The Washington Post/The Associated Press - February 25, 2011
With 31 officers suspended, Baltimore police are facing the city's largest alleged police corruption scheme in decades. The 17 officers charged are accused of taking kickbacks for diverting drivers at accident scenes to an unauthorized towing company and repair shop. The department started suspension hearings Thursday for the officers, many of whom were assigned to the northeastern district, according to spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. In response to the staffing gap in that district, the department is moving a 20-officer community stabilization unit to fill in. Personnel statutes bar the release of names of the other suspended officers or the details of the accusations against them, Guglielmi said. The criminal complaint filed Wednesday charges the officers and the owners of Majestic Auto Repair Shop in Rosedale with conspiracy to commit extortion in the course of their official duties. Officers are supposed to allow the owner to arrange for a tow, or if the owner declines, to use police communication channels to contact only an authorized towing company. But the complaint alleges owners of Majestic, which wasn't a city-authorized shop, paid officers to arrange for their company to tow vehicles from accident scenes. Officers received $300 for each vehicle they steered to Majestic, and one officer received more than $14,400 over two years, according to the complaint. The officers would tell owners that Majestic could help with the insurance claim and waive the deductible, advising them not to call the insurance company before talking with the repair shop owner, according to the complaint. Police union President Detective Bob Cherry checked with former presidents and commissioners and said this was the largest number of officers charged in one scheme that they could remember. The allegations could hurt the public's trust, but Cherry hopes people realize these officers are just a small segment 2,800-member force. "Officers who work the street feel very strongly about their oath," Cherry said. "If these allegations are proven, we don't want them on the street, either. A good cop is not going to tolerate a bad cop." If the officers want the police union to cover legal costs -- something the union will pay in misdemeanor cases and sometimes in more serious cases -- they will have to appeal to the union's board, because the union doesn't have a prepaid plan that would automatically cover them in felony cases, Cherry said. "This situation is a little different. If you believe the allegations, they aren't really performing their duties, it's a separate enterprise," Cherry said. "This situation is probably going to resonate differently with the board of directors." Officials declined to discuss how investigators learned of the alleged scheme, but one of the incidents that internal affairs investigators looked at was the arrest of Paula Protani of Frankford Towing, Guglielmi said. Protani, who is also a spokeswoman for the group of city-authorized towers, had made several complaints about Majestic, so when she spotted a Majestic truck at a crash in 2009, she went over to take a picture. She told the officer on the scene that Majestic was not allowed to be there and he told her to leave, then arrested her, she said. After spending hours at Central Booking, Protani filed a complaint with the department. Hearing of the charges Wednesday was bittersweet, Protani said. She is pleased that the department was pursuing corruption, but aware that the publicity would not be favorable for the towing industry or police. "I knew there was something fishy going on and I assumed it had something to do with money. I was aware that there was an investigation, but not that big an investigation and not with the FBI," she said. "It gives the towing industry a black eye and it gives the police a black eye that they don't deserve."