“We Told You So”: At confirmation hearing for Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, reminders of a broken BPD

Brendan Walsh testifes during a confirmation hearing for Darryl De Sousa, who looks on. / Photo courtesy Brandon Soderberg

Halfway through last night’s four-hour City Council hearing to confirm acting Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, you could hear the voice of Tawanda Jones shout, “Indict, convict, put those killers cops in jail, the whole damn system is guilty as hell,” from outside.

Jones held West Wednesday—her weekly gathering for Tyrone West, her brother who died in police custody in 2013—on the lawn of City Hall, and she was loud enough to penetrate the walls of the building’s fourth floor council chamber and cut through the tedious formalities of a hearing on a topic that was clearly decided long before the hearing: De Sousa will be the next commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department.

“A dog-and-pony show,” is how Jones described the hearing when she had been inside the chambers earlier that night to testify, one of nearly 40 people who weighed in on the next commissioner—some offering praise and support (including interfaith nonprofit B.U.I.L.D.), others wondering how he could be a 30-year veteran of the BPD and not know about scandals such as the Gun Trace Task Force, a few calling attention to three fatal police shootings he was involved in.

But everyone made it loud and clear that the BPD must be cleaned up and reimagined.

A portrait of De Sousa painted by his supporters and his own opening remarks offered up a 53-year-old son of Panamanian immigrants, a Morgan State University grad, a cop who lives in the city and has moved through the ranks since 1988 focused for years on getting cops out of their cars and walking the streets, and a reformer quite good at hedging his bets.

When Councilperson Brandon Scott asked De Sousa about the possibility of changing the BPD from a state agency to a department operating under the direct oversight of the city, De Sousa said, “If that law does change, I’ll support it.” De Sousa gave similar non-answers to questions about legalization of cannabis and the release of BPD officers’ internal affairs documents. If laws were changed, he would enforce that changed law.

When Councilperson Zeke Cohen asked De Sousa if he supported the end of the war on drugs, De Sousa dodged and discussed the opioid crisis and reducing arrests. Councilperson Ryan Dorsey (who floated the possibility that he will abstain next week from voting on De Sousa) asked “What caused the Baltimore Uprising?” to which De Sousa provided a cogent breakdown of how policing had negatively impacted black Americans, going back to slavery.

He knows what to say and how much to say. De Sousa also promised civilians on trial review boards for police officers, a “duty to deescalate” policy, and a number of ways to address police corruption including weekly integrity tests (De Sousa said the department did just two last year; he intends to do at least that many each week). He walked back previous “bad apples” comments and said of the GTTF scandal, “I believe it set us back 40 or 50 years.” Later De Sousa said that the 12 officers mentioned during the trial are all being investigated.

The most damning testimony came from Brendan Walsh, co-owner of West Baltimore soup kitchen Viva House, who mentioned Garrett “Scooter” Jackson, a 26-year-old man De Sousa shot and killed while on duty in February 1995. At the time, De Sousa said Jackson was “acting suspicious” and had a gun.

“Darryl De Sousa put 13 bullets in [Jackson’s] body. I have the autopsy report and it says that the cause of death was homicide. Those 13 bullets? Three of them were in the back,” Walsh said. “I don’t understand. When I talk to people—because I got to that spot two minutes after the shooting—the peoples’ witness said that Scooter did not fire a shot and they did not even think he had a gun. And I don’t know how it can be explained that he had three bullets in his back.”

Walsh also referenced the December 1995 shootings by De Sousa and two others officers in which they fired 30 rounds, killing prison escapee George Thomas Jr. and bystander Melvin James, who was accidentally shot in the forehead during the shootout.

“Melvin James, 18 years old,” Walsh intoned. “I’m really surprised at that kind of policing while shooting in a public street near a library in the middle of the day”

Walsh wondered why there was such urgency to approve a commissioner with this background: “It seems like we’re rushing this thing too fast.”

While Walsh spoke, De Sousa stared outward, other officers averted their gaze. The back of Walsh’s shirt read, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Self-declared “warrior lawyer” J. Wyndal Gordon, who recently represented the family of Korryn Gaines, a woman shot and killed by Baltimore County Police, in a case that a civil trial jury deemed “not objectively reasonable” and awarded the Gaines’ 37 million dollars, praised De Sousa even as he acknowledged Walsh’s testimony.

“I’m a little disturbed, I must admit, from hearing of the loss of life that was taken at the hands of your service weapon,” Wyndal Gordon said. “But nevertheless, and I’m not overlooking that, I’m just putting it in a compartment, because you deserve a chance.”

Looming over the entire hearing was the threat of serious protest, instigated in part by a sweeping statement the day before by Baltimore Bloc, which also called attention to De Sousa’s shootings and read like a manifesto similar to one Bloc and other activist groups released in October 2015 before previous Commissioner Kevin Davis’ confirmation hearing. After that hearing, activists held an all-night City Hall sit-in, and on the night of Davis’ confirmation, a march through the city in protest.

Bloc never publicly declared a sit-in in protest of De Sousa, but their statement got officials worried enough that the police reached out to them to meet privately the night before the hearing to meet privately but they declined. Besides, it’s generally wise protest protocol that if people are expecting a protest you don’t protest.

The De Sousa hearing was more of a victory lap for activists, who just by showing up stoked fear in a City Hall desperate for business as usual, and made it clear they had been right about police corruption for years and hey, maybe it might be wise to listen to them this time around.

“Some of you council members were here on October 2015 when somebody else was having their hearing for the Baltimore City Police Commissioner and there were a group of people who felt their voices were not heard and as a consequence of them exercising their right of their voice to be heard, they were arrested,” activist ShaiVaughn Crawley said. “And so I’m not here to tell you, ‘I told you so’ because that wouldn’t be too productive, but I think I’m going to say it anyway: We told you so. We told you about everything. Everything that came from the Gun Trace Task Force trial. Everything that was new was already out there. And we tried every effort to tell all of you what was already going on and you looked at us like we were in crazy.”

De Sousa is expected to be voted in as the next police commissioner of the Baltimore City Police Department on Monday, Feb. 26.

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