Corruption, controversy marred Baltimore Police Commissioner Davis' final year

When Kevin Davis became Baltimore’s police commissioner in 2015, he pledged to lead a department that would restore the community’s faith after the death of Freddie Gray.

Yet over the past year, the Baltimore Police Department found itself mired in scandal. Members of an elite gun task force were charged with racketeering and other corruption, accused of robbing citizens, making illegal arrests and filing for thousands of dollars in overtime they never worked.

Then a series of body camera videos raised suspicions that other officers were planting drugs. Just Thursday it emerged that an officer shown to have given false testimony weeks ago was still on the job making arrests.

When Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Davis Friday, she cited rising crime as her reason for making the change. But others say corruption loomed large.

Activist Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon said recent scandals, coming as officers in the death of Freddie Gray avoided serious punishment, “completely severed any hope for a repaired relationship between the community and the police.”

“We’ve seen bad policing consistently, and we’ve seen it without consequences,” Witherspoon said.

In one of his final interviews as commissioner, Davis expressed frustration at what he believed was a lack of recognition for positive changes taking place in the department.

“The whole notion that accountability is not underway is crap,” Davis told The Baltimore Sun last week.

He described his department in bluntly negative terms.

“This is a dysfunctional police department. I’m telling you as a person who has seen what a healthy organization looks like. This is not one of them,” Davis said.

Davis, who spent most of his career in Prince George’s County and was also police chief in Anne Arundel County, said the Baltimore department has a “culture that looks at accountability as a four-letter word.”

But, he argued, under his leadership “we’re making huge strides.”

Catalina Byrd, a political strategist who worked closely with Davis on community issues, said he worked tirelessly to improve the department. “He understood coming in the door that he was coming in at a tumultuous time, and he didn’t take that lightly,” she said. “Hindsight has to be kinder to him.”

Pugh was asked in an interview earlier this week whether Davis shared blame that crimes of the Gun Trace Task Force went undetected on his watch. The officers who comprised the unit at the time of the indictments had been assembled under Davis. Most of the crimes charged in the case — including shaking down citizens and reselling drugs — occurred in 2016, though other allegations dated to prior years and when the officers worked in other assignments.

“I don’t think anybody can be satisfied in terms of all the indictments taking place,” Pugh said.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has praised Davis for his support of efforts to reform the department. In a statement Friday after news of his firing, Ifill said Davis had an “unyielding commitment to the important consent decree process that we all hope will result in meaningful policing reform in our city.”

“Commissioner Davis was vocal and clear, at key moments over the last year, about the importance of the consent decree and his commitment to abide by its provisions,” Ifill said.

That commitment, however, rubbed some officers the wrong way.

“He put too much focus on reform, and not enough on the crime fight,” said one veteran officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak. “There needs to be a balance.”

After the first federal indictments of the Gun Trace Task Force officers last spring, Davis took the dramatic step of ending plainclothes policing, and he demoted a high-ranking commander. But there has been little public accounting for the officers’ ascent through the police department and the lapses that might have allowed their conduct to go unchecked. Six of the officers have pleaded guilty, and two more go on trial next week.

The department is conducting an internal review of the case, including a look “up the chain” to see where supervision may have failed. That means its findings and results are likely to be closely guarded. State law prevents the disclosure of Internal Affairs investigations. Only if an officer is internally charged, and opts to argue the charges before a disciplinary panel, are results likely to come out.

An audit of overtime pay, prompted by allegations against the gun task force officers, is not yet complete.

“As more and more stuff comes out, more people have to be held accountable,” City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said recently. “You can’t have something this bad go on for so long, and the buck only stops and ends with [those who were charged].”

Davis said last week that he did not hesitate to remove problem officers caught on his watch — he said he fired or forced out 35 officers over the past two years. And he came up with a new system to evaluate the agency’s most productive officers by scrutinizing complaints made against them, as well as the outcomes of cases against people they had arrested.

Last summer, a series of three body camera videos raised suspicions that some officers were planting drugs. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said the footage raised serious questions that forced her office to drop dozens of cases involving the officers.

Davis defended them.

“The officers did exactly what I and the community expect of them: to go out and make legal arrests based on sound probable cause,” Davis said at the time. “I will not be a bystander when my police officers are doing what I and my commanders expect them to do in this crime fight.”

In November, the death of homicide Detective Sean Suiter rocked the department — and became another source of controversy. Suiter was killed the day before he was to give testimony before the federal grand jury investigating the Gun Trace Task Force. Despite a $215,000 reward, the case is unsolved. The FBI rejected Davis’ request that it take over the investigation.

The Gun Trace Task Force officers were caught not by the department's Internal Affairs division, but by federal investigators who stumbled onto the case. The Drug Enforcement Administration learned of the unit’s activities while investigating a North Baltimore drug crew — one of the officers was caught on a wiretap discussing dealing drugs.

Davis denounced the officers as “1930s-style gangsters.” Asked whether leadership had paid proper attention to questions raised about some of them in the past, Davis blamed prior administrations.

“I did not inherit a healthy accountability system,” he said. “I can’t ring a bell in 2018 that people failed to ring in previous years. I can’t time travel to get that done.”

He said he was hoping his new program to scrutinize officers’ work would be a positive outcome of the indictments.

With his departure, it’s unclear whether that program will move forward.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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