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Rooting out wrongdoers among city protectors; Police disciplining has been arbitrary and slow, files show

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Officer Richard Waybright was seen beating a handcuffed prisoner in a squad room booking area. Sgt. Lawrence Ames made offending comments about sex to a fingerprint technician in an evidence room. Lt. Timothy O'Connell was accused of failing to report a racial slur made by a subordinate.

These are just three of the hundreds of disciplinary cases involving Baltimore police, examples of abuse no longer tolerated by a department forced to revamp its antiquated way of punishing the city's protectors.

Accusations of inconsistent treatment in 1996 forced changes to make the disciplinary system fairer. In many cases, the rules got tighter -- officers are being fired or suspended for infractions treated far less severely a decade ago.

As of Dec. 1, Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier had fired or forced the resignations of 153 officers since he was hired in February 1994 -- nearly one a week, except from August 1996 to November 1997 when the system was being revamped.

"It feels good when we get a bad cop," said Maj. Ronald S. Savage, a 31-year veteran who was promoted in June to take over the department's Internal Investigation Division. He said he wants to eliminate a "buddy-buddy" system that protected some officers and persecuted others.

"Those days are over," Savage confidently said. "Now everybody is held accountable."

The department's disciplinary process has been at the forefront of a dispute since Frazier inherited it. Officers complained it was unfair, retaliatory and treated blacks more harshly than whites.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded last month that the department violated civil User.Event 7 was not expected here! rights laws by retaliating against officers who accused the department of racism.

Department officials deny retaliating but acknowledge disparate treatment, and they said they will use the revised disciplinary process to answer the EEOC report. That includes a chart, or matrix, to match infractions with recommended punishment so officers accused of similar offenses are dealt with consistently.

Now, front-line supervisors are stripped of their discretion and must report every wrongdoing to headquarters. Police said that has created an overwhelming number of discipline cases that until a year ago were routinely handled by sergeants who scolded their officers behind closed doors.

A dysfunctional workplace

Critics, including former police supervisors and some top commanders, say investigations into serious corruption have been shortchanged while investigators baby-sit a dysfunctional workplace.

A review of hundreds of disciplinary files reveals a system bogged down in mundane, often complicated cases that have little relevance to public safety. The 153 officers fired over the past four years represent a tiny fraction of the 2,200 cases a year handled by the investigation division.

Detailed probes of allegations of simple wrongdoing have become standard. As a result, some serious problems, such as police-involved shootings, have been given short shrift, critics say.

Police commanders argue that they have streamlined what used to be a cumbersome and sometimes unfair process. Their biggest task now, they say, is to speed up investigations of relatively simple cases. But they are adamant that they target abuse, no matter what its nature.

"We may be spending more time with day-to-day rules infractions," said Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., who is in charge of making sure punishment is consistent. "But we would not have the organization we can be proud of if we didn't handle the small things.

"Just because we go a year without finding a police officer who took money from a drug dealer doesn't mean they aren't out there," Sistrunk added, "but it doesn't mean we aren't interested in cleaning our own house."

Frazier said he is speeding up the process by shifting discrimination and sexual-harassment cases from the Internal Investigation Division to the department's new Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

The cases against Waybright, Ames and O'Connell reveal much about the department and its handling of issues that have troubled its 3,200-member force. They also demonstrate how long it takes to resolve cases. The incidents occurred in 1995 and 1996, and were not concluded until October.

Waybright was convicted by a trial board of kicking, punching and dragging a handcuffed prisoner in the booking area of the Eastern District station. The board recommended a five-day suspension. Frazier overruled the panel and fired Waybright.

"This is all garbage," said Waybright, who had been on the force for 18 years. He said he knocked the prisoner to the floor after being head-butted and kneed in the groin. "I was protecting myself from a guy who was attacking me."

Ames offended a female fingerprint technician by asking her how she liked to have sex. His penalty: a 20-day suspension without pay.

The Eastern District sergeant told investigators that he did not remember his conversation but was sorry if he offended the woman. The 19-year veteran said he thought his punishment was too harsh but would not comment further.

O'Connell was accused of failing to act on a complaint involving a racial slur made by an officer under his command. The lieutenant counseled the officer but took no further action because the officer had planned to retire within a few days. The department sought to fire O'Connell, but he was acquitted by a three-member trial board Oct. 13. O'Connell declined to comment on the case.

Some of the cases highlight internal departmental issues. One officer, assigned to the sex offense unit, repeatedly told a female colleague that her skirt was too short and made other crude comments.

