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Policing the force

Those who are sworn to enforce the law have a special obligation to obey it. That should be the cardinal rule for any police department, and the prison sentence handed down this week for a Baltimore officer who took kickbacks from a Rosedale body shop should help make sure his colleagues on the force get the message.

Officer David Reeping was sentenced to eight months in federal prison Tuesday after he confessed to participating in an extortion scheme in which he and other officers received thousands of dollars in payments for illegally referring accident victims to a towing company that was not authorized to do business with the city. Prosecutors charged that in exchange for the payments, some officers falsified official reports and even deliberately damaged cars to increase the amount the repair shop could claim from insurance companies.

In imposing a prison term rather than some lesser punishment, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake acknowledged that Mr. Reeping had played a relatively small role in what was a wide-ranging conspiracy involving dozens of officers. But she insisted the sentence was appropriate because of its potential to deter others from committing misdeeds and because it was essential to maintaining public confidence in the police. "We have got to, as a community, hold our sworn police officers to a high standard," she said. "We must be able to trust their integrity."

Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who was present at the sentencing, has made rooting out corruption in the department one of his top priorities. He compared the pain of investigating criminal misconduct among his officers to punching himself in the eye, but he nevertheless vowed to redouble the department's efforts to rid itself of what he calls "knuckleheads" who are unworthy to wear the uniform. He oversaw the department's internal investigation section that uncovered the illegal payments and brought in the FBI to back it up.

Mr. Bealefeld can expect more black eyes for the department over the coming months stemming from police misconduct probes that are still pending. Mr. Reeping was just the first of 16 officers charged in the kickback scheme to be sentenced. That an officer who was among the least culpable must serve time in prison rather than on home detention or parole suggests that the others, who have either pleaded guilty or are awaiting trial, may face even stiffer penalties.

In addition to those cases, charges have been filed against an officer in the Eastern District alleged to be the kingpin of a heroin ring and against another officer accused of attempted theft from a grocery store. A third officer was suspended from duty this month when police opened an investigation into his conduct in the aftermath of the shooting death of a 13-year-old girl.

To his credit, Commissioner Bealefeld has not shied away from talking about these investigations. He seems as intent as anyone on sending the message to the public and to his force that police officers must conduct themselves with honor and integrity. But a brow-beating from the commissioner is one thing; a prison sentence from a federal judge is another. Judge Blake put the matter in terms any cop can understand: Bad guys will go to jail, even if they carry a badge.

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