In an unusual move, Baltimore prosecutors have charged a 21-year-old man with filing a false brutality complaint against a city police officer -- an action that drew praise from the police commissioner but concern from a civil liberties group.
Michael W. Connell of the 2800 block of Hampden Ave. is charged with two counts of making false statements to police about alleged beatings by officers last September.
Connell is also accused of filing a false complaint to the city's civilian review board, prosecutors said, but he has not been charged in that incident. Connell, who is in jail pending a trial on robbery charges in another case, could not be reached for comment.
Police and prosecutors said they could not recall the last time someone was charged with filing a false brutality complaint.
Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said yesterday that he was pleased by the decision to prosecute Connell, who was charged in a criminal information filed Friday.
"We don't mind when the complaints are warranted," Norris said. "But so many people know how to manipulate the system and are willing to make false allegations. ... This means a lot to us."
Union officials were pleased.
"This is extremely important," said Gary McLhinney, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police. "The whole process breaks down with the magnitude of false complaints we receive. ... I think this sends a very strong message."
Through June, 169 excessive force complaints and 109 discourtesy complaints were filed against Baltimore police officers. Last year, 390 excessive force complaints and 196 discourtesy complaints were filed. The majority of those cases were found to be baseless, police said.
Connell was arrested Sept. 2 after an officer saw him driving a motorcycle in North Baltimore without a helmet and in a "reckless manner," police said.
Police took Connell to the Central Booking and Intake Center in a van, officials said. When officers opened the doors to the van at central booking, Connell began "flailing away" and banging his head several times against the van, said prosecutor A. Thomas Krehely.
Connell said he was having an asthma attack, so the officers took him to Mercy Medical Center for treatment, officials said.
There he was "combative" and "threatening the lives" of hospital workers, police said. Connell also began complaining about police brutality, and the officers called for their supervisor, officials said.
Connell told the supervisor, Lt. Ernie Meadows, that the police van pulled over halfway to Central Booking and an officer beat him five or six times on the face, officials said.
Connell later told the supervisor that two officers beat him at the same location before the van continued to Central Booking, according to a report police filed with the review board.
At the hospital, a nurse told police that she saw Connell bashing his eyes with his knees, according to the report.
Police then put Connell in restraints, officials said, before he was treated and taken to Central Booking, where he was charged with the unauthorized use of a motorcycle, reckless endangerment and second-degree assault. That case is pending.
In December, Connell wrote a complaint to the civilian review board that contradicted earlier statements to police, said Krehely, declining to elaborate.
The maximum penalty for filing a false report is six months in jail and a $500 fine, Krehely said.
Krehely said he was not seeking to send a message by charging Connell.
"This one sort of leapt out at me," said Krehely, who also handles the prosecution of police officers charged with criminal misconduct. "It's unusual. ... We have the observation of a nurse. We have his own conflicting statements."
Krehely said he didn't think charging Connell would deter others from filing complaints. But civil libertarians weren't so sure.
"The state's attorney's office should give consideration to whether they want to cast a chill on people pursuing police misconduct" allegations, said Dwight Sullivan, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland.
Though Sullivan said he could not comment specifically on Connell's case, he said that "there really is a concern that someone may not come forward with truthful allegations because they heard that someone went to jail alleging police misconduct."
The Rev. Gregory Perkins, president of Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said that the charges could have a chilling effect -- but that city residents have already lost faith in police discipline.
"I don't see this as being a watershed that will all of the sudden have people afraid to come forward for fear of being charged," Perkins said. "They have no faith in the system whatsoever."