A male sergeant told a female officer he wanted to spank her. Another male sergeant pulled a female officer onto his lap; she pulled away, asking, "Haven't you seen the trials of Anita Hill?"

Other cases involve violations of procedures: an officer reprimanded for failing to write a report on an assault case; an officer suspended for swearing at a citizen while trying to settle a dispute in a store; an officer reprimanded for pushing a suspect's face into the window of a patrol car.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the police union, said the department is concentrating on the wrong violations.

"Officers are scared to death that the slightest infraction will cause them to lose their jobs," he said. "Good, aggressive police officers have extensive [Internal Investigation Division] files because people make complaints. People don't like to be locked up."

In one case last month, the department tried to fire an officer suspected of supplying drugs to two rival Cherry Hill gangs. The officer had admitted to FBI agents that he dealt drugs before joining the force.

A departmental trial board acquitted him, aggravating top commanders, who have refused to return the officer to patrol. "This just shows that our disciplinary system doesn't work," said one police supervisor.

Cases drawn out

And the system takes a long time. Even serious cases, such as officers accused of sexually assaulting teen-age girls, drag out for years.

Take the Baltimore Police Department vs. Officer Rodney Price. A 16-year-old complained that Price sexually assaulted her when he drove her home from work at a McDonald's restaurant, where he moonlighted as a security guard.

That was in spring 1995. Price was stripped of his arrest powers and gun, criminally charged and indicted. Prosecutors then dropped the case, and Price was returned to the street. Police commanders suspended him again and filed administrative charges in the same case.

Price's case reached a trial board in October, and the officer's lawyer, G. Matthew Immler, said he couldn't believe the department was pursuing a case that prosecutors had dropped.

"The state didn't want this, now it comes to you," he said.

Price's accuser, now 20, wouldn't testify, and it took the trial board 10 minutes to return not-guilty verdicts. Price was back in uniform the next day, three years and five months after he was first accused.

"Every day, we get a case in which a police officer has been suspended and spent years being demoralized," Immler said.

The department stresses that no misconduct, even losing paperwork, is too trivial to pursue.

A misplaced file forced prosecutors this month to offer a deal to a man charged with murder. He pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of three years -- the time he had served awaiting trial. The detective was not disciplined because he had put in for his retirement.

That, commanders say, is why seemingly trivial acts of negligence can affect public safety and are treated seriously.

"Police officers don't want a squad member who is an abuser, liar or a racist," said Robert W. Weinhold Jr., the department's chief spokesman. "A person with those contemptuous traits is extremely detrimental to the agency, the city and law enforcement profession."

Gone are the days when Gary May, who heads the department's Legal Affairs Office, was restricted to prosecuting two police officers a month. That unwritten directive caused unaddressed complaints to pile up by the hundreds, and Frazier ended the practice when he arrived in 1994.

Now, lawyers in May's office schedule a disciplinary hearing nearly every day; 90 hearings were on the calendar from October through December.

Frazier's new rules tolerate little: Firing is automatic in cases of domestic violence, filing a false report, making racial slurs, failing to report racism and hitting a handcuffed prisoner.

A through F

It falls to May to explain this at yearly police training classes. Every week, he or another lawyer stands before a group of officers in a classroom at the University of Baltimore. May scribbles the letters A through F on a chalkboard. Committing an A infraction means a talk with a supervisor. An F costs the officer his or her badge.

During one such lecture in October, May paces up and down the aisle, his voice growing in excitement at every turn of phrase. He trades law books and legalese for down-to-earth analogies: Call a drug dealer a jerk, he tells trainees, and it's no big deal. Call the pope a pimp, and you can hang up your uniform.

"Firefighters put out fires and save people," May tells them. "People like them. Public Works patches roads and fills potholes. People like them.

"Police officers arrest people, take their property away and write them tickets. People don't like you," he concludes.

May is a former police sergeant who prosecutes police. He is incredulous that some officers think they are above the law.

He gets only the cases that the investigation division sends him, and the division finds against the officer in fewer than 10 percent of the 2,200 complaints it investigates annually. Anecdotal evidence, May said, shows that officers believe half the complaints lodged against their colleagues are true and deserve punishment.

May has much more work now then he did in 1994, when only a dozen trial boards were held and an equal number of civil suits were filed against the department. Now, he schedules more than 200 administrative trials a year, and his staff of five also must defend the department in $4 billion worth of pending lawsuits.

