Police fight to fix racism found in past; Several officers who were dismissed have been reinstated; 'We've got to move on'; EEOC wants city to create panel to review firings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Trying to rectify racial inequities in how Baltimore police are punished for wrongdoing, the department has restored the jobs or arrest powers of several officers with checkered employment histories.

They include four officers accused of peddling cocaine, groping women, lying in court and taking a swing at a colleague during a station house tussle.

More than two dozen more officers who feel they were unfairly disciplined or fired want their jobs back -- which could put officials in the uncomfortable position of trying to solve the problem while also assuring the public that its protectors are beyond reproach.

Department officials privately say that most officers who want to return have little chance, but stress they are committed to restoring racial harmony in a department historically rife with racial friction.

"There is no graceful way out of this," said Lt. Robert Richards, who was recently acquitted of sexual harassment charges and then settled a multimillion-dollar discrimination suit against the department in which he said racism played a role in his transfer from the helicopter unit.

"The department is going to have to bite the bullet," said Richards, whose discrimination case exposed years of festering racial tension. "We have to find some middle ground so we can capture as many of the disenfranchised as we can."

Alvin O. Gillard, chairman of the city's Community Relations Commission, which investigates discrimination complaints in municipal agencies, said the Police Department needs to rectify its troubled past even if it means returning some questionable officers to the force.

"It takes political guts to make the tough decisions," he said, adding that the Police Department needs "to make long-term changes that are going to be of a sustained benefit to the department and to the city."

A criminal defense attorney who has represented both arrestees and officers in trouble with the law expressed greater concern.

Warren A. Brown persuaded prosecutors to drop drug charges against Officer Christine Boyd, but expressed surprise when informed that his client returned to the force after a judge overturned her conviction on administrative charges of lying to investigators because of a procedural problem during her disciplinary hearing.

Detectives raided her Northeast Baltimore house in 1996 and found 14 bags of crack cocaine in the kitchen, where her police uniform was draped over a chair. Prosecutors said they were unable to link the drugs to Boyd and dropped the charges. They convicted her roommate.

"I can think of a lot of police officers who ought to be brought back," Brown said. "But Christine? Lord, have mercy. I hope she looks at this as a second chance, and not just as an entitlement."

Boyd, who has a long history of suspensions and criminal charges that include assault, was fired in 1998 for allegedly lying to investigators. The action against her was overturned this year by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge who found procedural mistakes in her disciplinary hearing.

Boyd could not be reached for comment after repeated attempts last week.

Another officer who had his police powers restored was Sgt. Louis H. Hopson Jr., who returned to work last July after he won a court ruling that concluded the city erred when it fired him for committing perjury on the witness stand.

Police officials are under considerable pressure from Mayor Martin O'Malley, City Council members, black officers and the federal government to end discrimination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded in 1998 the police force violated civil rights laws by punishing black officers more harshly than their white colleagues and retaliating against those who complained.

The EEOC wants city officials to set up a committee to evaluate all firings since 1991, something police commanders are reluctant to do. They believe most fired officers deserved to lose their jobs; the problem, they said, is that white officers who committed the same offenses were not fired.

Past and present police commanders say that one problem is that African-American officers are poorly represented in the mid-level supervisory ranks -- the first-line bosses for officers and among the first to handle complaints of wrongdoing.

Of 119 lieutenants, 11 are black. Only two are assigned to street patrol. Of 350 sergeants, 88 are black.

New Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris is finding himself in a predicament familiar to his predecessors, whose failures to deal with racism in the ranks fractured the department and became an embarrassing public spectacle. Top police commanders argue that in two of the cases, including Boyd's, Circuit Court judges forced the officers' return by throwing out their terminations and remanding the cases for another disciplinary hearing, called a trial board.

"We have to be bound by what the courts tell us," Norris said, referring to the return of two fired employees -- one of whom he reinstated and another brought back by his predecessor.

"We've got to move on. There are people with varying degrees of quality in the Police Department. I don't want to get involved in exacting justice on my own. I have to do whatever the courts say, whatever the trial boards say."

The department opted not to retry the cases, sources say, because it did not want to contribute to its backlog -- pending cases date back up to five years -- and was afraid that pursuing them would smack of retaliation. That decision cleared the way for the fired or disciplined officers to reclaim their guns and badges and resume patrolling city streets. One was promoted.

"I have reservations about certain people I'm going to promote, but I try to be as fair as possible," Norris said Tuesday, a day before a promotions ceremony. He stressed that everyone elevated in rank is on a year's probation.

"They're all going to be watched for their performance," the commissioner said. "But certainly some of those with poor disciplinary records will be watched more closely than others."

Norris has called supervisors the backbone of his effort to reduce crime in Baltimore, as they must keep officers in line and keep the troops focused on curbing crime. He has promised more command staff on the street to allay concerns that aggressive policing will turn abusive.

At the promotions ceremony Wednesday, Norris told a group of new sergeants and lieutenants that expectations are high. "You lead this agency," he said.

One of the promoted officers was Sgt. Sonia Young, who was reinstated last month after accepting a two-week suspension for striking out at a colleague, and a one-day suspension for accusing another colleague of racism. She could not be reached for comment last week.

Officer Gary McLhinney, the president of the police union, said the department needs to make discipline fair for everyone. He questioned whether fired officers who are lobbying Norris should be allowed to return.

"Some of the people don't deserve to be brought back," McLhinney said. "My hope is that the department comes up with a plan and does not resort to a quick fix that will hurt our agency in the long run."

Richards has never been convicted of wrongdoing, but he was put on desk duty for two months after he was charged with sexual harassment in March. He said it appears the department is moving in the right direction, but he wants quicker action.

"We need to move forward with deliberate haste," he said. "People are still suffering. The longer we take, the more harm is done."

The president of a black officers group has hailed the decisions to bring back the officers as a start toward repairing an internal disciplinary process that the federal government says violated civil rights laws for years.

"We're not opening the floodgates," said Sgt. Richard Hite, president of the Vanguard Justice Society. "What we are trying to do is bring fairness to a process and return officers who were unfairly treated."

From January 1994 through August 1996, 33 black officers were fired, compared with 11 white. An additional 24 black officers were forced to resign or face a termination hearing, compared with 12 white.

In August 1996, former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier halted disciplinary hearings for more than a year -- allowing more than 200 cases to back up -- to change the system to make it fairer. From November 1997 though October 1998, 18 black and 18 white officers were fired -- the most recent figures available.

Frazier moved to lessen discretion on disciplinary actions. Lieutenants and sergeants were stripped of their authority to handle minor cases, and everything from alleged brutality to an officer wearing the wrong color socks was turned into a full-blown investigation at headquarters.

Detectives who were supposed to ferret out corruption became embroiled in interoffice disputes with officers who used the department's disciplinary process to settle personal scores.

Norris is changing the system back. Mid-level supervisors once again have the power to hand out discipline for minor infractions, leaving public integrity and corruption cases to Internal Affairs.

"I think that recent events indicate that we are serious about cleaning up the level of vengeance that exists in this department," said Sean Malone, the police agency's chief legal counselor, who is in charge of prosecuting officers for wrongdoing.

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