Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Rodricks: The high cost of bad cops

I have been trying to identify a case of public corruption that hurt the public as much as the one federal authorities have brought against Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and his partners in crime from Baltimore’s disbanded, disgraced Gun Trace Task Force. Pound for pound, this one might top them all, and there have been a lot of them.

Go back to the days of Spiro Agnew, the corrupt Maryland governor who became the corrupt vice president of the United States, and you would not find public harm on the Jenkins scale.

In fact, taxpayers were compensated for Agnew’s greed.

As Baltimore County executive and governor, Agnew took kickbacks on roads and highway contracts, and the kickbacks undoubtedly inflated the cost of those contracts to the public. The scheme worked for years, until 1973, the Watergate era, when federal prosecutors took Agnew down on tax evasion and forced him to resign the vice presidency. It was a huge scandal that left a stain on Maryland’s reputation.

A decade later, an Anne Arundel County judge, presiding over a civil suit against Agnew, ordered him to compensate the state for his greed. After exhausting his appeals, Agnew wrote a check for $264,482 to the Maryland treasury. The attorney general put a blow-up of that check on display, giving the public tangible evidence of the cost of graft.

That was an unusual turn.

Most of the time, it’s the “intangibles” that we focus on — the violation of the public trust, the loss of the right to honest service, the corrosive nature of corruption, its damage to those who serve the public honorably.

We get all of that with the Gun Trace Task Force corruption case, and then some.

On Friday, Jenkins, the supervisor of the task force, pleaded guilty to participating in a long-standing, multifarious criminal enterprise. Five other cops from the gun unit have pleaded guilty to various federal crimes, and two more are awaiting trial.

According to his plea agreement, Jenkins was a first-rate multi-tasker, a real pirate. He schemed to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and drugs by entering residences without a warrant and conducting traffic stops, then writing false affidavits and arrest reports to cover his crimes. He admitted to participating in seven robberies between May 2011 and August 2016, and to stealing dirt bikes from Baltimore’s street riders and selling them through an associate.

Jenkins also stole boxes of high-grade marijuana that had been confiscated from the U.S. mail. He even stole prescription drugs that had been looted from a Baltimore pharmacy on the day of the Freddie Gray riot in 2015. The resale of the drugs netted Jenkins between $200,000 to $250,000, according to the plea agreement.

And then there’s the extra compensation the corrupt cops received by routinely submitting false overtime reports for years.

This might be the worst corruption case in the history of the Baltimore Police Department, but not just because of the crimes I’ve only partially described here.

It’s because of the real costs in potential harm to the public: More than 2,000 criminal cases — pending, or already resulting in a conviction and incarceration, and dating to 2011 — that might be legally tainted because the arresting officers were from Jenkins’ sleazy unit. Jenkins was involved in hundreds of them, according to Deborah Katz Levi, director of special litigation for the state public defender in Baltimore’s felony trial division.

On Friday, Levi said between 75 and 80 cases already have been dropped or reversed, with hundreds more to evaluate.

The state’s attorney’s office reported in December that 125 cases related to Jenkins’ unit either had been dropped or were scheduled to be dropped, with many more in various stages of evaluation or adjudication.

So it’s possible that dozens — perhaps hundreds — of people who were arrested by the Gun Trace Task Force and who were convicted of various crimes will be relieved of their debts to society and freed. There could be all kinds of consequences from that. A bunch of the defendants will sue for false arrest and civil rights violations; notices for dozens of civil claims already have been filed with the city.

You can add that to the bill.

Add the cost of having public defenders, prosecutors and judges involved in reviewing all those cases, taking up precious docket time in the Baltimore Circuit Court.

Factor in the loss of good arrests for gun-crimes at a time when our city was experiencing a surge in violence.

And then, we go back to the intangibles, the things that cannot be grasped, that have no price. What of the further damage inflicted on citizens’ view of police, and their subsequent reluctance as jurors to convict bad guys because they won’t believe testifying cops?

Add it all up, and it’s a level of public harm from public corruption well beyond anything we’ve ever seen here before.

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