A frightening and costly encounter with police unit
Originally published September 20, 2006
They were in the house, Yvonne Rice says, four figures dressed in dark sweat shirts, their hoods drawn tight around their faces. They had rifled through her son's bedroom, she says, where he kept a large amount of cash.
When she confronted the people at her son Craig Kemp's East Baltimore home that chilly November night, Rice says, she thought she might be about to die. Terrified, she bolted from the house, ran down the street and called 911 on her cell phone.
I need the police," she says, breathless, during the tape-recorded call.
But the people Rice saw in her son's home - they were the police.
The encounter described by Rice, Kemp and other relatives was with a "SET" unit that was disbanded in early August amid allegations of misconduct. Led by Sgt. William Harris, that unit of the Special Enforcement Teams worked mostly in plain clothes and unmarked cars in Southeast Baltimore.
Prosecutors have stopped letting the officers testify in court, believing they routinely drew up sworn court papers with fictional or embellished scenarios to justify arrests. One hundred or more cases built by the officers are in jeopardy; city and federal prosecutors have begun dropping them.
One of those dropped cases was against Kemp, who passed a lie detector test about the incident with police that led to his arrest on gun charges. The test, reviewed by The Sun, said there was "no deception indicated."
Interviews with Kemp and his mother reveal another layer of allegations against the SET unit, that the officers searched cars and homes without warrants and took drugs and money.
"The way they were dressed, and the way they acted - I find it all to be very menacing and intimidating," says Christie P. Needleman, Kemp's attorney, "almost like they were a gang."
None of the officers in question has been charged with a crime. None could be reached for comment. Police spokesman Matt Jablow said he could not comment on Kemp's story because the SET unit is under investigation.
Some local defense attorneys, including Kemp's, say city prosecutors have been investigating the SET unit for months. They say prosecutors have interviewed and requested polygraph examinations of several people arrested by the unit.
A source close to the SET unit investigation says that Kemp and others made believable claims about money and drugs taken - but not accurately documented in police paperwork - by the officers, raising questions of theft.
Court documents detail the SET officers' version of Craig Kemp's arrest.
While driving his Chrysler late Nov. 2, 2005, Kemp was pulled over in the 400 block of Clinton St., stopped for speeding, according to the statement of probable cause written by Officer Shakil Moss. Police searched the car using a police dog, and the dog found a gun in a hidden console, Moss wrote.
Police Department communication records indicate that Officer Agustin Rodriguez requested a complaint number for a handgun violation at least 20 minutes before the police dog unit arrived. The apparent conflict shows the officers might have searched the car first, then called for a police dog unit to validate their search.
Kemp says he saw an officer find his loaded .38-caliber revolver, package it and put it in the trunk of the marked police car. Then, he says, he saw officers retrieve the gun, take it out of the package and return it to his car, just before the police dog arrived.
He tested "truthful" about that scenario in the polygraph examination.
Craig Kemp, 24, graduated from Lake Clifton High School and studied pharmacy at the Community College of Baltimore County. Court records show he has no criminal record. The father of a 5-year-old boy and newborn girl, Kemp says he works in construction and sells cars.
In April 2005, Kemp received about $34,000 in a worker's compensation settlement and offers documents that verify that. Kemp says that he is a big tipper at a local strip club and that he recognized one of the officers who pulled him over Nov. 2 as a fellow patron. Kemp thinks the officers might have targeted him.
During the traffic stop, officers asked Kemp whether he had guns or drugs at his home, according to his pre-test interview with the polygraph examiner. He told the officers he did not, though he noted he had cash there, the polygraph report says.
Kemp says he had $28,000 cash locked in the bedroom of his rented home the night he was pulled over. He says his bedroom was unlocked and in disarray after the plainclothes police officers searched it. He says his money was missing.
"They probably figured I was a drug dealer and I wasn't going to say anything about the money," he says. "But that was my own money. They took it. That put me behind on my bills, put me in debt."
His lawyer, Needleman, says Kemp was "devastated about the money" when he contacted her about his arrest.
But for tactical reasons, she says, she told him not to pursue criminal charges or file an internal complaint about the money. She says she thought the officers might not show up for his trial, meaning Kemp's gun case would be dismissed.
Instead, prosecutors dropped charges Monday, not giving a reason in court.
From the beginning of the traffic stop, Kemp says, something didn't feel right about the officers. There were six of them, he says, two in police uniforms and four in dark civilian clothing. He says they ordered him and his passenger, Sean Cozart, out of the car. The officers took Kemp's key ring and his cell phone, he says.
The officers ordered Kemp and Cozart to take off their shoes and socks and later handcuffed them and had them lie in the middle of the street, Kemp says.
Kemp says the officers asked for his address - he gave his mother's - and rummaged through papers in his car until they found a utility bill with his Highland Street address. Kemp says he watched as the plainclothes officers took his keys and said they were heading to his house.
"I was scared," he says. "I was trying to figure out [what was] going on. I didn't know what I got caught up in."
Meanwhile that night, Kemp's relatives say, they were beginning to worry. It's a small neighborhood, and Kemp was in handcuffs barely a block from his home.
His mother, Yvonne Rice, says one of her daughters called her at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she has worked for seven years, to tell her Kemp might be in trouble.
She says she left the hospital and tried to call Kemp using the walkie-talkie feature on their cell phones. At one point, she says, an unfamiliar male voice told her, "Craig is unavailable," and hung up.
Rice says that she, her daughter Crystal Kemp and the mother of one of Craig Kemp's children met and decided to check Kemp's house.
When Rice used her key to try to open the door, she says, she saw dark-clad people inside. The women took off running.
"I was scared," Crystal Kemp says. "I didn't know who they were."
Two caught up with Crystal Kemp and the mother of one of Kemp's children. They shouted that they were police, and one later showed a badge that had been tucked inside the sweat shirt, Crystal Kemp says.
Rice says she ran the other way and was pursued by the other two people. As she was on the phone with 911, she says, they hollered out that they were police officers, she says.
When the 911 operator called back, she asked Rice whether the police were already there. Rice said yes.
"I had talked to the police, I mean, I seen somebody moving and, um, my daughter said the police in my son's room," she says, panting, during the taped conversation. "I say, Lord Jesus."
All three of the women were taken back to Kemp's house by the people they now believe to be plainclothes officers.
Rice says she had an asthma attack and her stomach became upset during the encounter with the people who identified themselves as police.
She and Crystal Kemp say they were at the house for about an hour with the group, who at times asked questions about Kemp and at times seemed relaxed, even reclining on a couch and flipping through channels on Kemp's big-screen television.
Back in the 400 block of Clinton St., where Kemp says he and Cozart were still in handcuffs, Kemp says officers told him, "We have your mother and your sister at your house."
He says he was taken back to his house and asked to sign a warrant to consent to a search of his house. He says he did so, but only because it was clear that the search had already taken place.
There is no search warrant in Kemp's court file.