The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The jaw-dropping fall of an elite Baltimore police unit validates the need for federal oversight

A Baltimore police vehicle in 2017 in Baltimore. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Back in the summer of 2016, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division released the report from its investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. I wrote at the time that it was one of the worst such reports I’d ever seen. Still is. It described routine harassment and discrimination, habitual violations of constitutional rights, and little to no oversight, transparency or accountability. The report brought a sense of vindication for residents of Baltimore who have long complained about the city’s policing.

Critics, on the other hand, derided the report as politically motivated and anecdotal. In the New York Post, former NYPD officer Eugene O’Donnell called the report “a clueless hit job.” Conservatives claimed that the BPD couldn’t possibly enforce racist policies, because half the police department is black. (This betrays a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of structural racism.) The Daily Wire absurdly complained — with no evidence, other than a link to a rant by talk radio blusterer Mark Levin — that the report was just another effort by the Obama administration to nationalize the police: “Their real motivation is to expand their power into these local police departments so they can be molded to fit their leftist ideology.” Critic of cop critics Heather Mac Donald wrote that the report “is assiduously blind to, and silent about, the burdens faced by residents of high-crime neighborhoods,” and called it “just one more reckless attack on police legitimacy.”

But city officials appeared to take the report to heart. After Donald Trump was elected, Attorney General Jeff Sessions of course said he’d be rolling back these civil rights investigations of police departments. As a part of that new policy, the Justice Department said it would be reconsidering all of the consent decrees that local police departments had entered into with the Obama administration. But city officials — in Baltimore and elsewhere — then announced that they’d be moving ahead with those reforms anyway, with or without Justice oversight.

So let’s cut back to the present. There’s currently a police corruption trial going on in Baltimore. Ex-cops are testifying at that trial. And man, they’re saying some things:

[Former detective Jemell] Rayam testified about a July 2016 robbery of a married couple who were handcuffed after leaving Home Depot and taken to a police substation nicknamed “The Barn,” even though there was no evidence they had committed any crime. The indictment alleges that Gun Trace Task Force supervisor Sgt. Wayne Jenkins posed as a federal official during their interrogation.
After Ronald Hamilton disclosed he had about $40,000 in cash at the couple’s house outside the city, Gun Trace Task Force detectives drove the handcuffed couple to their Carroll County property, called a relative to pick up their children, and then scoured the house looking for cash, according to Rayam.
Before detaining the couple, Jenkins submitted an affidavit asking for authorization to search the home based on phony surveillance that never took place.
They robbed $20,000 before calling other law enforcement agencies to the couple’s home, Rayam testified, saying he “took the cash and put it in the (police) vehicle we were driving.”
Maryland State Police was called to execute a search warrant because the Baltimore unit was outside the city and therefore this was an out-of-jurisdiction warrant for the detectives.
Prosecutors allege they just wanted to rob the couple based on suspicions they were drug dealers — not actual evidence.
Rayam testified the detectives divvied up the money and went celebrating that night at two casinos.

Another ex-detective testified that members of the same police unit robbed a home safe of $100,000, then staged video footage to make the police break-in appear legitimate.

It gets worse. Here are some other highlights from the trial, as reported by the Baltimore Sun:

• [Former detective Maurice] Ward testified that his squad would prowl the streets for guns and drugs, with his supervisor, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, driving fast at groups of people and slamming on the brakes. The officers would pop their doors open to see who ran, then give chase and detain and search them. Ward said this occurred 10 to 20 times on slow nights, and more than 50 times, “easy,” on busier nights.
The officers had no reason to target the crowds other than to provoke someone who might have drugs or a gun into running.
• Ward said Jenkins liked to profile certain vehicles for traffic stops. Honda Accords, Acura TLs, Honda Odysseys were among the “dope boy cars” that they would pull over, claiming the drivers weren’t wearing seat belts or their windows were too heavily tinted. …
• Ward said the officers kept BB guns in their vehicles “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.” He did not say whether the officers ever planted a BB gun on anyone. …
• Ward testified that he and [Marcus] Taylor once conducted a “trash run” on a home in preparation for obtaining a search warrant. They found marijuana residue in the target’s trash, but realized the trash can belonged to another resident. They proceeded anyway, submitting an affidavit for a search warrant falsely claiming the drugs had been found in the target’s trash can. …
• Rayam said the unit made regular use of illegal GPS trackers to follow suspects.
• Rayam said the officers once recovered a pound and a half of marijuana and a gun in a search conducted before they had secured a warrant. Jenkins told him to “just get rid of it,” and Rayam said he and another officer sold the drugs and gun back onto the street.

Keep in mind, these weren’t inexperience beat cops. This was one of the elite police units in the city. Also keep in mind that the only reason we know about all of this is because of — yes — a federal investigation.

This isn’t even the only BPD scandal to make headlines since the release of the Justice report. Just last week, a Baltimore police officer was indicted on charges of misconduct and fabricating evidence after body camera video showed him placing a soup can in a lot, walking away, and then going back and “discovering” a bag of white capsules in the can. It’s one of three incidents in which a BPD officer, unaware that body cameras begin recording about 30 seconds before they’re turned on, appears to have been caught by his own body camera either planting evidence or at the very least “recreating” how he found evidence so there’s video footage. (The first is obviously worse than the second, though both constitute tampering.) Prosecutors called the other two incidents an “error of judgment.”

In January, the Baltimore Sun reported that a police officer had given false testimony in a trial in December. A police spokesman said BPD learned about his testimony only when the Sun asked the department about it.

And then there’s the death of Baltimore Police Detective Sean Suiter. He was shot — with his own gun — a day before he was to give grand jury testimony as part of the federal investigation into the officers on the Gun Trace Task Force. The murder remains unsolved. The Sun reports, “It is the only line-of-duty killing in the agency’s history that is unsolved, with suspects apprehended on the scene or quickly identified through tips in previous cases.”

Meanwhile, the homicide rate in Baltimore continues to soar. Here’s a possible explanation, for which there seems to be growing evidence: Perhaps Baltimore residents fear their police department more than they fear the criminals.

Sessions once called Justice Department efforts to get cops to respect the rights of the people they serve “one of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power.” Again, just to be clear, Sessions wasn’t referring to the abuses committed by police. He was referring to the Justice Department’s efforts to rein them in. (Of course, Sessions has no problem with Justice coercing local police agencies into enforcing federal immigration laws — even when local police officials say that doing so impedes their ability to fight crime.)

I say we ask the victims of the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force: Which was the more dangerous exercise of raw power, the police officers from that unit who robbed, framed and terrorized people all over Maryland (no, not just Baltimore), or the federal officials who brought those officers to justice?