The legal staff also has found itself fending off allegations that the department unfairly targets black officers for termination. An outside study accepted by the department found that from January 1994 to August 1996, the department forced out 115 officers by firing them or forcing them to quit or retire. Seventy, or almost 61 percent, were black. Overall, the department is almost 37 percent African-American.

And from 1985 to 1996 -- most of that time under black police commissioners -- 99 black officers and 37 white officers were fired. Blacks, who made up 20 percent to 30 percent of the department, were more than twice as likely to be fired as their white colleagues.

Frazier, who is white, halted the trial boards from August 1996 to November 1997 while trying to make the process fairer. Between the time the hearings resumed and last month, 20 white officers and 18 black officers were fired or forced to resign. May's office dropped another 37 cases -- 24 against black officers. Nine officers -- seven of them black -- have been found not guilty at trial boards.

Department commanders believe the problems before 1996 occurred at the district level, where supervisors, most of them white, tended to give white officers breaks while filing complaints against blacks.

"We ended up with disparate treatment," Sistrunk said. "It's not that we have entrenched or blatant racism. Disparate cases may get into the system because of the characteristics of front-line supervisors."

The new procedures are supposed to end disparate treatment by spelling out race-blind punishments for infractions. But sorting out complaints and their racial implications is not simple.

Sgt. Jerome E. Greer, who is black, was charged with asking one female colleague for a kiss and making profane sexual comments to another between February and June 1996. Greer quit last October rather than face his trial board, at which the department planned to seek his termination. Officer William J. Norango, who is white, gossiped about a supervisor's personal life and was suspended for a month.

Both officers complained their treatment was too harsh. Greer also said he was treated more severely than Norango because he is black. Department commanders said Greer's indiscretion amounted to sexual harassment, while Norango's did not.

Sgt. Leslie Edwards, who is black, was fired by Frazier in 1994 after being found guilty of sexual harassment in 1990 and 1991. Edwards said he was treated more severely than a white sergeant, who was convicted in 1991 of grabbing a female officer and pulling her onto his lap.

Then-Commissioner Edward V. Woods, who is black, ordered the white sergeant demoted and transferred. The officer sued, saying he had been treated more severely than black officers who committed the same offense. He lost.

The two cases point out the difficulty of determining who is wronged. Both sergeants claimed discrimination by commissioners of different races in similar cases.

For fired black officers who have protested outside City Hall and police headquarters and called for Frazier's ouster over racial issues, admission of past wrongs is not enough. They want their jobs back.

'Right your wrongs'

"If you're going to admit there is discrimination and a disparity in discipline, then you have to go back and right your wrongs," said Louis H. Hopson Jr., a fired sergeant and the subject of the EEOC ruling.

But not everyone blames Frazier, who has increased the percentage of black officers from 30 percent to 36 percent since 1994 and increased the number of black sergeants from 60 to more than 90.

"He created opportunities for some of us to take care of that [racial] mess," said Leonard Hamm, whom Frazier promoted to become the first black commander of the Central District and who is now the Baltimore school system's police chief.

"In a lot of cases, we didn't do it. We didn't have the courage to do what was proper. We were placed in positions to even the playing field," Hamm said.

Frazier was brought in from California five years ago to reinvigorate a department whose officers were seen as being unable or unwilling to deal with spiraling crime. As a sergeant in San Jose, Frazier was part of an elite squad that brought down 60 corrupt officers.

Every week, Frazier meets officers at the training class, often following May to the podium, where he answers questions ranging from proper uniform attire to discipline.

Frazier can turn a minor infraction into a fireable offense with a stroke of his pen. An officer may have committed an A violation, but Frazier can make it an F if he thinks aggravating circumstances exist.

Waybright was convicted of a C violation for hitting his prisoner and was given the maximum penalty -- a five-day suspension. But Frazier, considering the offense more serious than a C, fired him.

"I was convicted of a C one day and unemployed the next day," Waybright said. "The matrix is fair. The disparity is the way the command staff treats you."

Frazier fired Janice Epps because he thought she deserved harsher punishment for beating her son than the recommended one-month suspension. He fired Richard Heymann for uttering a racial slur, even though a trial board recommended he be sent home for eight days.

Epps, who is black, could not be reached for comment. But she has protested her firing outside City Hall and has said she is the victim of discrimination.

Heymann, who is white, denies uttering the slur and said he is the victim of reverse discrimination. He said Frazier increased the punishment to prove he was cracking down on discrimination.

But Frazier said he views certain violations with disdain. A racial slur, he said, is grounds for automatic termination.

"If you hit a handcuffed prisoner," he told a group of officers, "I don't care what punishment is recommended. I'm going to fire you."

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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