I was sitting in an interview room on the fifth floor of the Police Headquarters and I was hungover as fuck. Two detectives sat across from me; their lieutenant at my side. I was hungover because my band played the night before and I was in Homicide because T.J. Smith, the public information officer, responded to a tweet asking me to give a statement to detectives.
It started the day before, at the #StopFOP protest at the Hyatt Regency downtown, where the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, had members from around the state convening for a biennial convention. It was coming just after the Department of Justice released its devastating report about the police department's racial bias, unconstitutional practices, and use of force. This was a couple weeks after Korryn Gaines and her five-year-old son were shot in Randallstown after a six-hour standoff with Baltimore County Police. And just a couple more weeks after all the charges against the officers being tried for the death of Freddie Gray were dropped.
To the protesters, these were more signs that the FOP's union contracts protect bad cops. A few of those protesters were committed enough to chain themselves to hotel stairs and to each other in an act of civil disobedience.
As the action continued and numerous on-duty Baltimore police officers arrived to cut through the protesters' chains and arrest them (for more details about the incident, see Brandon Soderberg's Aug. 15 story), who was doing what became increasingly confusing; on-duty city police mingled among non-uniformed FOP conventioneers. When the BPD's Lt. Clayton and other officers tried to tell one activist, Baltimore Bloc's Payam, to stay back, a tall, muscular, bald man body blocked him and pushed him forward. When these two got into a verbal altercation, Clayton asked Payam if he had business in the hotel. "Okay, now you're trespassing," he said, clearly violating one of the issues brought up in the DOJ report: If you tell someone they are trespassing, you must first give them a chance to leave before arresting them, or you are violating their Fourth Amendment rights.
As Payam was escorted to the elevator, Soderberg filmed a man wearing a yellow FOP Lodge 3 Political Action Committee shirt as he pushed another activist who was trying to get on the elevator. Was he on-duty? He did not seem to be, but he was contributing to the situation in a variety of ways (later on, T.J. Smith confirmed to City Paper that this man, a BPD officer, was not on-duty when this happened). As officers carried away another arrestee, I saw the same man push, or throw—it was hard to tell—another man, Brendan Orsinger, into the wall by the elevator bay. When I asked him who he was, he shot me the bird.
Orsinger was arrested within a few minutes.
This is, at much greater length, what I tweeted, and presumably, what Smith saw. The off-duty officers acting as union activists were making a tense situation much worse and endangering not only activists and innocent civilians but also their on-duty colleagues. So when Smith asked me to give a statement, I said sure, although I was a bit reluctant. I would write what I had to say. But then again, it was a chance to see how these interviews worked.
I told them what happened, basically as I wrote it above, but also, stupidly, agreed that the discussion could be off the record. It was a pleasant conversation, led primarily by Detective Kimberly Starr. When I got home, I decided to Google her and was surprised to discover that she and the FOP Lodge 3 and its president, Gene Ryan, were jointly suing the Police Commissioner and the Baltimore City Police Department about the very same issues the activists were protesting.
At stake, for both the FOP and the protesters, was the civilian access to the internal affairs files of police. Since the FOP is a union whose purpose is to protect its members, investigations into individual officers should be personnel matters and kept from the public, union officials insist. But protesters argued that police could not police themselves and needed outside investigation and, or at least, some civilian oversight. (I call them protesters instead of activists here because FOP members are also activists, but with opposing goals).
That could come in two different ways: either through the Civilian Review Board, which is generally considered toothless, or by putting civilians on the stronger Police Trial Board. The protesters called for the latter, arguing that "The FOP systematically attempts to bar community elected citizens from serving on Police Trial Boards [and]… regularly uses political influence to prevent the passage of legislation that would hold police officers accountable for their racist and deadly practices."
An even more forceful solution, according to the protesters, would be to "replace the initial internal investigations of police misconduct and brutality with external investigations" due to investigators' "economic or political ties to the FOP [and] Maryland police departments."
