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Good riddance, plainclothes

Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton on Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis decision to end plainclothes policing in Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says the era of plainclothes policing in Baltimore is over. It's about time. The commissioner made the move in the wake of federal indictments of seven plainclothes officers who were supposed to be part of an aggressive effort to get guns and violent criminals off the streets but who, according to prosecutors, were robbing and extorting residents, filing false reports and collecting overtime when they weren't working. But, he added, such units have long exhibited a "cutting corners mindset" that made them subject to a disproportionate share of complaints. He wasn't kidding.

•In 2006, prosecutors barred testimony in court from a group of plainclothes officers operating in South Baltimore amid allegations that they conducted warrantless searches and stole drugs and money. The unit was disbanded.

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•In 2009, Jerriel Lyles entered an East Baltimore carryout and ordered a box of chicken. On his way out, a man identified himself as a police officer, frisked Mr. Lyles and ordered him to the ground. In court, Mr. Lyles testified that he objected, and the officer — a plainclothes Violent Crimes Impact Section member — punched him, bloodying his nose and eyes. Baltimore would up paying a $200,000 settlement, one of many documented against VCIS members in The Sun's 2014 Undue Force investigation.

•In 2010, the department disbanded a plainclothes unit in the Northwest District after discovering an officer and a supervisor using a stolen license plate on an unmarked car. A VCIS officer in the district was also suspended after an "integrity sting" in which he reportedly took money that had been planted on an undercover officer.

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•In 2011, a 65-year-old church deacon was standing outside his house rolling a tobacco cigarette when two plainclothes officers jumped out of an unmarked SUV and started chasing him. The man, Lornell Felder, yelled for his wife to call the police, to which the officers replied, "We are the police." He was beaten about the head, face and body and spent several days in the hospital, handcuffed to the bed, before he was released. The city paid $100,000 to settle his civil lawsuit.

•Also in 2011, two VCIS officers were convicted of misconduct after they picked up two Baltimore teens, dropping one off on the other side of town and the other in a Howard County park with no shoes or cell phone.

•In 2012, Anthony Anderson, an unarmed 46-year-old, died after VCIS officers tackled him in a vacant lot. They initially claimed he had choked on a baggie of drugs, but the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide as a result of blunt force trauma. The officers were not criminally charged.

•In 2013, plainclothes officers pulled over Tyrone West, 44, who died after a subsequent fight with police. The officers weren't charged criminally and accounts of the encounter differ, with West's family insisting he was beaten to death. A police review found officers failed to follow policies and made tactical errors that "potentially aggravated the situation."

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•Also 2013, a member of the plainclothes VCIS pleaded guilty after prosecutors accused him of protecting a drug-dealing informant from other police, supplying him with drugs to sell and falsifying police reports. The officer, Kendell Richburg, provided information about fellow VCIS members in exchange for a slight reduction in his sentence, and officials were able to identify other officers in the unit who were faking reports. Four officers were suspended as a result.

And misconduct or excessive force by the officers aren't the only problems with the plainclothes units.

•In 2011, police confronted a series of robberies in which assailants pretended to be police officers, a task they found easier by mimicking the casual dress of the plainclothes officers who were common in high crime areas at the time.

•Also in 2011, plainclothes Officer William H. Torbit Jr. responded to a report of a disturbance outside the Select Lounge. He became involved in an altercation and, while being kicked and stomped, fired his gun, fatally striking a club patron. Uniformed police on the scene, not realizing he was an officer, opened fire, killing him.

Back when Baltimore was experiencing its lowest homicide totals in years, much of the credit went to VCIS and similar aggressive initiatives. But that aggressiveness came with a long-term cost, the fruits of which we are seeing today: a legacy of civil rights violations, excessive use of force and occasionally outright criminal conduct that has fatally shattered police-community relations. Putting officers in patrol cars and uniforms rather than t-shirts, backward baseball caps and unmarked cars won't instantly fix that, but it is a step toward restoring mutual respect and a professional relationship between officers and those they serve.

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