The two men wore body armor with "POLICE" written across the chest and spilled out of their unmarked car, weapons drawn, ordering Christopher Dukes and his passenger out of their vehicle at a South Baltimore gas station parking lot. When Dukes pulled off, they embarked on a high-speed chase down Interstate 295 until catching up and placing the pair under arrest, charging documents show.
Then it was time for the real police to take over.
The men in the body armor were not Baltimore police officers or federal agents, but instead a little-known classification of security guards known as "special police," who are commissioned by the city or state to arrest and detain citizens — but only on specific properties.
For decades, they have added an extra layer of eyes and ears on the streets, supplementing the sworn police force at no cost to taxpayers and protecting some of Baltimore's most venerable institutions. But some of the officers have also faced lawsuits and resident complaints, leading city police to re-evaluate whether to continue the program.
City and state police do not provide or require training to the special officers, do not monitor their actions and do not generally investigate complaints against them. Employers are responsible for oversight.
In a wide-ranging lawsuit filed this summer by residents of Cherry Hill — including Dukes, who was convicted of assault in the case — as well as an earlier suit filed in Northeast Baltimore, residents say special police officers overstepped their bounds and violated the residents' civil rights.
Critics say the program is ripe for abuse on the streets, with residents of tough neighborhoods complaining that they can't tell the difference between the special police and city cops. And many with law enforcement backgrounds who now work in the security industry say they worry about police powers being given to people without proper training and supervision.
"Nobody is overseeing them," said Larry S. Davidson Sr., a retired Baltimore officer who runs a security company that doesn't use special police. "The next thing you know, they're going into apartment complexes and jacking people up and violating people's rights because they haven't got the proper training to know the difference."
The Baltimore Police Department has become so concerned about the program — including attempts by some to impersonate special police officers with counterfeit badges or confusing uniforms and vehicles — that officials are reconsidering the policy of granting special police licenses. The state issues licenses in the city as well and has no such plans.
"The program's going to be re-evaluated and presented to the next commissioner on whether this is a function that will continue," said Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman.
Special police officers work for a wide variety of organizations, including the Johns Hopkins University and the District Court of Maryland. They stand watch over shopping centers and apartment complexes, rarely getting into anything controversial. The sprawling Greater Grace Church, located in a former strip mall in Northeast Baltimore, has 10 commissioned special police officers.
But citizens who claim they've had bad encounters with special police say there's little recourse when the officers go beyond their authority.
"For the longest time, the community thought they were police officers. They would not give their name or their badge numbers. Their cars didn't say 'special police,' they said 'police,'" said Walter Williams Sr., 47, of Cherry Hill, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit there.
Laws give the city and state the ability to commission "special police officers" to "preserve the public peace, prevent crime, arrest offenders [and] protect the rights and property in and upon such premises as fully as a regular police officer."
The agencies require only a two-page application, and conduct a brief background check. The police powers are limited to designated areas, which are set based on who hires the security company.
"You have security guards, the folks you see walking the malls or standing posts, working entry to certain buildings. And then there's special police," said John Simpson, a retired Maryland State Police commander who for years oversaw special police licensing. "Security is observe and report. Special police can engage."
The special police and security guards working in the city help cover areas where city police cannot be, and their observations can provide useful intelligence. In addition to arrest powers, special police officers can have people committed to mental institutions and take other actions reserved for police, including searching people. They can carry guns, but only if they have the same permits required for other residents.
They have to use badges and uniforms that clearly distinguish them from police — for example, they are not allowed to use red-and-blue lights on vehicles and must be given permission to use the state or city seal on their patches.
In Virginia, the General Assembly passed a law in 2005 requiring its equivalent of special police to take 24 hours of classroom instruction and 16 additional hours of firearms training for those seeking to carry handguns. North Carolina's "company police" officers are required by state law to have the same minimum pre-employment and in-service standards as required for state law enforcement officers.
As of 2010, Maryland had licensed 970 special police officers throughout the state. In Baltimore, there were about 100 such officers two years ago, but that number has been cut to about 50 amid concerns about the program.
Among those who have licenses is Mark Rothenhoefer, whose family has created an empire of sorts along a commercial strip on Frederick Avenue in Southwest Baltimore.
Their "Three Brothers" company name is splashed on a gas station and body shop, which sits next to a liquor store and check-cashing business plastered with signs advertising their touchless car wash, Internet cafe, Western Union and passport and visa services. There's a laundromat down the hill, and they lease a hair salon and tattoo shop.
The businesses are located just a short drive from the Southwestern District police station, but a police response can sometimes take too long.
Rothenhoefer said that makes security a priority — for his customers, his employees and himself. Customers must be buzzed into the liquor store, and there is a network of more than 80 security cameras watching every corner. Inside the liquor store, where there are check-cashing booths, a rack of adult magazines and a walk-in beer refrigerator, employees wear headsets that enable them to communicate with each other quickly.
"Where we're at can be a very dangerous area," Rothenhoefer says, saying there have been shootings and stabbings outside and robbery attempts inside. "If you value your life, you've got to be on your A-game."
