Last night’s meeting on “Increased Transparency About Police-Seized Property,” was as local activist ShaiVaughn Crawley had predicted when I spoke to him last week about it—”a dog and pony show.”
Ostensibly framed in response to the actions of the federally-indicted Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), the meeting was held following a resolution from Councilman Robert Stokes “for the purpose of requesting that the Police Department provide the City Council with a full accounting of all seized guns, drugs, dirt bikes, and cash over the last 5 years, along with a thorough explanation of how this material was disposed of, how long the disposal process typically takes, and what the best ways to include community representatives in that process may be.”
Chief Steven O’Dell, the Baltimore Police Department’s chief financial officer and head of evidence units, told the committee he invited “transparency” and was there to answer questions and clarify. He hadn’t brought a presentation—a detail that seemed to rightly tick off Councilman Eric Costello, chair of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee—and didn’t provide a full accounting, though O’Dell gave some basic insight into how evidence is handled, disposed of, and accounted for during the meeting.
Guns and drugs are burned and a number of BPD organizations (including witnesses from the crime lab, Internal Affairs, and S.W.A.T.) are there to watch the burn. Cash is deposited into the bank in three different accounts (gambling, narcotics, and other) and that money then goes to the city (at the point that it is deposited, the BPD no longer has any control over it or ability to track it, only the city does). Dirt bikes are sold to “a third party” who then sell them to private citizens and ideally, there is a clear paper trail from city to seller to buyer.
Additionally, O’Dell said to the shock of everyone in the room, the last full audit of the BPD was four years ago.
“Why no audit for four years? Why?” Councilman Brandon Scott asked, frustrated.
O’Dell also read off data on seized guns and cash and drugs submissions since 2013 (to be clear, “submissions” refers to the number of evidence submissions in this category, as opposed to total tangible cash or drugs amounts).
- 2013: 1960
- 2014: 2048
- 2015: 1850
- 2016: 2058
- 2017: 1898
- 2013: 22, 244
- 2014: 18,120
- 2015: 11,932
- 2016: 12,479
- 2017: 13,700
- 2013: 6726
- 2014: 5733
- 2015: 4438
- 2016: 4628
- 2017: 4702
For 2017, O’Dell gave the exact amount of seized cash: $2,382,238. He added that of that, $152,758 was returned. O’Dell also said that around 400 dirt bikes have been seized since 2016, or specifically since the establishment of the dirt bike violators task force, which was established in July of 2016 (so, essentially 400 dirt bikes over the span of a year and a half).
Sgt. Christopher Warren, the supervisor of the dirt bike violators task force was present but did not speak. Among the crimes that GTTF member Sgt. Wayne Jenkins plead guilty to last week was stealing dirt bikes.
O’Dell couldn’t provide specifics beyond those numbers. The committee demanded more in-depth information about the data as soon as possible: Scott asked for all of the data to be broken down by district; Mary Pat Clarke asked if the committee could witness a burn and expressed worry that seized evidence was making it back on the streets; and Costello, who was previously an informational technology auditor and again seemed particularly miffed by the police’s lack of information, questioned the processes, which seemed scattered and ripe for adjusting. Wouldn’t it be easy, Costello wondered, to video record these burns and have an officer hold up the gun, declare its make and model, announce the serial number, and then burn it?
But without a more in-depth presentation of the seizure data—in other words, full transparency—this essentially made the informational part of the meeting over police transparency over. There would have to be another meeting and voting on the resolution would come down the line, and so public comment began.
While there were no references by O’Dell or by the committee to the GTTF scandal, it was the primary focus from those who came to publicly comment. Nearly everybody who spoke observed that the GTTF is under federal indictment and that many members have plead guilty to stealing cash, drugs, guns, and dirt bikes. All of it confirmed the things they had heard or seen in their communities for years, even decades.
“Why do we trust the BPD to take all of this stuff of the street?” resident Bill Goodin wondered. “We’ve been talking about this for 20 years, man.”
“Why are these officers here without paperwork?” asked Val Jenkins of Hugs Don’t Shoot. “Y’all got to do better.”
“They should have brought a bank statement,” said Leon Pernell, director of the Men and Families Center. “This is the same old bull.”
The final speaker—after typical confusion involving those who had signed up but hadn’t checked to “testify” and Costello briefly getting into it with activist Crawley—was Rashad Staton. Staton is the vice chair of the Education Committee 12th District Youth Commissioner and was there last night to advocate for dirt bikers and confront the dirt bike task force’s aggressive approach.
“Once the funding [from dirt bike sales] is properly audited that money can then be reallocated into programs . . . solely devoted to youth and core cultural programs that deal with an advantageous approach and solution to the dirt bike culture,” Staton said. “We understand that the dirt bike task force is solely out there to propagandize and criminalize a certain population within our city. We ask that this money asked to go towards the redirection of public safety, that we invest it in the development of our young people in a program that’s culturally competent and accessible.”
He alluded to “organizations that teach S.T.E.M. education with the interest of dirt bike culture in Baltimore City” such as B-360 Balitmore—“a community partnership dedicated to changing the perception of engineers and dirt bike riders”—and told the committee he could provide them with a list.
“I am here to make sure that this goes on public record and to hold every single one of you all accountable and to let our law enforcement know that they have other avenues of prevention and intervention rather than the incarceration of our young black boys and girls in Baltimore city,” Staton said. “Thank you.”