More than 20 Cherry Hill residents have filed a $25 million lawsuit against a Cleveland-based security company, claiming the company's officers routinely overstep their authority and abuse citizens' rights.
"They act like cowboy-wannabe cops," William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., the residents' attorney, said at a news conference Tuesday at a community church. "We're tired of it, and we're going to put them in their place."
The suit names three officers employed by Tenable Protective Services, two of whom have been appointed as "special police officers," a little-known classification for security guards in Maryland that grants them limited police powers within specific areas.
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State and Baltimore police approve such applications for hundreds of officers to patrol areas such as shopping centers, apartment complexes and banks.
But residents claim in their lawsuit that the security officers act instead as rogue Baltimore city police officers, conducting investigations and making arrests — sometimes alongside sworn city officers. The plaintiffs say they have trouble telling the difference, and have been frustrated when police internal affairs officials say the officers don't work for the city.
Tenable and Maryland Management Co., the property management company that hired Tenable to patrol apartment complexes in Cherry Hill, are listed as defendants in the lawsuit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court this week.
Representatives from the companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Tonya Bana, an attorney at Murphy's firm who is handling the case, said residents' long-simmering concerns coalesced last fall, when they began discussing the security officers at community meetings and realized they were not city police officers.
Cleoda Walker, a neighborhood activist and pastor, said she was threatened by the security officers after complaining and said her tires were slashed.
Each of the 21 plaintiffs makes allegations against security officers.
One plaintiff, 20-year-old Chris Dukes, claims in the lawsuit that on Aug. 1, 2011 he was followed by two security officers to a gas station, where they jumped out of their vehicles, pointed Tasers at him and his passenger, and demanded they get out of their vehicle. He drove away and was pulled over on Interstate 295, where he was arrested and charged with assault.
"It has the community in an uproar. You've got a lot more plaintiffs who won't step forward because they're scared of them," said Warren William Sr., 47, a plaintiff who works with the Cherry Hill Safe Streets anti-violence program. "For the longest time, the community thought they were police officers, or off-duty police officers."
City police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the law requires security companies to conduct oversight of their employees who are appointed special police officers. He said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not respond to specific allegations regarding city officers.