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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Easy Money: Cop Kickbacks in Baltimore

     The Baltimore Police Department, with 3,100 sworn officers, is the nation's eighth largest city police force. Like all big city police departments, Baltimore has had its history of scandals, embarrassments, and graft. (Last year, dozens of officers with the New York City Police Department, involved in a massive ticket-fixing racket, were convicted of public corruption offenses.) This year, in Baltimore, 17 officers have been arrested by the FBI on charges of extortion.

     In Baltimore, and other cities, the towing and repair of vehicles involved in traffic accidents is a big business. To regulate this enterprise, the city of Baltimore authorizes a number of so-called medallion tow trucks. (This is probably a racket as well.) Police officers at accident sites are not allowed to call in unauthorized towing vehicles. So, in  Baltimore, if you are in the towing and auto repair business, and don't have the approval of the city, if you are not a medallion company, you're frozen out of a lucrative source of income. 

     In 2009, an employee of a medallion towing firm who was also vice president of the association representing medallion tow operators, filed a complaint with the Baltimore Police Department. According to the complainant, certain Baltimore police officers were calling unauthorized tow trucks to the scenes of accidents. The tow trucks were operated by Hernan Mejia and his brother Edwin, owners of the Majestic Body Shop. In return for this unauthorized business, the brothers were paying kickbacks to traffic site cops who summoned their trucks. (Once the damaged vehicles were brought to the shop, employees allegedly banged them up some more to rip off insurance companies. Who knows how common a practice this is around the country.) Authorities with the Baltimore Police Department turned the Majestic Body Shop complaint over to the FBI. 

     After a series of phone taps, FBI agents identified 17 city officers who had received Majestic Body Shop bribes totaling $1 million. In 2011, the kickback suspects were lured to the Baltimore police academy where they were confronted by police brass and FBI agents. Stripped of their guns and badges, the suspects were arrested, and hauled off to jail. By May 2012, 14 Baltimore officers had pleaded guilty to federal charges of extortion. Ten cops have been convicted and sentenced to prison. The owners of the Majestic Body Shop have also pleaded guilty to the federal racketeering offenses. 

     In the 1960s and 70s, America's big city police departments were thoroughly corrupt. Graft was the rule, not the exception. Cops on the take justified this behavior by telling each other they risked their lives every day for low pay and lousy benefits. Today, big city police officers are well-paid, and enjoy benefits envied by most private sector employees. And with lower violent crime rates, and more militarized policing, the job is a lot safer. 

     Police corruption, then and now, is simply a matter of dishonesty and greed. Some cops simply can't resist the opportunity to pocket easy money. If we paid these crooks more, and let them retire at 40 instead of 55, they would still be corrupt. The good news in the Majestic Body Shop case involves the fact the Baltimore Police Department, instead of covering up this graft, called in the FBI.   

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