The Baltimore Police Department’s marine unit wasted more than $30,000 in 2016 to salvage a damaged boat in the Inner Harbor, putting officers’ safety and city property at risk when a no-cost state program was available, the city’s Office of the Inspector General found.
The investigation began after an officer reported his concerns to the office after being rebuffed when trying to inform his superiors. His complaint and the investigation have resulted in greater oversight of the marine unit, and the department no longer salvages boats, according to the inspector general’s office and police.
“In this particular situation, the department didn’t do things in the most financially prudent way at all,” and officers stepped beyond their expertise, city Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming said in an interview Wednesday.
“It ended up costing the city in many different ways" including the use of personnel and the cost to hire a private truck to tow the boat after it was salvaged, she said.
None of that was necessary. A program administered by the state Department of Natural Resources that removes abandoned boats from public waterways could have been used at no cost to Baltimore taxpayers, the report said.
The investigation could not determine who gave authorization for the unit to remove a 32-foot boat from the Inner Harbor near Thames Street, due to “conflicting accounts” between senior BPD commanders, midlevel managers and a supervisor, the report released Wednesday found.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison wrote in a response to the report that managers are now required to visit and inspect operations at the BPD’s marine facility in Canton “multiple times per week.” The marine unit supervisor must submit a weekly calendar to supervisors detailing events the unit participates in. Harrison also promised that officers assigned to the unit will be properly trained.
In addition, Harrison said the department’s Public Integrity Bureau will review the incident and make “appropriate disciplinary recommendations.”
The department no longer salvages boats, police spokesman Matt Jablow said.
The inspector general’s office began its investigation after it received a tip about waste from Officer Jeffry E. Taylor, who had previously been assigned to the unit, according to a lawsuit filed by Taylor in U.S. District Court in December 2018.
“In this particular situation, the department didn’t do things in the most financially prudent way at all.”— Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming
Taylor alleges he was retaliated against for expressing his concerns and wrongly removed from the unit, the complaint said.
The defendants named in the suit are former police commissioners Kevin Davis, Darryl De Sousa and Gary Tuggle, as well as members of the marine unit, including the unit’s supervising officer, Sgt. Kurt Roepcke.
In the complaint, Taylor, who had been assigned to the marine unit since 2015, alleges Roepcke ordered officers to salvage a boat identified as the Danger Zone after a resident at the Tidewater Village Apartments complained about the boat being an eyesore. The complaint alleges the resident was an acquaintance of then-Col. Melissa Hyatt, who has since been appointed the chief of Baltimore County Police. She was not named as a defendant.
Taylor told Roepcke that the department shouldn’t get involved in a salvage operation and suggested they call a salvage company to remove the boat, the complaint said. Taylor also said that the boat wasn’t illegally anchored.
Despite Taylor’s concerns, the complaint said the unit continued with the salvage, which ultimately damaged the boat by “impaling it on a piling, causing oil, gas, and/or other dangerous liquids to contaminate the Baltimore harbor."
Taylor said several residents complained about how the situation was being handled, causing him to reach outside the unit, but he was “ostracized, threatened, teased and subjected to severe and pervasive harassment and retaliation by defendant Roepcke and other BPD officers,” the complaint said.
A settlement conference has been scheduled for next month.
Taylor’s lawyer, Jo Anna Schmidt, said Wednesday that “the concerns were previously reported to the police department and no one really conducted an investigation into it. We’re very pleased that the Office of the Inspector General investigated."
Jablow said Wednesday that Roepcke is still in charge of the unit, which includes six officers. He declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing department policy not to comment on pending cases.
The department has struggled in the past with a culture of not speaking out against officer wrongdoing. In 2016, the city approved a $42,000 settlement for Officer Joseph Crystal, who told prosecutors in 2014 he saw fellow officers assault a man. Crystal later found a rat on the windshield of his car and resigned, he said.
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Harrison has said he wants to bring to Baltimore an integrity program he used in New Orleans while he was superintendent of that department. The Ethical Policing Is Courageous (EPIC) program trains and empowers officers to intervene in potential misconduct before it happens.
The OIG report said officers worked to remove the boat for several days over the course of several months, starting in December 2016.
The report said the police department paid more than $7,300 to hire a private company that used a crane, a heavy-duty tow truck and a flatbed tractor trailer to remove the boat from the water and haul it away.
Also, an officer was reimbursed for spending $900 on a chainsaw that can be used underwater. The report said the unnamed officer gave false information to his commander regarding the purchase of the chainsaw, telling a supervisor that a vendor allowed him to to borrow it when he had already purchased it using his credit card.
Michael Snyder, a city resident who said he regularly rides a bike near where the boat docked said he watched for several weeks as police officers tried to remove it, and he took video of the process, which was used by the inspector general’s office in its investigation.
Snyder said he questioned why police got involved.
"Why is the police department is trying to salvage the boat? There was no emergency,” he said in an interview Wednesday. "They ultimately got it up, but it came up in a million pieces. They basically destroyed the boat. The whole thing was ridiculous.”