Public defender Todd Oppenheim on how deeper issues arise from the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force trial

The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) is coming apart at the seams. A long list of misconduct over the years recently culminated with the federal trial and convictions of two former officers. Let’s be candid, things have gotten noticeably bad for BPD, even in the eyes of some of its staunchest proponents. Change is needed throughout the justice system to ensure that we can re-establish trust in Baltimore police. The 2015 in-custody death of Freddie Gray and subsequent protests of BPD made world-wide news. Then, the local criminal trials of six officers charged in Gray’s killing exposed the layers of protection afforded to the police when accused of misconduct and the difficulties in holding BPD accountable.

On the heels of not guilty verdicts and dismissals in the aforementioned trials, revelations of unconstitutional and outright illegal practices emerged publicly with the Department of Justice’s 2016 report outlining numerous problems within BPD. Namely a disproportionate number of unlawful stops of African-American citizens.

Not long after the DOJ report, in early 2017, federal prosecutors indicted seven members of BPD’s now defunct Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) on egregious racketeering charges involving robbery, theft and evidence tampering while on the job.

This past summer, with the advent of body camera footage in most arrests, a Baltimore cop was “caught” (on his own camera) planting drugs, which garnered national headlines. Next, after an eighth officer was added to the GTTF case, six of the eight pled guilty at the end of 2017. As GTTF pleas were being entered, in November of 2017, a veteran cop with ties to the indicted officers, Sean Suiter, was tragically murdered while on duty. That case remains unsolved. In recent weeks, the remaining two GTTF cops who pled not guilty went to trial, and in the process exposed a network of corruption.

And there’s much more, and it goes back further, but is anyone tallying this up?

As a long time resident of Baltimore City and a city public defender for the past 14 years, I see a watershed moment. The BPD scandals aren’t surprising to anyone in criminal defense practice in Baltimore. Clients have been telling us of instances of false charges, mistreatment, abuse and violence on the part of BPD for years. However, our attempts to use such information in court are regularly shut down by judges and ignored by prosecutors.

There Are Many More Victims of GTTF: I represented a client in 2015 in a trial with the GTTF where, despite an aura of impropriety based on what my client and witnesses said, I had no solid evidence to challenge the cops on the witness stand. The case involved an alleged gun “tossing” and a mysterious injury to my client’s leg that was supposed to be a gash from a fence- except his pants weren’t ripped over the wound. It came down to our word versus theirs—and we lost. My client went to prison for what should have been 8 years. Fortunately, after the officers’ indictments, because of a motion I had on file (unrelated to the GTTF indictments) we reopened my client’s case. The State dismissed the charges. The GTTF fallout extends to thousands of other convictions from trials and guilty pleas, which now require reexamining, to say the least.

Likewise, citizen complaints filed directly with BPD have an even slimmer chance of success. Nearly all people of color and most folks who live in predominantly black neighborhoods in Baltimore are “woke” to what goes on, but nothing happens. So, with this litany of corruptible occurrences now on record instead of “mere anecdotes”, its time for major changes in policing and the justice system. More concerning than the GTTF’s officers’ actions—like stealing prescription drugs from pharmacies during the 2105 Uprising or causing car accidents and not rendering aid—is the complete lack of oversight and arguable collusion from police administration, prosecutors and courts.

The BPD Must Have Known: Years of misconduct have persisted in BPD in part because of poor management. How could they not have not known? Maybe that’s why Mayor Catherine Pugh replaced Commissioner Kevin Davis on January 19th with Deputy Commissioner Darryl DeSousa. Admittedly, Davis was a bit of a sacrificial lamb for the City’s ineptitude towards handling the high murder rate, but it was under Davis’ charge that DOJ reforms were to be taking place as the GTTF simultaneously committed their crimes. Davis also inexplicably did not immediately know that murdered Detective Suiter was connected to the GTTF trial.

The New Commissioner on Shaky Ground: Additionally, in the GTTF proceedings testimony suggested that a Davis deputy, Dean Palmere, once responded to the scene of a GTTF suspect shooting and coached the field unit in getting their stories straight. Coincidentally, that deputy retired later the same week. Also resigning upon Davis’ firing were two deputies tasked with instituting DOJ reforms. That can’t be good. So, now we have a commissioner-appointee who has a good reputation, is an internal guy, but also committed two shootings resulting in deaths during his days in patrol (for which he was “cleared”). Two of DeSousa’s first picks for high level spots have been rescinded because of questionable candidate records. On top of that, a BPD training supervisor recently said that a new class of cadets has not been properly schooled on constitutional policing, yet they are still being pushed through. This seems like an inauspicious start.

What’s Next?: DeSousa now awaits confirmation by the full City Council after breezing through the appointments committee with unanimous approval despite an impassioned, critical public comment session in the hearing. This is precisely where we need a time out.  Instead of taking the well traveled path, we should totally shift the makeup of BPD to that of a civilian led force with police managers underneath a board-like committee. Let business people and professional managers handle finances and organization while police supervisors control day to day functions. Increase salaries and roll back overtime allowance (a major part of the misconduct). The City Council should slow down and re-evaluate the same move we’ve made for years. DeSousa has a role to play in administration in some capacity, but now is the time to shift away from a commissioner led department.

Additionally, both prosecutors and courts should monitor the police. How could they have not known? Prosecutors and judges see which cops are problematic witnesses live in court and now on body camera footage too. So, when rights are violated, State’s Attorneys need to keep track and make the information available. Judges should also remember and even report violations to the police department. The smallest infractions in court may seem inconsequential, but they can lead to worse- and they can end up affecting completely innocent citizens. In addition, the State’s Attorney’s unit that both charges criminal actions of cops and protects their personnel records should be split to eliminate potential conflicts in performing both functions in one unit. Let’s not forget, the GTTF investigation was cut short because of a warning from the State’s Attorney’s Office to the cops. This is unacceptable. We need to know who tipped off the police and how they did it.

Even if our mayor concedes that she didn’t really pay attention to the GTTF trial, everyone should look again. We need to delineate the dueling problems of a high murder rate plaguing Baltimore and bad policing. They are related, but separate issues. BPD should not be held solely responsible for the increased violence. For that we can turn to unaddressed socio-economic conditions embedded in our communities. Still, we need to be able depend on the police to credibly respond to crime and investigate cases. We need to be able to trust BPD. And for that we need top to bottom reform.

Todd Oppenheim is a lawyer in the Baltimore City Public Defender’s Office’s Felony Trial division. Email- him at toppenheim@opd.state.md.us; follow him on Twitter @Opp4Justice.

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