Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force officers were 'both cops and robbers' at same time, prosecutors say

The video opens with a group of Baltimore police officers prying open a safe, revealing thick stacks of cash held together by two rubber bands each.

They call to their sergeant, Wayne Jenkins, who instructs the group not to touch anything and to keep the camera rolling — he wanted this one done by the book.

Except, Detective Maurice Ward testified Tuesday, the officers already had pocketed half the $200,000 they found inside the safe before the recording started, after taking a man’s keys during a traffic stop and entering his home without a warrant. It was one of many illegal tactics Ward said the officers used as they chased guns and drugs across the city while skimming proceeds for themselves.

Ward is one of four detectives from the police department’s defunct Gun Trace Task Force who have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify at the trial of two fellow officers, Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, which began with opening statements Tuesday.

Ward’s testimony outlined astonishing, everyday misconduct: The officers would drive up on groups of men, slam on the brakes and pop open their doors, for no reason other than to see if anyone would run. Those who fled were pursued, detained and searched. Jenkins profiled so-called “dope boy cars” — cars he believed were likely to be driven by drug dealers — and pulled them over under invented circumstances.

“The Gun Trace Task Force wasn’t a unit that went rogue,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise told jurors Tuesday morning. “It was a unit of officers who had already gone rogue.”

Wise, holding up the badges and guns that belonged to Hersl and Taylor, said the officers’ success in the police department was judged by their ability to get drugs and guns. Within that work, which often included cutting corners, they took advantage of “crimes of opportunity,” Wise said.

“They were, simply put, both cops and robbers at the same time,” Wise said.

Hersl’s defense attorney, William Purpura, conceded that the 17-year veteran breached his oath as an officer, but said prosecutors had overcharged the case. The detectives are charged with taking part in a racketeering enterprise, robbery and extortion, and use of a firearm in a crime of violence.

“The evidence will show, and it will show, Detective Hersl did breach that oath. His actions embarrassed the city, the Baltimore Police Department, his family and himself,” Purpura said. But, he said, “the evidence will show Detective Hersl committed the crime of theft, not a crime of violence.”

Theft is not one of the charges that falls under the racketeering statute, nor is it a crime of violence.

Taylor’s attorney, Jenifer Wicks, implored jurors to question the motivations of the government’s witnesses, which include co-defendants who have pleaded guilty and people who were arrested by the officers and are motivated to lie about them, she said.

Eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force were indicted last year, and six of them have pleaded guilty. Four are expected to testify against their former partners.

Ward was the first. Though he has only pleaded guilty to crimes dating to 2014, Ward admitted his crimes stretched back “years before” then. Some were committed with other officers, while others he committed by himself.

He recalled executing a search warrant in January 2014 with Taylor, in which Taylor found cash in a bedroom closet. Before handing the money over to federal task force officers to be submitted to a bank to be counted, Ward said, he took $3,000 that he and Taylor split evenly.

Ward recounted being paranoid that they would be caught. After the robbery in which the officers pried open a safe and split up $100,000, Ward said he discarded his take — $20,000 — in a wooded area behind his home.

He explained he didn’t think he could spend the money without attracting attention, but didn’t want to turn down the money from his partners, either, for fear of being “blackballed.”

“I didn’t want to be the one on the squad to be, ‘I’m not with that,’ ” Ward testified.

Wise asked Ward if he preferred to take smaller amounts. He responded: “I would love to keep $20,000, if there was a means to keep it and not get caught.”

Ward’s testimony portrayed Jenkins, his supervisor, as the key to most of the bad behavior. Jenkins, who also pleaded guilty in the case, authorized large sums of unearned overtime pay, with officers often starting their shifts after their scheduled ones ended, then racking up a dozen hours’ overtime. At Jenkins’ instruction, Ward said, they kept BB guns on hand in case they hit someone or got into a shootout and needed to plant one on someone. He did not say whether that ever occurred.

As a squad, they roamed the city conducting “door pops,” which involved driving at groups to see who would run, Ward testified. Jenkins drove the wrong way down one-way streets, hoping to catch people off guard, and instructed officers to stop men over the age of 18 who had backpacks. Ward said Jenkins surmised that men that age were likely to have no reason to carry a backpack other than to transport illicit items.

In his opening statement, Wise acknowledged that some of the victims were admitted drug dealers. He said that doesn’t matter: “Police can’t rob drug dealers.”

Purpura said some officers charged in the case had committed robberies, breaking into homes and pointing guns at people. He said Hersl’s crimes were different, “crime of dishonesty, and of stealth.”

He said the officers’ overtime “was given with a wink and a nod, right up the chain of command, as long as we can say you’re getting guns off the streets of Baltimore City.”

“We’re here because the U.S. government, the ‘twin towers’ of justice, overcharged in this case,” said Purpura, referring to a nickname given to Wise and Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Hines due to their height. “The government lumped Daniel Hersl’s wrong conduct — there’s no excuse for it — into a racketeering enterprise where other officers actually did commit robberies, drug trafficking and extortion.”

Referring to Purpura’s defense strategy, Wise said: “A police officer who has served a long time doesn’t get to rob people a couple of times.”

Wise said officers, given the power to arrest people and to use force, bring an inherent threat when they steal from people they have detained.

“Before those badges and guns, people yield,” Wise said. “They give up their liberty, their property. They submit.”

That authority “can be used for good … but they can be used for evil, by those entrusted with them who choose to break the law instead.”

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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