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)

Smith's brush with special police came on March 10, 2006, when, according to his lawsuit — later dropped — an unmarked car came screeching to a halt and a man dressed like a police officer jumped out, running with one hand on his gun and telling Smith to stop.

Smith said he froze and obeyed the man, who got behind him, grabbed his arms, and forced him face-first to the pavement outside his Northeast Baltimore apartment complex.

"It was fast and hard — my face hit the ground quick," he recalled in an interview.

The car's driver then got out and started searching the area with a flashlight as the first man searched Smith's pockets, spreading his possessions out on the pavement, according to the complaint.

The men inside wore blue uniforms, with a shoulder patch that read "Baltimore Special Police." The suit says they carried guns and handcuffs, and told him he was being stopped because he "fit the description." An off-duty city cop, Corey Jennings, who at the time ran a security company according to state business records, showed up at the scene and apologized for their actions, and gave Smith his cellphone number.

The guards then let him go, only to track him down the next day at the liquor store where he worked — an attempt to intimidate him, Smith said. Instead, they arrested him.

Smith's version of the events in the liquor store is supported by surveillance footage from inside the liquor store. Over the course of a few hours, several security guards could be seen talking to Smith and surrounding him.

According to his lawsuit, one of the men identified himself as "Major Donald Ellison," and he was accompanied by a man named Ryzele George, then a commissioned special police officer, who is shown in the video wearing a black shirt labeled "POLICE" and a silver badge around his neck.

Smith said he was taken outside, forced into an unmarked Crown Victoria — the kind of car that real police would use — then placed in a police transport wagon and taken to Central Booking, where officials refused to accept the charges and let him go.

"It gives people a bad impression of the actual police," Smith, 33, a warehouse manager who now lives in Anne Arundel County, said in a recent interview. "I have a cousin going through the police academy, and the training is very extensive. These guys do not have that training."

Smith's suit was dropped in late 2008 after his attorneys dissolved their practice and Smith failed to follow through after electing to represent himself. But he maintains that what happened was wrong.

Two of the guards involved in Smith's arrest were later accused of blurring the boundary between police and security — George was charged with impersonating police after officers saw him working security outside a Northeast Baltimore club with a "POLICE" vest and a loaded handgun, and he had a special police card despite not being a licensed special police officer.

The charges were later dropped by prosecutors. "He was working as a security guard, and the police just decided to arrest him," his attorney, George Oswinkle, said. "He never held himself out to anyone as a police officer, or a special police officer." As for the vest, Oswinkle said George did nothing wrong: "You can buy them in stores. You don't need a special license to own body armor."

In May 2010, a competitor called police to complain that Ellison was wrongly identifying himself as a special police officer while working security at an IHOP restaurant in Baltimore County. He was carrying an unloaded 9 mm Glock handgun, which Ellison described to the arresting officers as a "training weapon."

Oswinkle, also Ellison's attorney, said at the time that his client hadn't done anything wrong. "The law is sometimes not clear," he said. Ellison was found guilty early last year and sentenced to a one-year suspended term.

That same year, police said Ellison's now-defunct security company, Dwell International, issued counterfeit ID cards and police badges — which look remarkably similar to Baltimore police badges — to guards who do not have special police powers. The Police Department in 2010 issued an internal intelligence bulletin warning officers to be on alert for impostors, and sent letters to its commissioned special police officers reminding them of their limitations and responsibilities.

This year, a group of Cherry Hill residents went to a community nonprofit alleging that two special police officers, Robert Osborne and John Spitzer, from the Cleveland-based Tenable Protective Services were harassing them, including conducting surveillance, arresting them for trespassing on public sidewalks, and questioning them at their homes.

"If it's properly done, special police can help the community. The police don't have to write up a citation for just a nuisance crime — the special police can do it," said the Rev. Cleo Walker, a neighborhood leader. "In Cherry Hill, it's become a total abuse of power. They leave their area. They have city walkie talkies and the code to [enter] the [Baltimore Police Southern] district station. Sometimes if there's a call, they beat the police there, or show up with the police."

The officers' apparent omnipresence is in part based on the commission the city gave them. At least in the case of Osborne, the Police Department gave him broad authority over dozens of properties owned by a property management company throughout the community.

When citizens called the Police Department's Internal Affairs unit, they were told the agency didn't have any responsibility over the officers.