State, city program gives security guards police powers
'Special police' accused of overstepping boundaries, praised for extending reach of law enforcement
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)
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As of 2010, Maryland had licensed 970 special police officers throughout the state. In Baltimore, there were about 100 such officers two years ago, but that number has been cut to about 50 amid concerns about the program.
Among those who have licenses is Mark Rothenhoefer, whose family has created an empire of sorts along a commercial strip on Frederick Avenue in Southwest Baltimore.
Their "Three Brothers" company name is splashed on a gas station and body shop, which sits next to a liquor store and check-cashing business plastered with signs advertising their touchless car wash, Internet cafe, Western Union and passport and visa services. There's a laundromat down the hill, and they lease a hair salon and tattoo shop.
The businesses are located just a short drive from the Southwestern District police station, but a police response can sometimes take too long.
Rothenhoefer said that makes security a priority — for his customers, his employees and himself. Customers must be buzzed into the liquor store, and there is a network of more than 80 security cameras watching every corner. Inside the liquor store, where there are check-cashing booths, a rack of adult magazines and a walk-in beer refrigerator, employees wear headsets that enable them to communicate with each other quickly.
"Where we're at can be a very dangerous area," Rothenhoefer says, saying there have been shootings and stabbings outside and robbery attempts inside. "If you value your life, you've got to be on your A-game."
Since 2000, Rothenhoefer said, he's been commissioned as a special police officer, and court records show he's been involved in more than 40 arrests. Most of them are for passing bad checks, something he says can happen twice a day at his store. One man he charged in 2011 received a four-year suspended sentence and was ordered to pay $4,000 restitution.
But he also once held at gunpoint a burglar who had broken into his pizza shop a few doors down. The man has since been released and is a regular customer at his businesses, Rothenhoefer said.
"The police are overloaded, and officers get upset when they have to write a lengthy report," he said. Having a special police commission "allows us to handle the situation without any cost to Baltimore City. They're not sending their officers on all these calls and having to write these reports."
The Enoch Pratt Free Library also has a cadre of special police officers. Lt. Kennard Hopkins has worked security for the library for 27 years, and recently helped police locate a regular who was allegedly using their computers to set up robberies through the Craigslist website. But he said he hasn't made an arrest in years, and said officers take every step to avoid such action. There's a complaint box in the lobby of the library for anyone who has concerns about officers' conduct.
"Everyone's welcome here, and we give everyone the benefit of the doubt," Hopkins said. "But if someone does something inappropriate or wrong, by us having powers to detain someone, that's a benefit to us."
Rothenhoefer and others interviewed for this article said the licensing process is thorough and said they're given an overview of their responsibilities and limitations. The property owners assume liability of special police officers who are licensed for their property, said Simpson, who oversaw the program for the state police.
If the property owners are "willing to take on that liability and expose themselves to that risk, then they must feel as though it's necessary," Simpson said. "The overwhelming majority are employed by professional organizations — McDaniel College, the District Court, Sparrows Point."
When it comes to regulation, Simpson said, state police are automatically notified when a special police officer or security guard is arrested and can send an auditor out to review complaints, but typically have no oversight over the officers. Simpson said if officers abuse their power to charge someone, "it will come out at trial."
"The system kind of has checks and balances," he said.
Baltimore police, who would not make officials available for an interview, said through a spokesman that the "statute is clear: it's the companies that are responsible for the conduct of their employees."
"It's up to these individual security companies to hold these people accountable," Guglielmi said. "The BPD can't be everywhere."
In a lawsuit against a security company and the Police Department, attorneys for Daniel Earl Smith argued that the special police program "creates a whole class of persons who are granted identical police powers … but receive none of the initial and on-going training, or supervision through superior officers and investigatory disciplinary bodies that the city and the department have acknowledged are essential to ensure that police powers are exercised in a constitutional and lawful manner."