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Among new Racketeering Charges, is there Hope for the Baltimore Police Department?

By Staff Writer Will Kirsch '20

· Will Kirsch

In early March 2017, a fresh scandal shook the Baltimore Police Department. Seven officers, members of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), were indicted on federal racketeering charges after a year-long DEA investigation revealed a coordinated campaign of extortion, drug-dealing, robbery, and fraud. The indictments came after a period of relative quiet following the Department of Justice’s report on the BPD. The report, which read like the plot of a Training Day sequel, erased any doubt that the BPD is an inherently flawed institution. However, Kevin Davis–who served as interim commissioner before his confirmation in 2015–and new mayor Catherine Pugh provided some hope for departmental reform.

Yet, here we are–discussing a DEA investigation that actually took place while the DOJ was conducting its report on the BPD. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the charges leveled against the GTTF officers are nothing new. Baltimore Police has had a history of criminal offenses, such as drug dealing, extortion, and even rape. In this case, the seven officers have been accused of robbing suspects and random people on the street, abusing overtime, conducting illegal searches, and selling heroin. Additionally, the Baltimore Sun reported that the city has paid, “at least $524,000” to settle separate civil suits involving four of the seven officers in question. Indeed, the indicted men have apparently been targets of an ongoing internal investigation, although nothing was deemed worthy of conviction by the Department’s review.

Clearly, even with last year’s consent decree, which obliges the Department to make reforms regarding its style of policing and to follow the law, BPD continues to be something of a menace in the city’s poor and crime-plagued neighborhoods. Both Mayor Pugh and Commissioner Davis have publicly remained committed to reform, but the inaction of BPD’s internal review mechanisms to prosecute the officers in the latest scandal is concerning. As the consent decree proved, substantial change to the Department will require outside pressure. Moreover, because the City remains uninterested in the complaints of its citizens, that pressure had to come from the federal government.

However, there is a new federal government and a new Justice Department. The man in charge of the DOJ, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, is no real friend of police reform. This is also someone who, in 1986, was turned down from a federal judgeship due to accusations of racially charged comments–read: racism. In late February of 2017, Sessions said that he would “pull back” on the DOJ’s scrutiny of civil rights violations by problematic police forces. Needless to say, civil rights abuses by police disproportionately affect poor black people. Considering Baltimore’s demographics, this is especially concerning since, per a 2016 report by the Maryland Alliance for the Poor, 15.2% of the city’s African-Americans live below the poverty line.

Sessions is convinced that crime is on the rise, even though it has been falling fairly consistently since 1994. Admittedly, there has been an uptick of crime in some cities–including Baltimore–in recent years. However, the Attorney General using that as a justification for willful ignorance of civil rights abuses screams of institutionalized racism. That and his return to the “tough-on-crime” policies which have been historically popular amongst past administrations is an inauspicious sign for a city which has a troubled past with such policing. Two-term Baltimore Mayor, repeat Maryland governor, and short-lived presidential candidate Martin O’Malley adopted a “tough-on-crime” approach throughout his terms in political office. His first gubernatorial administration was actually responsible for the creation of the GTTF in 2007–his first year in office.

The Baltimore Police Department and its approach to crime in the city has been flawed for decades. A new commissioner, a new mayor, and a commitment to reform made by the DOJ in early February of 2017 might be reason to have some hope. Despite the Department’s past and the policies of Mayor Pugh’s predecessors, things could change. However, the changing of the guard in the DOJ and the Attorney General’s vow-of-silence regarding civil rights abuses by police could prove to obliterate any optimism Baltimoreans had for the future. As this most recent case has shown, BPD cannot be trusted to police itself. It took a federal investigation to bring these men to trial. Commissioner Davis has severely cut back plainclothes policing as a consequence of the case, but “as a consequence” is the operative phrase in this sentence. Before the DEA intervened, the GTTF unit was often praised for the “results” it produced. Sessions has pledged to roll back oversight in favor of such “results.” Without the federal government looming over the Department’s shoulder, can there be any expectation of real reform in the future? If history tells us anything–and it so very often does–probably not.

Image from Wikimedia.

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