Nearly two years after a towing kickback scandal rocked the Baltimore Police Department, 14 officers who were not criminally charged remain suspended with pay and unavailable to perform police functions, officials said.
Police say they must wait for final word from prosecutors on whether the officers will face criminal charges before the agency can determine whether to punish them or clear them of wrongdoing. But the case is emblematic of a slow-moving disciplinary system that robs resources from a department that has the second-highest staffing per capita in the nation.
New Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has said he wants more officers on the streets, and as part of that effort he plans to re-evaluate the efficiency of the internal affairs process. That system was criticized by the panel convened last year by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review agency procedures after the fatal shooting of an officer at the Select Lounge nightclub, but a former police commissioner says hurdles have slowed broader reform.
James "Chips" Stewart, who chaired the Select Lounge panel, said Baltimore must revisit its practice of delaying action until criminal cases are resolved — a process that often leaves the department in limbo as prosecutors weigh their options and legal battles drag on.
"The department has to uphold the standards and conduct of their police officers," said Stewart, a consultant and former director of the National Institute of Justice. When the process becomes drawn out, he said, "you're shorting your own capacity to serve the public."
The kickback case dates back to February 2011, when 17 officers were federally charged amid accusations that Majestic Auto Repair, a Rosedale towing company and body shop, paid police to refer business to them while on duty. Police said their own investigators uncovered the problem and brought concerns to the FBI, which helped develop the case.
In addition to those criminally charged, officials said at the time that 11 additional officers were suspended and would face internal discipline. Court records and statements from prosecutors indicated more than 50 were implicated overall.
Some of those officers have since "separated" from the agency — police say they can't elaborate on how or why — but 14 are currently suspended. That's equivalent to nearly an entire district shift of patrol officers, and the officers continue to be paid.
The suspension is only a precursor to the internal disciplinary process. If the department concludes the officers have violated policies, they must be charged and face a trial of their peers, a process that tends to take a year or more.
Police say they are waiting for city prosecutors to decide whether the officers will face criminal charges. City prosecutors, meanwhile, contend that they were only recently handed the cases for review, once federal prosecutors completed their cases.
"We are now investigating those remaining cases and will make charging decisions in the near future," said Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein.
Federal prosecutors affirm that they "would not have wanted the state's attorney's office to proceed until after the resolution of the federal case in April 2012," according to Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman.
Former Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III called the internal disciplinary system a "source of great frustration," and he said attempts at reform were largely stymied by the complexities of the process. The most important thing, he said, was making sure bad officers were weeded out.
"As much as you'd like to work as the de facto judge and jury, there is ample precedent for what happens when we didn't cross our t's and dot the i's," he said.
In law enforcement agencies across Maryland, police generally do not start the internal disciplinary process until prosecutors have determined whether criminal penalties apply. Only after the criminal process has played out — either with prosecutors formally declining to bring charges, or with charges and an acquittal or conviction — do police move forward with internal charges.
The practice is rooted in concerns that compelling statements from officers for internal cases will conflict with their constitutional right against self-incrimination in criminal cases. Like any citizen, officers have a right to remain silent.
But it's not written in the law that one process must run its course before the other can begin, experts say.
"It doesn't stipulate in the law that you have to do it one way or the other," said L. Douglas Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership program. "You can choose to wait and see if they will be charged with a crime, but there comes a time when there's a reasonable time to wait, and an unreasonable time."
Earlier this year, the commission that reviewed Police Department procedures after the Select Lounge shooting criticized the internal investigative process. It said the practice of deferring internal investigations in police-involved shootings until after the criminal process "unnecessarily delays the Department's ability to fulfill its responsibility to determine compliance with policy or any policy shortcomings." And it recommended that criminal and internal investigations be conducted simultaneously.
Stewart, the panel chair, said that waiting is "too costly for the department and the community."