Crime Scenes: Police ethics questioned over Rice autograph

Back in the mid-1990s, when I covered the daily cop beat, I got pulled over by a Baltimore police officer.

I can't recall the infraction, but I'm sure I had done whatever it was the officer said I had done. He approached, and then noticed my police press card on the dash.

The officer told me how he had been on a police motorcycle leading Pope John Paul II's procession into Baltimore during the pontiff's visit in October 1995, and how he would love to have a copy of a picture we ran in the newspaper.

He could've easily called our sales office and purchased the photo like any other reader. But he had a captive Baltimore Sun reporter, and he asked me if I could get him the picture.

The cop didn't expressly say it was in exchange for escaping a ticket. But even unspoken, the expectations seemed pretty clear. I told him I could get him the picture, but he would have to write me a ticket.

The officer refused, and I begged, and he refused again. He handed me a business card and drove off. I immediately reported back to my bosses, who sent the officer a framed picture of the papal parade.

Reporters are told to avoid not only a conflict of interest but the appearance of conflict. And this scenario certainly fits this definition. But it's also small-time. It's not exactly corruption. Just a routine encounter in which a city worker used an opportunity to obtain a trivial memento.

Was the cop wrong? Should he have been disciplined? Should I have written about this before now? Or filed a complaint? Should any of us even care?

I recalled this episode because of what happened last week with Ravens running back Ray Rice. A Baltimore County officer stopped the star player in the parking lot of an Owings Mills shopping center because the tint on the windows of his white Range Rover appeared to be darker than the law allows.

Two hours after the encounter, Rice posted this on Twitter: "Just got pulled over for my tints … but gave the officer a autograph for his son and he let me go."

Rice quickly pulled the post down and clarified his story. He told reporters that he got a verbal warning and then offered his autograph for the officer's son, an avid Ravens fan. Rice and, later, a county police spokesman said the officer did not ask for the player's signature.

Even if there was no quid pro quo, should the officer have accepted the autograph? In other words, should the officer have accepted a gift from a citizen he's investigating for a possible crime? Even if that crime is a traffic infraction? Even if the gift is just an autograph?

Lt. Robert McCullough, the chief spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department, said the officer "treated Mr. Rice no differently than he would have treated any other motorist."

The agency has rules forbidding officers from accepting gratuities, but McCullough told me, "This was not a gift of monetary value." I'm sure the officer didn't even think beyond bringing a smile to his son's face, and who could begrudge a cop who puts his life on the line to protect us from accepting a token of appreciation every now and then?

Robbie Davis, the owner of Robbie's 1st Base in Lutherville, said Rice's is the Ravens' third-most-sought-after autograph after Ray Lewis and Joe Flacco. And he said Rice just signed an exclusive deal with a New York marketing company.

"A Ray Rice autograph, a week ago, was worth maybe $50," Davis told me. "Over the weekend, because of the deal, it's probably worth $100 now."

That's not all. It's unclear what item Rice put his signature on, but Davis said if it was the back of a police ticket book or any paper or item that would be exclusive to police work, the signature could be worth substantially more than $100.

"It's unique, Davis said. "If I had that autograph from that policeman, I could get a thousand bucks for it."

Cops certainly have been accused of far worse than accepting an autograph from a professional football player. In recent years, city police officers have been charged with helping drug dealers, planting evidence and improperly storing drugs in desk drawers, not to mention shooting people.

But it's some of the more trivial things that irritate people and get them thinking that cops can use their badges for personal gain with impunity.

They see a cop flip on his flashing lights to go through a red light and then turn them off once he's through the intersection. They see a Howard County officer parked in a handicapped space while drinking coffee. The officer had apparently been writing a report on a crime at a store, but did she have to park in that particular spot?

I've been out with plenty of cops who routinely get free coffee at convenience stores. Should we care that a police officer gets a 79-cent cup of bitter java on the house? Probably not, but for the clerks its more than a simple gesture of good will and friendliness.

They give out free coffee to attract cops who by their mere presence protect the store from robbers. The stores that give out the free coffee are, in effect, buying free protection.

As a reporter, I'm not allowed to ask for autographs from people I cover. It would seem weird anyway, asking questions and then asking for a favor. Reporters get gifts all the time, and we're supposed to decline them, return them or give them to an office manager who donates them to charity.

Police in Baltimore city have a detailed rules book that addresses ethics. For example, cops on the job are allowed to ride buses for free, but the rules tell them they "are not permitted to be seated while other passengers are standing."

Cops in the city are not permitted, while on duty or in uniform, to "enter bars, taverns or other liquor establishments" unless they're on a call or investigating a crime. They aren't allowed to bring playing cards into a station house.

And the big one: "No compensation, reward, gift, or other consideration, shall be solicited or accepted by members without special permission of the police commissioner."

That rule got a Baltimore police officer in trouble back in 1998. A community group in Northwest Baltimore slipped $100 bills into envelopes at an awards banquet. Written on the envelopes was "Do not open until you get home."

One of the three officers felt uncomfortable and said he tried to return the money. The department said the officer only returned the money after his commanders asked questions. The officer quit the force as the investigation unfolded, and all officers were ordered to return the cash.

Sports tickets cost two Baltimore cops their jobs in 1997. They pleaded guilty to using their badges to take from scalpers 22 tickets to an Orioles-Yankees playoff game. Instead of arresting the scalpers and putting the tickets into evidence, they took their wives and neighbors to the game.

That's certainly different from accepting an autograph from a player or a free cup of coffee from a clerk behind the counter at a convenience store. It's more like stealing money from a drug dealer. But the allure of freebies leads some people to bad decisions, and habits that start small tend to grow.

A Ray Rice signature for the officer's son is indeed a nice gesture and sweet story. A Ray Rice signature on a slice of police paperwork that ends up in a frame and sold for $1,000 at a sports store in Lutherville would raise a few more questions.

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