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05-08-09, 12:58 AM #1
Click here to find out more! Text size: increase text sizedecrease text size Police goof in raid, city stalls on damages
Andrew Leonard was watching television with his wife not long after returning from Ash Wednesday services when police burst through the front door of his North Baltimore home. He was handcuffed, plunked in a chair and told to keep quiet as officers rifled through the house and interrogated him for 15 minutes about drugs and a dealer he knew nothing about.
As it turned out, police had the wrong house. The man they were looking for lived two doors down.
Leonard, a 33-year-old chemist who has no criminal record, said he and his wife, a 29-year-old credit analyst, were frightened and humiliated by the incident. But for the past two months, he's wanted just one thing from the city: for someone to pay for the damage to his front door.
And he said trying to get the city to help in the aftermath has been even more frustrating than the police's initial mistake.
"My city is not working for us," said Leonard, who has lived in the Medfield neighborhood north of Hampden since October 2007. "We were victimized and now get zero cooperation from every office we deal with."
No-knock raids can be carried out through warrants signed by judges, or by police who determine at the scene that announcing themselves would present a safety threat or lead to the destruction of evidence.
Critics say the confrontational tactic, often involving masked and armed officers, is increasingly being used in situations that don't require such a volatile response.
A 2006 Cato Institute study found that hundreds of raids are conducted nationwide each year at wrong addresses, sometimes resulting in death.
In one highly publicized incident in Maryland last year, a SWAT team rushed the home of the Berwyn Heights mayor and shot and killed his family's two dogs. Police said the mayor and his wife were unsuspecting victims of a marijuana smuggling scheme, but defended the actions of the officers involved in the raid.
The General Assembly passed a law requiring greater accountability for SWAT team use. Leonard said the Berwyn Heights incident flashed in his mind as his dog, an 80-pound chocolate Labrador named Figo, raced upstairs from the basement after police began ramming the door on Feb. 25. After the initial confusion, Leonard said his attention turned toward securing his home.
He nailed his broken door shut and for a time entered and exited the home through the alley. Eventually, he and some relatives did a "fair but amateur" job installing a new door. But he wanted the city to pay for the remaining work.
"I don't think any reasonable person would argue otherwise," Leonard said.
The city denied his claim to be reimbursed for the damage to the door. Leonard said he was told that since the warrant listed Leonard's address, the officers hadn't technically stormed the wrong house.
City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway connected Leonard with the police commissioner's office, who he said promised to follow through as a "good-faith measure." But for the past two weeks his calls have not been returned, he said.
Meanwhile, the old front door sat in the backyard for two months. Leonard said he called the city's bulk trash pickup, but no one came.
The city inspectors who issue tickets for garbage in residents' backyards did, however, and gave him a $50 fine. The door finally was picked up last Thursday.
"There is nothing that is right with this situation," he said. "Nobody deserves this type of treatment from the city."
After inquiries from TheBaltimore Sun, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon said that Leonard's claims would be forwarded to the Office of Neighborhoods and dealt with "immediately."
"Mr. Leonard's situation is very unfortunate," spokesman Scott Peterson said in an e-mail. "Now that this had been brought to the attention of the Mayor's Office, we will ... respond with the care, attention, and respect that he, like all residents in Baltimore, deserves."
Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, said officials were evaluating procedures followed in the raid. The approximate $1,200 door repair price was high enough to require Board of Estimates approval, a time-consuming process.
"As far as making Mr. Leonard whole, the commissioner is aware of it, and it is in the process," Guglielmi said.
Police eventually arrested the original target of the raid. David Pfister, 35, was arrested on a warrant on March 21 and charged with three counts of drug possession and distribution. In 2001, he pleaded guilty and received a 10-year sentence for drug possession with intent to distribute, though all but 30 days of that sentence was suspended.
Leonard said he isn't angry at the police. One of his best friends is a New York City detective, and Leonard said that he understands that officers put their lives on the line running into dangerous houses. His concern is with the failure of city agencies to follow up.
His view of Baltimore has "definitely" changed, he said, "not because of the break-in, but the lack of action on the back end and the city not owning up to their responsibility" Leonard said. "It's really given me a sour taste."
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