Anna Walsh is a copy editor in The Post’s Opinions section. She lives in Baltimore.
Federal charges against former members of the Baltimore Police Department’s now-disbanded Gun Trace Task Force, an elite plainclothes unit, should have been shocking, but they were not surprising to Baltimore residents.
The eight officers, most of whom have pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, allegedly would regularly rob citizens of huge amounts of cash and drugs — “at least $300,000 in cash, three kilos of cocaine, 43 pounds of marijuana, 800 grams of heroin, and jewelry worth hundreds of thousands more in cash,” as Vox summarized.
One detective who pleaded guilty, Momodu Gondo, testified that he ran interference for a heroin ring, keeping other officers away. Maurice Ward, another detective who pleaded guilty, testified that the task force would use illegal GPS trackers to track people they planned to rob. He also said the officers kept BB guns in their cars “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.” In April 2016, prosecutors said, Sgt. Thomas Allers, then the head of the task force, took $10,000 in cash from a man’s home. Without the money, federal prosecutors said, the man couldn’t repay a drug debt and was shot to death a few months later. His 4-year-old daughter was reportedly with him when he was killed.
The federal charges weren’t the first inkling of misconduct from these particular officers: Two state delegates had called for a federal investigation into officer Jemell Rayam in 2009 after he was involved in three shootings in less than two years. Another officer, Daniel Hersl, has long had a reputation for being a violent cop; the Baltimore Sun reported as far back as 2006 on the internal affairs complaints he had accumulated, and the city has settled multiple lawsuits involving him. Gondo said on the stand in Hersl’s trial that he “was banned from the whole Eastern District based on complaints.”
That points to an inconvenient truth for police department leaders, who have tried to paint the task force as a “few bad apples”: Most police officers might not behave with criminal impunity, but the department certainly enabled the behavior the task force members were accused of.
Complaints of theft filed to internal affairs as far back as 2014 seemingly went unaddressed. Ward testified that a contact in internal affairs had warned the officers they were being investigated. Gondo testified that he didn’t worry about getting reported to internal affairs for stealing because “it was just part of the culture.” He also said that Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, who headed the task force after Allers and has also pleaded guilty, seemed to have higher-ups protecting him. Other officers, some of whom still work for the department, were accused by colleagues of stealing money, including Detective Sean Suiter, who died under mysterious circumstances a day before he was supposed to testify about the Gun Trace Task Force before a grand jury.
The Justice Department’s investigation published in 2016 found that “cultural opposition to meaningful accountability within the Department is reflected by the lack of discipline for serious misconduct.” Gondo’s belief that he would face retribution if he spoke out about Jenkins fits with the department’s history of punishing whistleblowers. The trial highlighted issues with internal affairs serious enough that a city councilman called for the removal of the then-head of internal affairs.
Darryl De Sousa, a 30-year veteran of the police department who was named acting police commissioner just a few weeks ago, made changes to address the police department’s problems: He created a corruption investigation unit to focus on the actions of the Gun Trace Task Force, announced a new inspections and integrity unit and replaced the head of internal affairs. These are encouraging steps toward reform, but there’s no guarantee the public will learn the outcomes of these internal investigations. And given how little faith Baltimore citizens have in the department’s integrity, it should be making every effort toward transparency and engaging the public.
If De Sousa wants to restore public faith in the Baltimore Police Department, at the very minimum there ought to be public hearings to allow citizens to be part of the process to discuss the department’s systemic issues. But, given the department’s cultural resistance to civilian oversight, that seems unlikely to happen.
“It’s very few bad apples that spoil the entire barrel,” De Sousa said. If he wants to root out corruption and help restore Baltimore citizens’ trust in the police, he ought to be showing them how he will fix the apple tree.
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