Baltimore police union VP suspended for email calling protesters 'thugs'

Baltimore police union VP suspended after calling protesters 'thugs'

A high-ranking official in the Baltimore police union with a history of making controversial statements — and getting disciplined for it — has once again landed in hot water, after suggesting protesters of a Maryland Fraternal Order of Police conference at the Inner Harbor on Sunday were "thugs" involved in violence.

Lt. Victor Gearhart, first vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 in Baltimore, was suspended by Police Commissioner Kevin Davis on Monday morning after writing the comments in an email that he sent to the entire police department using his official department email account, according to sources familiar with the incident who were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

In the email, Gearhart said union members attending the state FOP conference should "expect more bad behavior from the THUGS OF BALTIMORE," referring to the protesters — a dozen of whom were arrested for trespassing at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore on Sunday.

"On the bright side maybe they will stop killing each other while they are protesting us," Gearhart wrote.

The biennial FOP conference runs through Wednesday, according to an online agenda.

Sunday's protest was not violent, police said. Those arrested had gathered at the hotel to protest the conference following the release last week of a scathing report by the Justice Department that found Baltimore police routinely violate individuals' constitutional rights. Protesters, including from the groups Baltimore Bloc and the Black Youth Project 100, also wore shirts that read "Justice 4 Korryn Gaines," referring to a 23-year-old woman who was fatally shot by Baltimore County police in her Randallstown apartment earlier this month.

Gaines was killed by police fire, and her 5-year-old son was wounded, after county police responded to her apartment to serve her with a warrant for failing to appear in court on a traffic violation and other misdemeanor charges. Police say Gaines refused to come out of her apartment, threatened officers and raised a shotgun at them. Activists have demanded more information about the circumstances and the actions of police.

T.J. Smith, a Baltimore Police spokesman, said Davis was "outraged" by the email Gearhart sent, which is now the subject of an internal investigation. Smith said he could not confirm or comment on personnel matters, including an officer's suspension.

Gearhart, reached by phone Monday afternoon, declined to comment. Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the FOP Lodge 3, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

In addition to criticizing the protesters, Gearhart dismissed the Justice Department's findings for "lack of scholarly objectivity and lack of statistical rigor."

Gearhart blamed the "POLITICIZATION of Crime Fighting" on past politicians who demanded officers arrest people on minor offenses. Gearhart also said the Justice Department report was "heavy on anecdotes from questionable characters and light on provable facts."

Gearhart's suspension is not his first time running afoul of department officials.

In January, Gearhart was reassigned from patrol work to building security after engaging in an argument with activists on social media, after the activists pointed out past tweets he had written using a personal Twitter account. They called the tweets "offensive" and racist, and called for Gearhart to be fired.

Gearhart had called protesters "thugs" in that incident as well, among other comments. At the time, Gearhart said his statements on Twitter did not represent the department. "It's my private opinions," he said.

Davis at the time said Gearhart's comments did not "reflect the values" of the department, and reassigned Gearhart to the security role.

Afterward, the union and Gearhart sued the police department in federal court, alleging his reassignment and the department's social media policy governing officers' online activities are unconstitutional.

Baltimore Police instituted a five-page social media policy in November that prohibits members from posting on their personal social media pages "any discriminatory, gratuitously violent or similarly inappropriate written content, audio files, photographs, or other depictions that are contrary to the mission and effectiveness of the BPD."

Michael Davey, Gearhart's attorney in the federal case — which is pending — declined to comment on his suspension on Monday.

Police on Monday also identified the protesters who were arrested at the Hyatt on Sunday as Zachary Zwagil, 30, of Pikesville; Justin Johnson, 18, of Ellicott City; Payam Omid Sohrabi, 26, of Columbia; Kerridwen Rice, 39, of Montgomery County; Asha Ransby-Sporn, 22, of Chicago; Brendan Orsinger, 34, Tracye Redd, 24, and Jonathan Lykes, 26, of Washington, D.C.; and Samuel Didnato, 24, Marcella Largess, 30, Margaret Rice, 21, and Lenora Knowles, 27, of Baltimore.

Protesters gathered at the Baltimore city FOP Lodge 3 building on Monday as well.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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