The Baltimore Police Department entered 2017 with the U.S. Justice Department’s damning investigative report just barely in its rearview, and court-ordered reform hovering overhead. The department now leaves the year behind with more scandal and documented corruption in tow, and the wary eyes of a public eager to see what those reforms will look like.
The last 12 months brought the city’s police department plenty national attention, pretty much all of it unwanted. Today, we reflect on the five biggest storylines of the year.
5) Consent Decree
One year ago today, many in Baltimore were concerned the federal government might not follow through on its pledge to make the Baltimore Police Department implement reforms, thanks to a shift in power. Then President-elect Donald Trump had tapped Jeff Sessions, an outspoken critic of court-ordered police reform, to head up his Department of Justice.
Mayor Catherine Pugh and the rest the city anxiously pushed city and federal attorneys to wrap up negotiations on the agreement to send it to Judge James K. Bredar for his signature, only to find Attorney General Sessions attempting to impede the process in April with a requested three-month delay to “review and assess” the terms of the agreement. Sessions also ordered reviews of all active or pending police consent decrees around the country.
Fortunately, Bredar balked, denying Sessions’ request within one day to push back a crucial hearing. Two days later, he signed the 227-page agreement, requiring police under court order to root out problems with unconstitutional searches and seizures, scuttling or mishandling of sexual assault investigations, discriminatory policing patterns and excessive use of force, among other problems highlighted by investigators after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.
And now, we wait. The city has hired an independent monitor team made up of lawyers, former law enforcement officials and others to oversee the decree’s implementation, and has appointed its own Community Oversight Task Force to help ensure Pugh’s newly populated Civilian Review Board can hold police accountable for misconduct directed at members of the public.
Bredar wrote that the consent decree is “comprehensive, detailed, and precise,” and a police spokesman told Baltimore Fishbowl the agreement “will lead us to the goal we all share: a Baltimore Police Department that leads the progress of the policing profession.” A new year should bring plenty of opportunities to prove just that.
4) Body Cameras
Police fumbled with body-worn cameras in 2017, accidentally creating more of the public distrust they intended to quash by wearing the devices. Three controversial sets of footage released during the summer suggested officers were either manipulating the devices to plant evidence or re-capture themselves finding narcotics, just to make sure it was caught on tape.
- Footage #1, released in July: Three officers are seen hanging out near an alley in Southwest Baltimore in January. One officer appears to plant a bag of narcotics in an empty soup can and then go back to “find” it and declare it to his comrades. The three officers use the evidence to arrest a suspected drug dealer.
- Footage #2, released in August: As many as seven officers are shown on video from November 2016. In the first cut of footage, they search the driver’s seat of a vehicle for several minutes but find nothing. Subsequent cuts of footage from a half-hour later appear to show an officer searching the passenger-side glove box; when he steps back, his counterparts are seen turning their cameras back on. “Now?” one of them asks. Another steps toward the glovebox and “finds” drugs. Police use the evidence to arrest two suspects.
- Footage #3, also released in August: An officer is shown wading through poison ivy in June to ultimately find a suspect’s alleged drug stash tucked into an empty blunt wrapper. He finds it (as shown on his partner’s body camera), but drops the drugs on the ground when he realizes his camera was off. He picks it up again once he knows the discovery can be documented on his device. The officers use the evidence to arrest their suspect.
The fallout from these cases was tremendous. The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, which has the job of using police evidence to prosecute those officers’ arrestees, said it had identified more than 864 cases affected by the videos since the officers shown were arresting or witnessing officers. Prosecutors clarified earlier this month that they have postponed, dropped or plan to drop 266 criminal cases tied to officers depicted on the tainted footage. Another 32 cases that were already closed are under review.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis minimized the gravity of the third video, saying it showed “nothing questionable.” He accepted that the other two sets of footage looked “ugly,” but defended his officers. “I think it’s irresponsible to jump to a conclusion that the police officers were engaged in criminal misconduct,” he said in August. “That’s a heavy allegation to make.”
3) A Near-Quarantine of Harlem Park
For nearly one week in November, residents of West Baltimore’s Harlem Park neighborhood were on residential lockdown. During the days after Det. Sean Suiter’s death in a vacant lot (we’ll get to that), city police were stationed in a roughly four-block section of the neighborhood. Squad cars blocked off streets, officers checked IDs and patted down residents, and visitors from outside the zone were denied entry.
Unsurprisingly, neighbors complained. Police lifted the lockdown after five days, which they launched to find Suiter’s killer. “We appreciate the support and sensitivity from our community during this difficult time,” said T.J. Smith, chief spokesman for the police department. “Our efforts to identify and arrest the perpetrator rely on the thoroughness of our investigation and our capacity to recover forensic, physical and other evidence.”
