Attorney for indicted Baltimore Police gun task force officer says his client had asked to be taken off the streets

The defense attorney for one of the Baltimore Police officers charged in the Gun Trace Task Force case says his client, who has a history of complaints and lawsuit settlements, asked to be taken off the streets before he was assigned to the elite gun unit.

Det. Daniel Hersl “wanted off the streets,” his attorney, William Purpura told The Sun. He said Hersl’s sergeant, John Burns, recommended that he receive a desk job. “Instead, he was placed in the gun squad in December 2015,” Purpura said.

The Police Department has declined to discuss its handling of the officers prior to the indictment, and said it could not confirm the claim about Hersl wanting to work desk duty.

“They will have to prove that it’s true and that it’s relevant,” said spokesman T.J. Smith. “New assertions will now be made as we enter the criminal trials in every effort to mitigate the criminal behaviors of the defendants.”

Hersl is charged in U.S. District Court with racketeering conspiracy for a string of robberies that occurred between 2014 and 2016. He is also charged with taking fraudulent overtime for hours not worked. He has pleaded not guilty, and is scheduled to go to trial next month with two other officers charged in the case.

Purpura said in court this week that Hersl “readily admits” to “bad conduct” in taking money from arrestees. But he plans to argue to a jury that Hersl had the legal authority to stop people and seize drugs, guns and money. Any money then “converted for personal use” is theft, not robbery or extortion.

The judge overseeing the case, Catherine Blake, appeared to take a dim view of the theory, while federal prosecutors called it “astonishing.”

Purpura did not offer Hersl’s claim of requesting a new assignment as a defense to his actions. The comments came in response to an inquiry from The Baltimore Sun.

The Sun featured Hersl in a 2014 series called “Undue Force,” which looked at officers with multiple lawsuit settlements.

A year after that report, and during the tenure of Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, Hersl was promoted into the Gun Trace Task Force. Police have declined to discuss what considerations the agency took into account when staffing the elite gun unit.

“We wish we could go back to yesteryear in a time capsule and address the shortcomings that served to contribute to today’s revelation of years of crimes perpetrated by police officers. However, we cannot,” Smith, the police spokesman, said in a statement Thursday. “We can, however, commit ourselves to the ongoing reform efforts that our community expect to see from its police department.”

Prior to the Gun Trace Task Force allegations, Hersl faced a number of complaints. By 2006, he had already amassed 29 complaints. Only one had been sustained, but one judge said the sheer number was cause for alarm.

"Misconduct, sometimes when it's frequent enough, it indicates a lack of desire to tell the truth," Baltimore Circuit Judge John Prevas said after reviewing Hersl's internal affairs file.

From 2007 to 2010, the city paid $200,000 to settle three lawsuits against Hersl, in which he was accused of breaking a man’s jaw and nose, breaking a woman’s arm, and for arresting a woman who was selling church raffle tickets.

Hersl is a defendant in at least two other pending lawsuits. One alleges he slammed a reporter to the ground during the demonstrations that followed the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015. The plaintiff, an American University student named Andrew Fischer, says Hersl took him into custody for a curfew violation despite a member of the National Guard telling Hersl that Fischer’s media credentials were valid.

“I don’t care,” Hersl allegedly said.

In another case, filed last year, a man said he was walking on Harford Road in East Baltimore in December 2014 when Hersl punched him in the mouth. That case has been stayed pending the outcome of Hersl’s criminal case, according to the plaintiff’s attorney Isaac Klein.

Hersl’s family released a statement in support earlier this year, saying Hersl “has gotten more illegal guns off the street than any police officer in the department” and “is considerate and most respectful o the people in his life including the citizens he encounters as a policeman.”

In June, his brother Jerome Hersl appeared at a Harford County Council meeting advocating on his behalf.

“The testimony of 16 drug dealers put seven cops in jail,” Hersl said, according to The Aegis. "The drug dealers control the streets of Baltimore," he said.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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