Special police

Cloeda Walker, Assistant Pastor at the Cherry Hill Community Presbyterian Church, feels that she has been targeted for threats because she has complained about the abuse of "Special Police" powers by employees of a security company, in the Cherry Hill neighborhood. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / October 19, 2012)

The two men wore body armor with "POLICE" written across the chest and spilled out of their unmarked car, weapons drawn, ordering Christopher Dukes and his passenger out of their vehicle at a South Baltimore gas station parking lot. When Dukes pulled off, they embarked on a high-speed chase down Interstate 295 until catching up and placing the pair under arrest, charging documents show.

Then it was time for the real police to take over.

The men in the body armor were not Baltimore police officers or federal agents, but instead a little-known classification of security guards known as "special police," who are commissioned by the city or state to arrest and detain citizens — but only on specific properties.

For decades, they have added an extra layer of eyes and ears on the streets, supplementing the sworn police force at no cost to taxpayers and protecting some of Baltimore's most venerable institutions. But some of the officers have also faced lawsuits and resident complaints, leading city police to re-evaluate whether to continue the program.

City and state police do not provide or require training to the special officers, do not monitor their actions and do not generally investigate complaints against them. Employers are responsible for oversight.

In a wide-ranging lawsuit filed this summer by residents of Cherry Hill — including Dukes, who was convicted of assault in the case — as well as an earlier suit filed in Northeast Baltimore, residents say special police officers overstepped their bounds and violated the residents' civil rights.

Critics say the program is ripe for abuse on the streets, with residents of tough neighborhoods complaining that they can't tell the difference between the special police and city cops. And many with law enforcement backgrounds who now work in the security industry say they worry about police powers being given to people without proper training and supervision.

"Nobody is overseeing them," said Larry S. Davidson Sr., a retired Baltimore officer who runs a security company that doesn't use special police. "The next thing you know, they're going into apartment complexes and jacking people up and violating people's rights because they haven't got the proper training to know the difference."

The Baltimore Police Department has become so concerned about the program — including attempts by some to impersonate special police officers with counterfeit badges or confusing uniforms and vehicles — that officials are reconsidering the policy of granting special police licenses. The state issues licenses in the city as well and has no such plans.

"The program's going to be re-evaluated and presented to the next commissioner on whether this is a function that will continue," said Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman.

Special police officers work for a wide variety of organizations, including the Johns Hopkins University and the District Court of Maryland. They stand watch over shopping centers and apartment complexes, rarely getting into anything controversial. The sprawling Greater Grace Church, located in a former strip mall in Northeast Baltimore, has 10 commissioned special police officers.

But citizens who claim they've had bad encounters with special police say there's little recourse when the officers go beyond their authority.

"For the longest time, the community thought they were police officers. They would not give their name or their badge numbers. Their cars didn't say 'special police,' they said 'police,'" said Walter Williams Sr., 47, of Cherry Hill, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit there.

Extra powers

Laws give the city and state the ability to commission "special police officers" to "preserve the public peace, prevent crime, arrest offenders [and] protect the rights and property in and upon such premises as fully as a regular police officer."

The agencies require only a two-page application, and conduct a brief background check. The police powers are limited to designated areas, which are set based on who hires the security company.

"You have security guards, the folks you see walking the malls or standing posts, working entry to certain buildings. And then there's special police," said John Simpson, a retired Maryland State Police commander who for years oversaw special police licensing. "Security is observe and report. Special police can engage."

The special police and security guards working in the city help cover areas where city police cannot be, and their observations can provide useful intelligence. In addition to arrest powers, special police officers can have people committed to mental institutions and take other actions reserved for police, including searching people. They can carry guns, but only if they have the same permits required for other residents.

They have to use badges and uniforms that clearly distinguish them from police — for example, they are not allowed to use red-and-blue lights on vehicles and must be given permission to use the state or city seal on their patches.