Since 2000, Rothenhoefer said, he's been commissioned as a special police officer, and court records show he's been involved in more than 40 arrests. Most of them are for passing bad checks, something he says can happen twice a day at his store. One man he charged in 2011 received a four-year suspended sentence and was ordered to pay $4,000 restitution.
But he also once held at gunpoint a burglar who had broken into his pizza shop a few doors down. The man has since been released and is a regular customer at his businesses, Rothenhoefer said.
"The police are overloaded, and officers get upset when they have to write a lengthy report," he said. Having a special police commission "allows us to handle the situation without any cost to Baltimore City. They're not sending their officers on all these calls and having to write these reports."
The Enoch Pratt Free Library also has a cadre of special police officers. Lt. Kennard Hopkins has worked security for the library for 27 years, and recently helped police locate a regular who was allegedly using their computers to set up robberies through the Craigslist website. But he said he hasn't made an arrest in years, and said officers take every step to avoid such action. There's a complaint box in the lobby of the library for anyone who has concerns about officers' conduct.
"Everyone's welcome here, and we give everyone the benefit of the doubt," Hopkins said. "But if someone does something inappropriate or wrong, by us having powers to detain someone, that's a benefit to us."
Rothenhoefer and others interviewed for this article said the licensing process is thorough and said they're given an overview of their responsibilities and limitations. The property owners assume liability of special police officers who are licensed for their property, said Simpson, who oversaw the program for the state police.
If the property owners are "willing to take on that liability and expose themselves to that risk, then they must feel as though it's necessary," Simpson said. "The overwhelming majority are employed by professional organizations — McDaniel College, the District Court, Sparrows Point."
When it comes to regulation, Simpson said, state police are automatically notified when a special police officer or security guard is arrested and can send an auditor out to review complaints, but typically have no oversight over the officers. Simpson said if officers abuse their power to charge someone, "it will come out at trial."
"The system kind of has checks and balances," he said.
Baltimore police, who would not make officials available for an interview, said through a spokesman that the "statute is clear: it's the companies that are responsible for the conduct of their employees."
"It's up to these individual security companies to hold these people accountable," Guglielmi said. "The BPD can't be everywhere."
In a lawsuit against a security company and the Police Department, attorneys for Daniel Earl Smith argued that the special police program "creates a whole class of persons who are granted identical police powers … but receive none of the initial and on-going training, or supervision through superior officers and investigatory disciplinary bodies that the city and the department have acknowledged are essential to ensure that police powers are exercised in a constitutional and lawful manner."
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.
Tonya Bana, an attorney who is representing Cherry Hill residents in their suit, said the city has no legal liability when it comes to the actions of special police that they give commissions to, but that it should exercise more responsibility.
"There's no question that privatized law enforcement is increasingly popular. It's a growth industry. But that's why this is so important," Bana said. "Some of the complaints may seem petty, but it's not a petty thing to have someone armed with a gun run up on you who looks like a police officer."
Tenable officials, and Osborne and Spitzer, through their attorneys, declined to comment on the accusations.
Debate over regulation
Some special police officers who have law enforcement backgrounds said the overall regulation of the program is lacking.
Jon Carpenter of Elkton spent 18 years with the Maryland Natural Resources Police until a medical issue forced him into retirement. He then did private detective work, and now works as a bailiff for the District Court system.
Carpenter said that his special police powers as a bailiff allow him and his fellow bailiffs, all retired law enforcement officers, to make arrests. But it's a rarely used power, and he wonders why the state extends it to security officers and business owners. He thinks special police, along with bounty hunters, lack the regulations in place in other states.
"I can see it being useful under limited circumstances, like say security guards at the Giant food store, where you want to be able to arrest and detain people under very, very limited circumstances, but I believe there should be some training. There's a heck of a lot of liability there," said Carpenter, 54.
Francis Peterson, the chief of the Rising Sun Police Department in Cecil County, owns a security business on the side that works in Baltimore and used special police until recently, when the Police Department said it began an audit of his company. He said their presence was "just like having a police officer there."
"It truly won't affect us so much," Peterson said of his officers no longer having special police commissions. "They'll be able to do their jobs, but won't have the same powers."
Baltimore Sun reporter Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.
Companies/organizations with special police officers
Licensed through the city
All County Security (5 officers)
Assured Protection (1)
Arrington Security (6)
Baltimore Convention Center (4)
Bi-Rite Supermarket (1)
Enoch Pratt Free Library (11)
Good Samaritan Hospital (6)
Mercy Medical Center (6)
Moravia Exxpert Auto (1)
Soldier Security (1)
Tenable Security (4)
Watkins Security (2)
Licensed through the state
Greater Grace World Outreach (10)
Johns Hopkins University (68)
Keswick Management LLC & Multi-Care Center (16)
Platinum Security LLC (1)
Beau Dietl & Associates (1)
Loyola University (57)
Maryland Institute College of Art (1)
Maryland Stadium Authority (1)
Workers Compensation Commission (7)
Sheppard Pratt Health Systems (52)
Union Memorial Hospital (9)
Watkins Security (1)
University of Maryland Medical Systems (13)
Village in the Woods Limited Partnership (5)
Motor Vehicle Administration (17)
District Court (Numerous)
Three Brothers & A-1 Paging (1)
State figures are through 20