It was less than three years ago that the death of Freddie Gray, and the demonstrations that followed, transfixed the nation, though it feels like much longer. That story occurred at a time of intense scrutiny on police around the nation, which began after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer. Since then, the nation’s attentions have shifted, first to the acrimonious presidential election, and then to the never-ending circus of the Trump administration. Yet a court case in Baltimore now ought to be a huge national story.
The Gray case captured attention not only because the facts of Gray’s death were so ghastly—he was arrested for no good reason, thrown into a police van, and within an hour he was in a coma, his spine nearly severed—but also because the protests after his death served as an outlet for years of grievances that black Baltimoreans had accumulated against the city’s police department.
What’s striking about the story of the city’s gun-trace task force is different, in that rather than merely offering a single case that symbolizes an unjust system, it shows how bad behavior by a small group of police can on its own affect a large number of people. In March of last year, the city suspended the decade-old unit, and eight of its nine members were charged by federal prosecutors with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from suspects and defrauding the city for overtime pay using fraudulent documents. Over the last week, as the Baltimore Sun’s excellent crime reporter Justin Fenton has chronicled, task-force member Maurice Ward, a detective who pleaded guilty and is now testifying against his comrades, has unspooled an amazing range of abuses.
Ward’s testimony suggests a police unit that acted as a criminal gang, but with the advantage of legal guns, badges, and the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Some of the offenses are appalling but nonviolent: Seizing money from suspects, the cops would simply pocket part of it. In one case, prosecutors played a tape in which the force opens a safe, and its leader, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, is heard instructing them not to touch anything, to give the appearance of careful propriety. In fact, Ward testified, the crew had already removed $100,000 of the $200,000 they found in the safe, then reenacted the event for the camera after splitting the first 100 grand among themselves. (Jenkins has also pleaded guilty.)
But other behavior is more shocking. The unit would find groups of men, drive toward them at high speed, and throw the doors open, to see who would run. Then they’d chase and detain those who fled—even though it’s easy to imagine anyone who had just had a car drive at them might split. According to Ward, officers might do this between 10 and 50 times a night.
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Officers also sought out “dope-boy cars”—Honda Accords, Acura TLs, and others—and would pull them over for pretextual reasons like overly tinted windows or seat-belt violations. Any man over 18 carrying a book bag might be stopped as inherently suspicious. Ward also said the unit used illegal GPS trackers, and kept BB guns on hand if they needed to plant them in a pinch. He testified that Jenkins claimed to be a federal agent when seizing money.
Ward also said that Jenkins would ask suspected drug dealers who they would target if they could put together a crew to rob a drug dealer. That became a way for the task force to pick targets. The group appears to have operated on the assumption that they wouldn’t raise hackles since the victims of their criminal behavior, especially the thefts, were often drug dealers.
That doesn’t even get into the overtime fraud; that the then-lieutenant who approved the fraudulent hours as reward for seizing guns is, in a potent symbol of how institutions rot, now head of the Baltimore Police Department’s internal-affairs division, which deals with misconduct by members of the force.
As this trial goes on in federal court, another Baltimore officer was charged this week with fabricating evidence. In July, a public defender released a bodycam video made by Officer Richard Pinheiro Jr. In the video, Pinheiro flips on his bodycam, walks down an alley, and announces that he has found a baggie of pills. But the department’s bodycams are set to record 30 seconds prior to being manually turned on, and that 30 seconds showed Pinheiro first placing the pills, then leaving the alley. (His defense attorney contends he was reenacting a discovery that had already occurred but was not taped.)
Evidence-planting is an obvious miscarriage of justice, but is also a somewhat familiar trope from police dramas. The accusations against the gun-trace task force are unsettling for their brazenness. Not only was a subunit of the department acting as a criminal gang, their actions served to criminalize practically any young black man in Baltimore, simply on the basis of his carrying a book bag, driving an extremely common car, or having the temerity to run when driven at by a car. This is of a piece with a 2016 report by the Department of Justice, which found a pattern of targeting African Americans, and especially men, that was breathtaking even by the standards of DOJ reports on police violations of civil rights.
Last week, Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Commissioner Kevin Davis, who had taken charge of the department shortly after Gray’s death, citing high rates of violent crime. There were 343 murders in Baltimore in 2017, the highest per capita rate in recorded history. Crime has been high since Gray’s death, though one contributing factor was an effective strike by police officers, who pulled back from parts of the city following riots and demonstrations. Nationwide, the murder rate continues to sink. It seems more than coincidental that Baltimore and Chicago, two cities where the rate has been elevated, are also both cities where investigations and court cases have shown widespread corruption with the police department. (Chicago saw a decrease in murder rate in 2017.)
Accountability remains elusive and fragile for police who misbehave. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby quickly and aggressively charged six officers in Gray’s death, but that prosecution ended in total failure, with no one convicted of any charges. Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department expanded the use of federal consent decrees to force departments to reform, though advocates still felt that fell far short of what was needed. President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has opted to drastically curtail oversight of police departments, and he has tried to undo arrangements made by the Obama administration.
The prosecution of the gun-trace task force is an important reminder that even though the attention of the media, the nation, and the federal government, have moved on, there’s no less dire need for reform and oversight in some police departments.