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Questions raised for years about city 'flex squad'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On the streets, they're known as "knockers" for their aggressive style. The Baltimore Police Department calls them "flex squads" - teams of officers given the freedom to chase down suspected criminals in neighborhoods dominated by drug dealing and violence.

But as one flex squad's officers cruised the Southwestern District, questions mounted about their activities. Defense attorneys, prosecutors and community members say they have heard for years about allegations of misconduct that included planted drugs and troublesome practices about how suspects were treated and charged.

A woman's allegation that one member of the flex squad forced her to have sex in exchange for her freedom has opened a more expansive inquiry into a squad whose members, according to a search warrant affidavit, kept heroin, cocaine and marijuana stashed in their desk drawers and lockers.

Police commanders disbanded the squad, suspended the officers and replaced each of its seven members.

A Sun review of court and other records shows that allegations of wrongdoing have dogged some of the squad's members for several years:

In a warrant police used to search the flex squad office last month, investigators noted that previous allegations against Officers Jemini Jones and Vicki Mengel "have been made as to the planting of controlled dangerous substances on citizens in an effort to knowingly make false arrests."

The warrant, obtained by The Sun, also states that two officers "have been implicated in the theft of cellular phones belonging to arrestees."

During a court case last year, a public defender accused Jones of using strikingly similar language in more than 30 charging documents. City public defenders wrote a letter to prosecutors pointing out the formulaic nature of the paperwork, which they said "is more than coincidental," raising concerns that the charges were contrived. Prosecutors responded that they saw no problem with Jones' work.

Prosecutors were so troubled by the possible role that Mengel played in an April 2004 shooting that they recommended police not charge the suspect. Witnesses reported that Mengel and another officer had dropped off a teenager who was wearing his gang colors in rival gang territory. The teen was beaten, and he returned days later and shot somebody.

Three officers were indicted Jan. 6 on rape charges. Three others, including the squad's supervisor, Sgt. Robert Smith, have been implicated in wrongdoing. Mengel is facing gambling charges in an unrelated case.

Prosecutors have compiled a list of about 375 District Court and Circuit Court cases investigated by the officers indicted on the rape charges, saying they are no longer credible witnesses.

"This places a dark cloud over policing," said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, a lifelong Southwest Baltimore resident and a former pastor of the First Baptist Church in East Baltimore. "It enhances the mistrust that citizens already have of police. It makes citizens more reluctant to work with them."

Judging other squads

The inquiry in the Southwest has prompted concern about flex squads in other districts - each of the nine has at least one. In a statement, the Police Department said it was examining "all practices and procedures" of every district's "flex" and drug enforcement units.

A department spokesman said that internal affairs will soon begin conducting annual evaluations of every officer in those units.

"There is no issue more important to me than restoring and maintaining the integrity of this department," Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said in the statement. "I am well aware that my officers will need the trust of the people they serve to continue making Baltimore a safer city. I simply will not tolerate officers who fail to abide by our high standards."

Troubles in the flex squad became public this month with the disclosure of the rape allegation.

Jones, 28; Steven P. Hatley, 27; and Brian J. Shaffer, 28, have been charged with rape, conspiracy to rape, sexual offense, assault and violation of official duties.

Court documents allege that the three brought two women, ages 18 and 22, to the stationhouse in handcuffs two days after Christmas.

Jones is accused of raping the 22-year-old in exchange for not charging her, and the other officers are accused of doing nothing to stop it.

The woman told investigators that after the incident, she was driven back to her neighborhood and given back her drugs.

Kenneth W. Ravenell, who said he has been hired by the 22-year-old to "protect her interests," said another woman reported several months ago "improper sexual behavior" by some of the district's flex squad officers.

He said that woman - the girlfriend of one of his clients - was interviewed last week by prosecutors, who he said are investigating.

Supervisor suspended

Police announced Friday that Smith, the sergeant who guided the squad, was suspended for failure to supervise. He was on vacation when the alleged rape occurred.

Officer Valentine Nagovich was also suspended for improper handling of property.

Officer Mohammed Ali was suspended, though police have not said why.

Mengel was suspended in November when she was caught at a police bust of a high-stakes poker game in Northeast Baltimore.

The three officers who have been indicted on rape charges were suspended without pay.

While investigating the rape allegation, police said in an affidavit, they seized 11 bags of suspected cocaine from Shaffer's duffel bag, a bag with a gel capsule and a white pill from Hatley's desk drawer and two plastic baggies with a green leaf substance suspected to be marijuana from the pocket of the police jacket of Nagovich.

Tacked on a wall of the flex squad's office wall was an orange-topped vial with powder residue suspected to be heroin, the affidavit said.

No drug charges have been filed, and police and prosecutors say they are investigating.

Warren A. Brown, who represents Jones, said his client is "a person accused of committing a crime he did not do." He said no trace evidence was found on the office chair that was allegedly the scene of part of the rape of the 22-year-old.

He said Jones is "absolutely" not involved in drug possession, stealing or planting evidence. Attorneys for Shaffer and Hatley - who have police union representation - and Mengel did not return calls late last week.

None of the officers could be reached for comment.

Defense lawyer Margaret Mead said her clients have been complaining for three years about Southwestern District plainclothes officers in units such as the flex squad. About six months ago, she said, internal affairs officers began interviewing several of her clients.

"They're out-of-control cowboys," Mead said of the squad. "They're thugs."

