First praise, then blame

The Baltimore Sun

Sgt. Robert Smith believed the elite unit he commanded was doing good work.

It was early 2005 and crime in the distressed Southwest District was down, he said. Arrests were up.

"They were giving us awards from the commissioner's office," Smith said in an interview last week. "We were constantly getting certificates of achievement. ... They were commending us at Comstat on a weekly basis. We were rolling."

But within a year, top police officials disbanded the "flex squad" and labeled it a rogue operation. The failings of that squad - whose members had wide discretion on going after drug crimes - prompted commanders to rethink the way elite operations units were supervised across the city.

Police had begun investigating Smith's unit in late 2005 after a woman said she had been raped by one of its officers, whom prosecutors accused of demanding sex in exchange for freeing her on a drug charge. As part of that probe, detectives searched the squad's offices and found loose drugs and pornography stashed in desk drawers, according to a copy of the warrant affidavit obtained by The Sun last year.

According to the documents, the department accused members of "planting of controlled dangerous substances on citizens in an effort to knowingly make false arrests" and were "implicated in the theft of cellular phones belonging to arrestees."

Five officers, including Smith, were suspended in January 2006 and three faced criminal charges in connection with the alleged rape. One commander was moved to a desk job in Central Records and retired a short time later.

Smith was not charged with a crime, but his name surfaced publicly as the unit's commander. He sued the officers who wrote the search warrant application, alleging defamation.

In exchange for dropping the suit, city lawyers representing the Police Department offered in February to reinstate Smith with a letter of reprimand, according to a settlement letter.

Smith said he declined the offer and seven days later, he was hit with a new set of internal charges - including a sex offense at the police station on a day that he was on vacation and far from the scene of the crime.

"That is a high-tech lynching right there," Smith said in his interview.

Smith, a police officer since 1988, said it was unthinkable to see his name next to a charge linking him to a sex crime. "You could I say I broke down," he said. "I broke down. I mean emotionally. My stomach. It just felt like the bottom fell out of my stomach. I thought about how I feel about my career. For you to see your name dragged, scrutinized. It takes a lot out of you."

George Nilson, the city's top legal counsel, said in an interview last week: "By now it is clearly established that he was not present when the rape occurred."

Sources familiar with the internal discipline process have said that Smith's charging papers will be amended.

The way the department handled the case is prompting civic leaders and politicians to rally behind Smith. City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young sent a letter to the mayor and brought the police commissioner before a City Hall hearing last week.

The Vanguard Justice Society, a group that represents about 1,000 retired and active black officers, called for the resignation of the head of the Internal Investigation Division, Col. Walter Tuffy, as well as the department's top lawyer and her deputy. And the president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP is asking Mayor Sheila Dixon to initiate an outside review of the Police Department's disciplinary process.

In his interview, Smith defended his supervision of the flex squad.

He said X-rated videos found by the detectives who conducted the search were stored properly in boxes, and he denied that un-inventoried drugs were found in the offices.

Smith's attorney, Clarke Ahlers, said his client has been accused of using his office to commit drug crimes, of being a thief and a rapist, and of aiding and abetting other officers in committing sex crimes. "If he has done the things he is accused of doing, why isn't he in handcuffs?" Ahlers said. "They are trying to paint this guy as a crook."

Smith said he never wanted to be in charge of a flex squad. He said commanders ordered him to supervise people who had been hand-picked by someone else.

Allegations of wrongdoing first surfaced weeks after Smith took over the unit, about a year before the officers were raided. Smith said an Internal Investigation Division lieutenant told Smith they were watching two members of his squad: Vicki Mengel and Jemini Jones.

Smith said that he did not notice any suspicious behavior by either officer.

Mengel faced criminal gambling charges in a case unrelated to the flex squad. She pleaded not guilty and accepted probation before judgment. She resigned from the department in November 2006 for medical reasons, according to her lawyer, Ahlers. Jones was charged with rape, acquitted but later terminated from the department.

The only discipline problem Smith said he recalled was officers who didn't keep their court dates or keep their work space clean. At one point he said he saw a drug vial in a plastic baggie stuck to a bulletin board. There was an evidence control form attached to it with an off-color joke. Smith said he ordered it taken down, but it was later found when the unit was raided.

Smith said that he typically worked the day shift, while the squad he supervised worked the night shift.

In December 2005, Smith went on vacation, only to be interrupted three days after Christmas when Lt. Timothy Devine called.

"He said, 'We got problems. The office got raided last night,'" Smith recalled. "I said, 'My office? What are you talking about? I told my wife. I was really dumbfounded."

Smith was ordered back to work to find his office sealed, and he and others were escorted to an Internal Investigations office. "We had to give samples of our urine," he said. "We stayed there until our urine came back."

At first he was told that the unit was going to be disbanded, but he would be able to pick new people. Then he was sent back to patrol. Then he was told that his police powers were suspended and he had to report to an administrative post at the juvenile booking center.

Smith became worried that he was going be a fall guy. He said he recalls a union attorney telling him, "I hate to say this, but you are going to get thrown under the train."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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