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Major Influence?

Ranking Officer Gets Nonstandard Treatment in Shooting Probe

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 12/1/1999

The shooting of a robbery suspect by a city police major in East Baltimore Nov. 19 is raising questions within the department—not over whether the shooting was justified, according to police sources familiar with the case, but over whether the major, who himself heads one of the units charged with looking into such incidents, is receiving preferential treatment.

The shooting occurred about 2 A.M., when Maj. Ronald Savage, who heads the department's Internal Investigation Division (IID), responded to a call for an armed robbery in progress inside the New York Fried Chicken restaurant at 1258 E. North Ave. (Savage was serving as duty officer—the highest-ranking officer assigned to a patrol car to oversee officers on the street—for that shift.) According to police, when Savage arrived at the restaurant, two men who had allegedly robbed and then pistol-whipped patrons burst out of the store and started to run away. Police say one of the men turned and pointed a gun at Savage, who fired his weapon, hitting the alleged robber three times.

The suspect, whom police would not identify, was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for bullet wounds to his right arm and lower back. He has since been released and charged, police say.

Sources familiar with the probe say there are no indications of any wrongdoing on Savage's part. Nonetheless, the sources maintain, the major was not questioned by homicide detectives in the hours after the shooting, and never had his police powers suspended afterward, as is standard procedure in such cases. Police spokesperson Robert Weinhold says Savage's police powers were briefly suspended, but he confirms that Savage was allowed to leave the scene with his weapon and department car, which is counter to procedure for officers involved in shootings.

Savage did not return phone calls seeking comment.

All shootings involving police officers are investigated by the department's Homicide Unit, which determines whether the shooting was justifiable in light of criminal law, and IID, which determines if proper police procedures were followed. Savage would normally be responsible for the latter probe, but in this case, the IID review has been turned over to Maj. Errol Dutton, who heads the department's Equal Employment Opportunity division.

According to veteran investigators, any time an officer fires a shot, his or her gun, gun belt, and ammunition are taken for examination by detectives and crime lab personnel. The equipment is checked for a ballistics match with the bullets that struck a suspect, and to determine the number of bullets fired and make sure they were issued by the department. Following the Nov. 19 shooting, police sources say, Savage was allowed to leave the scene with all his equipment rather than turn his weapon over to homicide detectives, as procedure dictates. The major was also allowed to leave in his department car, which sources say is considered part of the crime scene and should not be driven away until it is photographed and processed by investigators. (There were shell casings strewn across the top of the vehicle, sources say.)

The sources say the car was parked at an odd angle, which supports Savage's account of the incident—that he drove up quickly, jumped out of the car, and confronted the suspects.

Weinhold says the different treatment of Savage "should not have happened and it did," but he adds, "The fact that he did leave with a gun and the fact that the vehicle was moved did not impact the investigation itself." Weinhold attributes the procedural lapses to "an error in judgment made in regard to the gun and vehicle" by detectives handling the case.

"That's bullshit," a police source familiar with the probe says. "[Detectives] weren't allowed to do their jobs" by high-ranking officers, in deference to Savage's rank and position as head of IID, he and other sources contend.

Sources also maintain Savage was not made to take Breathalyzer or urinalysis tests in the wake of the shooting, as has been required of all officers in such circumstances since May 31. But Weinhold says he was told by Maj. Jeffrey Rosen, director of the Violent Crimes Division (which includes the Homicide Unit), that Savage did undergo a Breathalyzer.

Immediately after the shooting, Weinhold says, Savage was taken to the Homicide Unit and was there for several hours. Police sources say detectives were never allowed to talk to Savage and that he only gave them a written account of the incident about a week after the shooting. As with civilians, police officers cannot be forced to talk to detectives, but they are routinely taken to Homicide and asked to give a statement; they can choose to talk freely, consult an attorney, or say nothing. In Savage's case, sources say, detectives were never even allowed to ask the major whether he wanted to give a statement or call a lawyer.

Sources also contend Savage never lost his police powers in the wake of the shooting, as is routine in such cases, pending a review by the state's attorney's office. Weinhold says Savage's police powers were suspended after the 2 A.M. incident, then returned later that morning after prosecutors' preliminary review of the evidence.

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