Other lawyers, both prosecutors and defense attorneys, say the Southwestern District, fueled by a flex squad with a rogue reputation, is regarded as the Animal House of the Police Department.

Flex squads are so named because the officers are expected to work flexible hours and commanders can use them in different ways. Like drug enforcement officers, flex officers can operate in uniform or in plainclothes, and they typically drive unmarked vehicles.

Current and former police officials say flex squads require intense supervision because the officers often use a high degree of discretion in their street encounters with people.

"When you're on a flex squad, you're going fishing," said a former top commander in the Baltimore Police Department, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he still works in law enforcement. "And you're going to the prime fishing spots. You're going where the drugs are; you're going where the guns are."

South of Edmondson Avenue near the western Baltimore City line are boarded-up houses, memorials to slain gang members and young men calling out warnings that officers are coming.

In these neighborhoods, it seems, everybody knows the flex squad - and knows its reputation.

"They put stuff on you," said Marlon Harris, a 21-year-old Southwest Baltimore resident whose criminal record includes several drug arrests. "Knockers want you to give up a gun or a house, and they'll let you go. They're dirty.

"It was just a matter of time before they got caught. I'm glad."

Harris and several other young men and women standing in front of a rowhouse on Normandy Street tick off the names of several officers they say are problematic.

"You can talk to 30 people - they're all going to tell you the same thing," Davien Ewing, 23, said about a former flex officer who, he claims, "puts drugs on people." Ewing has been arrested for drug violations several times, court records show.

Both men say police routinely take cell phones and offer to release people they have arrested if they turn in a gun or give information about a house where drugs might be stashed.

Brown, Jones' attorney, said the allegations that his client and other officers frame people by planting drugs on them are "hyperbole." And he said it is curious that police would make such a statement on an affidavit for a search warrant.

"If they thought officers were involved in all kinds of shenanigans, then why didn't they bring that to the attention of the state's attorney's office, and why were these officers allowed to continue testifying?" Brown said. "That just doesn't make sense."

Recurring theme

Public defenders have long had questions about the way Jones writes police reports. They say he treats charging documents as if they were "mad libs," using the same basic language in each instance of a suspect's dropping or tossing drugs when an officer is approaching.

In a drug possession with intent to distribute trial last year in Baltimore Circuit Court, public defender Marie Sennett made Jones read 30 statements of probable cause aloud to a jury, underlining the similarities among the documents.

"Either everybody has butterfingers when they're around Jemini Jones, or I don't know what," Sennett said during the hearing, in which she persuaded Circuit Judge Althea M. Handy to allow her to challenge Jones' credibility in front of the jury.

"He is using the same story over and over and over again," she said. "The same thing can't be happening every time."

The jury acquitted Sennett's client.

Months later, in a March 9 letter to Assistant State's Attorney Thomas Krehely, the public defender's office alerted prosecutors to Jones' formulaic writing.

Defenders received a letter back April 25, 2005, from Krehely, who prosecutes police corruption cases:

"I have concluded that there is no basis, at this time, to initiate a criminal investigation of Officer Jones. ... We consider this matter closed."

The Sun reviewed more than 60 statements of probable cause in Jones' Circuit Court cases. In all but about a dozen, Jones used slight variations of the sentence, "Upon the def taking notice of our car and same realizing we were police officers as we pulled up beside him, I observed same def drop ..."

While testifying in Sennett's case, Jones said that "almost more than 90 percent" of the hundreds of arrests he has made involve suspects dropping drugs when they saw him.

"They tend to believe that if they drop it, they're not in possession of it," he testified.

Prosecutors questioned the behavior of another member of the flex squad in a March 2004 incident.

In late March, according to court documents, Mengel and another officer arrested a 17-year-old on suspicion of drug possession. But instead of taking Darrell Ashe to jail, the officers dropped him off in rival gang territory, according to interviews with witnesses that are noted in court documents.

Ashe, who was wearing the Edmondson Village crew's green bandanas tied around his head and arms, was severely beaten at Baltimore and Hilton streets, the documents state. Ashe returned days later, March 31, with a gun and shot rival gang member Shane Dorsey in the arm.

Officers said Ashe had asked to be dropped in that area because he told them he stayed with his grandmother. But even his shooting victim said it was unlikely that Ashe would have asked to be dropped off in rival gang territory, because it was so unsafe.

After reading statements by Dorsey, Ashe and several people who claimed to have witnessed the drop-off, prosecutors recommended that police hold off on seeking an arrest warrant for Ashe.

"[The prosecutor] will not give permission to obtain a warrant ... because he believes that this case has some departmental issues that need to be resolved," one police progress report states.

Police arrested Ashe anyway and charged him as an adult in connection with the shooting. The case was transferred to Juvenile Court, where he pleaded guilty and was sent to a juvenile facility in Pennsylvania.

Poor attendance

According to prosecutor statistics, Southwestern District officers have the third-worst record of the nine police districts for officers showing up in court. Last year, the officers missed 362 court appearances, the statistics show.

Together, the recently disbanded flex squad accounted for 25 absences.

Reasons the officers gave, according to prosecutors, included "Officer said he was too busy to come to court" (referring to Jones) and "Officer did not return [prosecutor's] phone calls" (referring to Mengel).

A review of the department's general orders also shows that the officers in the flex unit diverged greatly from written procedures in allowing drugs, weapons and other items to be left lying around the office.

"None of this is particularly unique," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who is a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "Any time you have a unit that makes its own rules, you'll have problems."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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