As a body, the FOP is against all of these reforms.
What was unusual here is that Det. Starr herself was personally involved in a lawsuit designed precisely to keep the police department from sharing her own internal affairs records with the Civilian Review Board. So there is considerable overlap—and opposition—between the demands the protesters made at the hotel and those Starr was making in court, even if hers is addressed specifically toward sharing files and aiding the Civilian Review Board, claiming they are precisely the kinds of personnel files exempted by the Maryland Public Information Act.
In a brief filed about a month before the protest, the state's ACLU called Detective Starr's suit against the department an attempt "to shut down any possibility of civilian oversight of police in Maryland."
Starr's entire suit is an attempt to keep the Civilian Review Board from "from investigating in any manner," asserting that the department should "be prohibited from aiding the Civilian Review Board, in any manner, in investigating any FOP Member or Officer."
Starr, it turns out, is or was under investigation herself, although the suit does not say why.
So, is this how it works? The person investigating the misconduct of an off-duty police officer acting as a union activist also is or has been under investigation and is involved as a named party in active litigation with the same body that the off-duty officer was seemingly acting as an activist on behalf of? And the investigator is openly against the very ideas the other activists are promoting. And the ideas at stake are precisely about how these investigations—the very one that she is conducting about what is at stake in the one being conducted on her—go down. It makes my head spin. And somehow she is supposed to be fair?
Both Payam and Orsinger confirmed that it was Starr who came to question them, while they were still in jail.
When I asked Smith about it over email, he responded: "All of the Detectives who are assigned to the Office of Professional Responsibility are members of the F.O.P. We have been successful in past investigations assuring that the investigations are done without prejudice and are conducted in a fair and impartial manner. Your allegation has absolutely nothing to do with any pending litigation, that would impact the integrity of the investigation regarding these allegations."
Of course, not all Office of Professional Responsibility police are named litigants in a lawsuit. But the DOJ report and The Baltimore Sun's excellent investigation into the department's internal affairs shows all too clearly that the department has not exactly been successful in a vast number of past investigations.
David Rocah, an ACLU lawyer, told The Sun that Starr's suit shows "how institutionally averse the police union is to the most minimal standards of accountability and transparency. It shows a level of contempt that is breathtaking in scope."
I don't know what is going on in Starr's head or her heart so I am not alleging that she is personally engaged in any impropriety or that her own lawsuit would sway her investigation. And when I later asked her about it she said she had not thought about it at all and saw no conflict (I told her I would not be making a formal complaint so that this didn't become any more entangled in impropriety than it already is).
I'll take her at her word. But it has to make you wonder just how dysfunctional the department is, or how great its contempt, that, the week after the DOJ report, and while the Starr suit is still being adjudicated, they would allow Starr to handle this investigation of an off-duty member seemingly acting on behalf of the FOP. And invite a reporter to give a statement to her? That's like the supervisor telling a subordinate to make up a reason to stop someone, while a DOJ observer is in the car, as was documented in the report.
I met with Starr on the same day Lt. Victor Gearhart, a high-ranking union official, was put on suspension for calling the protesters "thugs" and saying "maybe they will stop killing each other while they are protesting us." Gearhart was seen yucking it up, even after he was suspended (though not in uniform), at the FOP party at lodge 3 that evening.
Commissioner Davis is enough of a politician to know that part of policing is politics and part of politics is perception and, even if it is not unethical or improper, it certainly looks like a level of contempt for the public that goes even beyond the "breathtaking" contempt the ACLU found in Starr's suit itself.
The Award Winning column Conflicts of Interest is back. New and improved! Instead of the stupid ruminations of the author or embarrassing art-world interactions, the new Conflicts will be based largely upon Maryland Public Information Act requests, unless, as in this case, something falls into the columnist's lap. Your perfect antidote to Dan Rodricks. Look for the next installment, detailing the closing of the Drinkery, as brought to you by Eric Costello's emails.