Two and a half years after allegations surfaced that an elite Baltimore police unit had become a rogue operation, the city did an about-face, agreeing yesterday to pay the squad's supervisor a six-figure settlement and issuing a rare public apology, calling him "a law-abiding" and "dedicated" police officer.
The move was an extraordinary development in a probe into the Southwest District's "flex squad" that began when a woman accused an officer of raping her in a police district station in late 2005. The police commissioner disbanded the squad, launched annual audits of flex squads citywide and suspended six officers, including three who were indicted on criminal charges.
Ultimately, one officer was acquitted of rape, criminal charges against others were dropped and the city is now paying $290,000 to Sgt. Robert L. Smith, former Officer Vicki Mengel and their attorney to settle a $1.5 million civil suit the accused officers had filed against the police department.
No charges have been brought as a result of allegations raised by city police officers that flex unit members had left drugs lying about the office and that members had planted drugs on suspects and made false arrests.
Those allegations surfaced after the woman accused Officer Jemini Jones of raping her in the station house and were contained in a search warrant application obtained by The Sun . Jones was acquitted by a jury, and prosecutors dropped charges against two other officers who were accused of helping him.
Smith, whose name was mentioned in the warrant, was later brought up on departmental charges in connection with the alleged attack on the woman and how he supervised the squad, even though he was away on vacation at the time. Mengel's name was also in the warrant, accusing her of using her position to commit illegal acts.
About an hour after approving the payout at the weekly Board of Estimates meeting yesterday, a city attorney released a statement apologizing to Smith, who was cleared of the administrative sex offense charge. In the same statement, the department "expresses regret" that Mengel was named in the warrant even though she'd been transferred out of the Southwestern District months before it was served. Smith will be paid $200,000, Mengel $50,000 and attorney Clarke F. Ahlers $40,000.
"The city solicitor's office and the Police Department and the attorneys gave settlements in a way that people can go back and live their lives," Mayor Sheila Dixon said at her weekly news conference. "So I'm comfortable."
Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the Police Department, said that there were still some internal charges pending against some officers involved with the flex squad. He declined to elaborate.
Mengel left the department after she accepted probation before judgment on a criminal gambling charge. Smith had been detailed to the department's housing unit and was working with suspended police powers. Officials said he now would be assigned to the Warrant Apprehension Task Force.
Reached yesterday, he said: "It's been a long battle. ... When you attack my name and my credibility, I had no other recourse but to fight."
He said he broke down and cried when his friends in the department recently threw him a surprise luncheon to celebrate. And he's got plans to go to Wal-Mart and buy a frame so he can display the department's apology on his dining room wall.
The apology, titled a "Joint Statement" between the officers and the Police Department, says: "The Baltimore Police Department apologizes to Sgt. Robert L. Smith for any statements made by members suggesting he had committed, or may have committed, a drug offense or sex offense. Sgt. Smith is, and has been, a law-abiding, dedicated police officer who has served well the citizens of Baltimore City."
About Mengel, the statement says: "The Baltimore Police Department expresses regret that former Police Detective Vicki Mengel's name was included in the Application for a Search Warrant."
The statement also appears to placate the officers who wrote an affidavit for the search-and-seizure warrant. It singles them out by name, saying that Mengel and Smith apologize to Sgt. Scott Danielczyk and Detective John P. Jendrek for suggesting that they lied during their investigation. Both officers were named in the suit filed by Smith and Mengel.
Smith and Mengel agreed in the statement that those internal affairs officers "acted in good faith in conducting their investigation."
Tim Dixon, a defense attorney who is not connected with the case, said that internal affairs detectives would benefit from additional investigative training. They also, he said, ought to improve their mechanism for screening which cases should be brought up for charges and which do not rise to that level.
"There was a culture there under that commander to sustain something against everyone," said Dixon, who was a city police lieutenant before he became an attorney. "There was a culture of vindictiveness among the commanders of the Internal Investigations Division at that time. More police officers should stand up and fight for their rights and this would not happen."
Police announced recently that that the commander, Walter J. Tuffy, will retire soon. His replacement has not yet been named.