racial and sexual harassment cases, described the noose as a "hemp rope 8 or 9 inches long with a big loop where a head would go through."
Harris asserted last night that it was a noose and not a device to open cars. "There are witnesses to the incident who saw exactly what the noose was," he said. "This device is not something that was used throughout the Police Department."
Harris said the situation has been stressful. "It's been difficult coming to work and having this whole thing before me. But I'm trying to cope with it," he said.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleges that Sgt. Ronald Earp carried the noose through the traffic office. It also alleges that Earp asked police dispatchers to use an automatic vehicle locater system to track the whereabouts of black officers, in violation of department policy that such measures be taken only in emergencies.
The suit says Harris and several other black officers met in March 1993 with a white major to voice concerns about the noose and vehicle locater incidents.
However, the suit claims, "No action was ever taken to remedy the complaint."
Earp said yesterday that the department told him not to comment but noted: "The entire incident was investigated and found to be unfounded."
Cornelius J. Behan, county police chief at the time of the alleged noose incident, said yesterday he didn't recall it.
"I know in those days we had a zero tolerance for any kind of racial discrimination," Behan said.
Still, Behan acknowledged that racial tensions can exist in departments -- such as the county's -- with racial disparities. Minorities make up about 12 percent of the Police Department in a county that is nearly 20 percent minority.
"In a large organization, it is very easy for things to get out of RTC sync," he said. "If you're alert to that, you can probably minimize their occurring -- and prevent it from becoming a festering sore."
Michael D. Gambrill, who succeeded Behan as chief in September 1993, also said yesterday that he didn't recall the noose incident. "I don't feel comfortable in commenting, especially if there is a lawsuit," said Gambrill, who was succeeded this year by Terrence B. Sheridan.
The Harris suit alleges a pattern of discrimination predating the December 1992 incident and ending with the transfer of Harris and two other black officers in the traffic unit -- Calvin Settle and Charles M. Floyd -- in April 1996 to the Garrison Precinct. The transfer, Harris claims, was retaliation for his complaints.
After the transfers, the suit alleges, the door-lock code at the traffic unit was changed to "10-24," which means "assignment completed" in radio codes.
Among the other allegations:
An April 8, 1993, incident in which the tires of Harris' marked police cruiser were slashed and wires were cut after Harris and other black officers complained about the noose and other race-related incidents to the department's internal affairs division.
Harris was punished more harshly than white offers in the unit in retaliation for racial complaints.
For instance, he was disciplined for allegedly not helping a security guard apprehend a shoplifter in August 1993 because he was on traffic duty at the time.
And he was disciplined for allegedly failing to respond to a robbery call last year.
Harris claims that white officers in the unit accused of similar breaches were not disciplined.
Gregory E. Gaskins, the lawyer representing the county, was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment. A trial date has not been set.
County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger said yesterday that he couldn't comment on the lawsuit.
Pub Date: 12/25/96