Baltimore council panel calls for more transparency around police seizures of guns, drugs, cash and dirt bikes

A City Council committee called Wednesday on Baltimore police to provide more transparency concerning the seizure of guns, drugs, cash and dirt bikes, including updated data on those seizures, and to establish new protocols for civilian oversight of the items’ disposal or reallocation.

The Police Department agreed to do so.

“We fully support it,” said Chief Steven O’Dell, chief financial officer and head of units that handle evidence, of a corresponding resolution asking for the changes. “The transparency factor is equally, is very, important to us.”

The discussion was spurred by a resolution put forward by Councilman Robert Stokes Sr. that called for “a full accounting of all seized guns, drugs, dirt bikes, and cash over the last 5 years, along with a thorough explanation of how this material was disposed of, how long the disposal process typically takes, and what the best ways to include community representatives in that process may be.”

Stokes said “years, if not decades, of mistrust [in police] have eaten away at the soul of the city,” and transparency in all aspects of the department is the solution.

“We want to see documentation of what it is you’re doing with these things,” said Councilman Eric Costello, chair of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, before which the hearing was held.

Costello said the council would withhold a vote on the resolution Wednesday night in order to obtain more information from other entities that were not represented at the hearing but that O’Dell said were involved in the disposition of seized items, such as the city Finance Department, which handles cash.

The discussion comes amid an ongoing scandal involving the department’s Gun Trace Task Force, whose members were indicted last year on charges of robbing residents of cash and of drugs, at times reselling them on the street. Federal prosecutors have also made limited reference to some of the corrupt officers — six of whom have pleaded guilty — also stealing guns.

Residents attending the hearing intermittently scoffed at information provided by members of the Police Department, and several signed up to speak. The first to do so was Bill Goodin, 65, of Northeast Baltimore.

Goodin said the same conversation about more accountability from police about assets has been going on for 30 years, and the current City Council members should be “ashamed of themselves” for allowing so many unanswered questions about seizures to exist — especially considering the “corruption we know exists” in the Police Department.

Goodin also said that proceeds from seized items and seized cash should make its way back to the communities where it is seized and that are hurt by the alleged crimes associated with the seizures.

To that, Goodin received applause from other community members in the audience.

O’Dell did have some statistics ready.

For instance, in 2017, police seized $2,382,238 in cash, and returned $152,758 to its rightful owners. The returned funds were not necessarily seized in the same year.

Cash was seized in 4,702 instances in 2017, compared with 4,626 in 2016.

There were 13,700 drug seizures in 2017, compared with to 12,479 in 2016.

There were 1,898 guns seized in 2017, compared with 2,058 in 2016. Many of the guns seized in 2016 involved the indicted Gun Trace Task Force members.

Police — including a special task force — have seized more than 400 dirt bikes in recent years.

Seized drugs and guns that are not returned to their rightful owners or held as evidence by the police are burned. Dirt bikes are often sold. Cash is deposited in accounts that feed into the city’s general fund or are distributed under federal or state asset forfeiture regulations O’Dell said.

Citizens and council members said they needed more assurances that seized guns and drugs are not being stolen out of evidence rooms and find their way back to the streets.

O’Dell said neither has happened to his knowledge. He also said that he is working to have the police evidence control unit accredited by outside agencies that assess such units nationwide, just as the department’s crime lab is accredited.

krector@baltsun.com

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