Arrest of Officers Causes Reshuffling, Concerns

… State’s attorney’s office reviewing cases brought by charged officers …

By Justin Fenton and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

10:30 PM EST, February 24, 2011

To compensate for the arrest or suspension of more than two dozen officers in an alleged towing company scam, Baltimore Police will pull uniformed officers away from an initiative that contributed to a profound reduction in violent crime in the Southeastern District.

A team of mostly rookies hired with stimulus funds last year, which had been used for foot patrols in areas including downtown and a high-crime corridor in the Southeast, will be reassigned to squad cars in the Northeast, where a large number of the implicated city police officers worked.

Residents of the southeast say they fear an uptick in violence because of the move, but police officials said the scope of the alleged fraud has left them little choice.

“The last thing the commissioner wanted to do was get rid of foot patrols. Part of improving our customer service rating is getting cops out of cars,” said Anthony Guglielmi, the department’s chief spokesman. “But we’re not going to tolerate corruption. It if means we can’t have a special unit to do foot posts temporarily, so be it.”

The Northeast District was already struggling. With the departure of its longtime commander and a spike in crime to start the year, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III had visited district residents earlier this month to reassure them that police had the situation under control.

But as officers from Northeast and the neighboring Eastern District huddled to discuss recent violence Wednesday morning, 10 of the Northeast district’s officers were being arrested in the federal corruption probe, in which officers allegedly took kickbacks for steering motorists to a towing company that was not licensed to do business with the city.

By shifting members from a community stabilization unit to fill patrol cars in the area, however, Northeast’s gain may be Southeast Baltimore’s loss.

In the McElderry Park neighborhood in the Southeast, some community activists and church leaders worry that removing the community stabilization unit could reverse strides made combating violent crime in the past year.

“My hope would be this is a temporary fix to a city crisis that would be addressed and reversed — that the police force will be returned to a community that really needs it,” said Pastor Gary Dittman of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in the 2400 block of McElderry St. “Because we really do. The violence factor is a giant factor here; the drug factor is a giant factor here.”

Dittman, who became pastor a year and a half ago, said the neighborhood has seen “a definite downward trend in our violence,” and he believes the influx of police in late 2009 has been one of the reasons.

“We actually had a number of months when we didn’t have a shooting, which is a huge deal,” he said. “When I first got here, we had shootings every weekend.”

Baltimore City Councilman Robert Curran, whose district includes Northeast District residents, said that the suspensions would represent 10 percent of the district’s staffing. He said he had been given “reassurance by some of the highest levels in the Police Department that the staffing level will not have to take a hit.

“Obviously, that means drawing from other areas,” he said.

The arrests of the officers charged in the towing scheme, which occurred Wednesday at the police academy with Bealefeld personally “reclaiming” the officers’ badges, was one of the largest in memory and continued to ripple through the agency on Thursday. Some top commanders spent much of the day in suspension hearings for the accused officers, and officials fielded calls from concerned council members and residents.

In an appearance on Sun columnist Dan Rodricks‘ radio show on WYPR, Robert Cherry, president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said the officers charged should be presumed innocent.

“Having said that, we’re also about honesty and hard work, and if these officers did what they are accused of doing, it is a black mark on this department and is not condoned by this FOP and our officers.”

Though court documents show some of the officers were recorded complaining about poor pay and needing extra cash — including one officer who specifically referenced a recent 2 percent pay cut — Cherry said that was not an excuse for the alleged crimes. At the same time, he said that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake should not focus on increasing the size of the Police Department but rather on improving compensation and hiring standards.

“Our officers are working exceptionally hard to get the job done,” Cherry said. “There’s also some officers who don’t belong on the force. That falls on the mayor and police commissioner and their hiring practices.”

State prosecutors, meanwhile, said they were reviewing pending cases in which the accused officers were involved to see whether the allegations could compromise their cases. Officer David Reeping, a Central District officer charged in the scheme, is listed as an arresting officer in two handgun cases and one armed robbery case indicted in the past month.

It’s another test for new State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who has pledged a stronger working relationship with police.

“Hopefully, we can proceed” with those cases said his spokesman Mark Cheshire.

Because the corruption charges raise specific integrity issues, cases in which the officers play a key role could be jeopardized, said defense attorney Catherine Flynn.

“Generally speaking, in the past they’ve made a determination that they’re not going to go forward with a lot of these cases,” Flynn said. “In this situation, the police commissioner himself is saying, ‘There’s an issue with these officers.’ ”

On the streets, police commanders citywide say they have been struggling to fill police cars after a rash of departures from the department last year. Bealefeld told residents at a community meeting last week that, agencywide, the police department was reaching deep into its overtime budget.

The Northeast District has seen a jump in violent crime in recent years, and elected leaders have been calling for revisions to the district’s staffing and boundaries.

To start the year, the district was leading the city in homicides, and, as of mid-February, statistics show total crime in the district had jumped 14 percent, including a 50 percent increase in burglaries.

Some officials believe the district’s residents will be better served by the young officers who are being transferred in, who, though likely unfamiliar with the area’s geography and hot spots, are also energetic and intent on serving the public.

In an e-mail to community leaders, Deputy Major Darryl De Sousa said the arrests of the officers did not “in any way adversely impact our service and commitment to the communities of the Northeast District,” and called the new officers “young and eager to work.”

Meanwhile, in Southeast Baltimore, the transfer of officers caused concerns for residents like Ernest Smith, president of the McElderry Park Community Association. “Having that presence has been helpful,” he said.

The beefed-up police presence was one of several influences that helped push crime numbers down, he said. He also credited the Safe Streets violence intervention program and the Jericho prisoner reentry program, which helps ex-offenders find jobs and get back on their feet.

Smith said he has done his part, as well. He has worked to revive the community association resource center in a long-vacant building on Montford Avenue. The center offers computer training classes and a GED program.

“The [crime] numbers are lower right now, and they have been low for quite some time in the McElderry Park area,” he said. “In terms of how this will impact the area, I guess it remains to be seen.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

Comments are closed.