Officials from Baltimore’s Civil Rights Office and Wage Enforcement met later that month at a church in the neighborhood, where members of the Civilian Review Board took questions from the public. Civil Rights Office Director Jill Carter said in a statement that they had “received a growing number of phone calls, and messages via social media about what role the Civilian Review Board might be able to play in addressing the concerns of residents in the community impacted by the police presence.”
The ACLU of Maryland raised broader concerns. The civil liberties group has filed a state public information request for body camera footage from officers stationed there during the lockdown period.
“The publicly stated rationale for the cordon, the need to preserve a crime scene, seems inconsistent with both the scope and duration of the cordon, and with the other police actions that were taken, such as searches, demanding identification, and barring non-residents,” ACLU senior staff attorney David Rocah said in a statement. “In those circumstances, there is a need for greater transparency, which is precisely why we have body cameras in the first place.”
2) The Death of Det. Sean Suiter
Mystery surrounds what happened on Wednesday, Nov. 15, in an alley near the corner of N. Fremont Avenue and Bennett Place. Det. Sean Suiter, a Baltimore homicide detective who had served 18 years with the department, was gunned down at around 4:30 p.m.
Police Commissioner Davis told the public that evening that Suiter had approached a suspect engaged in “suspicious behaviors” right before he was shot, and that officers were then searching for a black man wearing a black jacket with a white stripe. Suiter was following up on an unsolved 2016 triple homicide, Davis said.
Police later revealed Suiter was shot in the head with his own gun, and that the firearm discharged three rounds during an apparent struggle captured on a brief radio call from Suiter. His partner that evening — not his regular one from the homicide unit — called 911 on a cell phone, rather than by radio-ing it in. He at first drove Suiter to the hospital but crashed on the way. (An ambulance then took Suiter to Shock Trauma.) Davis has said that the officer wasn’t next to Suiter when the shots rang out but rather was taking cover across the street.
Police said no DNA evidence, blood or fingerprints belonging to the assailant were found at the scene.
Suiter’s calendar has further complicated the case. Officials revealed more than two weeks after his death that he was scheduled to testify the next morning against a former member of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force, the plainclothes unit that went rogue and was indicted on racketeering charges earlier this year (more on that shortly).
A federal indictment against one of the officers, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, alleges he set up Suiter to find evidence that wrongfully arrested and convicted two suspects after a deadly 2010 car chase through West Baltimore. Suiter responded to the scene of the crash that night and found narcotics in the suspects’ trunk, which federal prosecutors say Jenkins had planted there.
Six weeks have now passed since Suiter’s death. Conspiracies have been floated, with some officers reportedly suggesting suicide. The police department asked the FBI to take over the investigation, a request the FBI just rejected today.
Suiter left behind a wife and five children. He lived across the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, in York, Pa.
1) The Gun Trace Task Force
Arguably the most scandalous case of 2017 involving Baltimore police officers is that of the Gun Trace Task Force. Federal prosecutors dropped the bombshell in March that seven members of a since-disbanded plainclothes, ballistics-focused unit had been indicted on federal racketeering charges. The officers were accused of a range of offenses, from stealing drugs, cash and guns from suspects and civilians alike, to trafficking in said drugs and guns, to falsifying their hours to log extra time or overtime.
Some of the crimes to which officers have pleaded guilty were somewhat masked – listing a smaller amount than what was seized on an incident report, for instance – while others were outright robberies with deadly consequences.
In one case, officers stole savings from a couple who owned a pigeon store in South Baltimore, targeting their home and disabling their security system. In another case, they stole money from an alleged drug dealer, who was subsequently murdered because he couldn’t repay his drug-related debt. Officers also made money working with drug dealers in Northeast Baltimore, whose heroin is said to have caused fatal overdoses in Harford and Baltimore counties.
The indictment count has since grown from seven to nine. Sgt. Thomas Allers, the head of the unit, was indicted separately in August. (The feds revealed he had tipped off his old unit-mates that prosecutors were coming after them while he was working on a case with the Drug Enforcement Agency.) The ninth indictment came for Officer Eric Troy Snell, a member of the Philadelphia Police Department who allegedly helped some of the Baltimore officers sell their stolen heroin and a bit of cocaine across state lines.
Five of the officers have pleaded guilty, and two other defendants who helped with robberies by impersonating police officers have also pleaded guilty. Two officers have reportedly entered pleas of not guilty, while Jenkins hasn’t yet entered his plea.
Incredibly, one of those two officers, Det. Daniel Hersl, plans to argue in court that he had probable cause to steal money, drugs and guns from suspects and civilians, and that it was bad, but doesn’t quite amount to robbery and extortion.
City prosecutors said earlier this month that 125 cases tied to the Gun Trace Task Force officers will be dropped, and another 71 are “under review.”