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Black police ask review of trial boards Officers want U.S. to check disciplinary actions since 1990; 'This is a national issue'; City officials say requested changes have been made


An organization representing 700 African-American Baltimore police officers called yesterday for the federal government to review city police trial board decisions dating to 1990 after a federal commission determined a pattern of department bias in punishing black officers.

In addition, Vanguard Justice Society wants Baltimore Police Department to suspend all further police trial boards -- which administer discipline to officers found to have violated department policy -- until the findings by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are addressed, and a review of decisions is completed.

City administrators, however, said they have implemented the requests made yesterday by Vanguard and believe they have made the necessary changes to improve the process.

The EEOC determined last week that the city's Police Department punished black officers more harshly than whites and retaliated against those who complained. EEOC officials came to the conclusions while reviewing complaints filed by former police Sgt. Louis H. Hopson Jr.

Hopson, who is black, was fired this year after a three-member police trial board concluded he had made a false statement during a criminal trial in Baltimore Circuit Court. The 18-year department veteran and former officer of the year contends the dismissal occurred because he helped expose racial discrimination within the department. Hopson wants his job back.

Because the EEOC has no enforcement powers, the Vanguard group wants another federal agency -- possibly the U.S. Justice Department -- to address the city's police trial boards to halt any further disparity black officers experience in the disciplinary process.

"This is not just a Baltimore issue, this is a national issue," said Robert Richards, a Vanguard member and police pilot who is suing the city for $13.5 million, alleging racial discrimination in his transfer from the police helicopter unit.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier refuted Hopson's allegations yesterday, saying his disciplinary hearing was initiated by city prosecutors, who told the department they questioned Hopson's credibility and would not accept his testimony in criminal matters. Hopson accused the department of searching for a reason to fire him.

Since Frazier was hired in 1994, the number of African-American officers doubled to 36 percent of the force. Frazier has promoted black commanders to oversee discipline and hiring and training. He has revamped trial boards to ensure minority participation.

Frazier recently testified in Richards' trial that the department had a history of embedded racism that began before his arrival.

In response to the Vanguard request, Police Department administrators said yesterday that they are comfortable that the trial boards are being run fairly. Police Col. Robert Smith said the department has reviewed cases back to 1990. In some instances, Smith said, the department allowed officers who appeared to be improperly dismissed to reapply for their jobs. Smith said he knew of two officers given the opportunity.

Smith, who serves as the liaison to a disciplinary council established by Frazier 18 months ago to improve the process, said the department suspended trial boards for a year before reinstituting them last year. At that time, Frazier incorporated input from Vanguard members and representatives of the city's Community Relations Commission, Smith said.

"They made recommendations to the police commissioner and what they suggested in about every case was adopted," Smith said.

Racial problems on the city police force became public two years ago. But the federal finding -- the first from a noncity agency -- could intensify the scrutiny.

National NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said yesterday that he was concerned and disturbed by the EEOC's findings. Mfume plans to meet with Frazier as soon as possible to discuss the matter, he said.

"While we commend the commission's work that has uncovered the practices of race discrimination, we are at the same time disturbed that such patterns still may exist within the Police Department," said Mfume, a former congressman from Baltimore and City Council member. "The fact that it's happening in Baltimore suggests that it's probably happening elsewhere."

At an afternoon news conference held in City Council Chambers, Hopson said he and other Vanguard officers have asked the U.S. Justice Department to review the matter.

"This is not about Sergeant Hopson, this is about all African-Americans," Hopson said. "We're not looking for revenge, looking for justice."

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III commended Hopson and other officers yesterday who first testified before the council on the matter two years ago.

"It wasn't easy to take the heat and you took a lot of heat," Bell said. "When one comes forward, you put yourself in jeopardy. You take a risk."

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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