Baltimore Police Detective Jemell Rayam appeared in court in November 2015 to answer questions over one of his arrests. The defendant's attorney said Rayam's account didn't add up. Moreover, the resident of the home where police said they found drugs said the officers had entered and searched without a warrant — and said they put a gun to her head when she tried to call 911.
Circuit Judge Barry Williams called Rayam's testimony "incredible," and suppressed all evidence in the case. Prosecutors dropped the charges.
"There may come a time when I would take [Rayam's] word," Williams said from the bench. "But based on the way he presented himself today, this court is unable to take his word for anything."
But Rayam continued to work on the Police Department's elite Gun Trace Task Force, a key component of Police Commissioner Kevin Davis' strategy to fight a historic spike in violence.
Now Rayam and six other officers — the entirety of the task force — face federal racketeering charges. Federal prosecutors say the officers were shaking down citizens, searching their property without warrants, and shutting off body cameras to hide their wrongdoing.
The officers were indicted by a federal grand jury and arrested Wednesday. All have pleaded not guilty. They have been ordered held pending trials.
The charges have rocked a department trying to contain a surging homicide rate while facing a court-enforced consent decree to reform its policing methods. Justice Department investigators reported last summer that the department routinely violated individuals' constitutional rights by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force, among other problems.
Staci Pipkin, the defendant's lawyer in the November 2015 case, is one of several criminal defense attorneys who say police internal affairs records and questions raised in courtrooms about the gun unit's investigations should have alerted prosecutors and police long ago.
"My case was so egregious," Pipkin said. "And [prosecutors] kept using the officers as witnesses."
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby was asked Thursday whether her office should have been aware of concerns raised about the officers.
"Absolutely not," she said. She noted that the task force had earned praise for its work against violence in the city.
"We prosecute 50,000 cases in Baltimore City a year," she said. "Time and time again, this particular task force was heralded for the number of guns they were able to take off the streets.
"We, like everyone else, follow the legal protocols necessary when we proceed on cases."
Davis said misconduct can be difficult to detect and investigate.
An allegation against an officer "doesn't give me the authority to remove them from the organization right away," he said. "You have to go through due process. Sometimes that due process is administrative, sometimes it is criminal investigations."
If Davis were to suspend or put on desk duty every officer under administrative investigation — which can focus on anything from a failure to appear in court or not being in uniform to serious misconduct — he said he would "have to shut down significant portions" of the department.
"If every police officer who was the subject of an administrative investigation were to automatically have their duty status altered, that would be impossible for the organization," he said.
But police have long been criticized for not flagging problem officers. Commanders have insisted over the years that they are improving the department's internal affairs processes. Most recently, they have touted a new system for flagging potentially problematic patterns in officers' behavior, and adopting an "accelerated disposition" process for certain cases.
The officers arrested on Thursday are Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, 36, and Detectives Momodu Gondo, 34; Evodio Hendrix, 32; Daniel Hersl, 47; Rayam, 36; Marcus Taylor, 30; and Maurice Ward, 36. All were charged on racketeering indictments. Gondo faces additional drug charges in a separate indictment.
Defense attorneys for the officers and family members reached by phone and approached in court during detention hearings last week all declined to comment.
During the hearings, attorneys for Ward and Hendrix questioned the extent to which their clients were involved in the alleged conspiracy. They said prosecutors had provided little evidence of their direct participation.
Rayam's attorney said the allegations against his client were "taken out of context or blown out of proportion."
Hersl's attorney said his client was being "besmirched" by "nothing more than allegations."
Jenkins' attorney said he has spent his career "risking his life" to protect others.
All of the officers were described by their attorneys as family men with deep roots in their local communities who represented no threat to the public.
Police union President Gene S. Ryan said union officials were "very disturbed" by the charges, but the "officers are entitled to due process and a fair trial in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of our state."
In the fallout of their indictments, federal and state prosecutors have been reviewing cases that had been investigated by the officers and dropping some.
Ali Bey, 42, was scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon to face gun charges. Hendrix, Jenkins, Taylor and Ward were listed as the arresting officers.
Bey was still making his way into the courtroom when prosecutors dropped the case.
Bey and his attorney said the officers involved in his arrest used a flimsy premise to pull over a vehicle he was traveling in — they cited a missing front license plate on a car from Pennsylvania, which doesn't require front plates.
According to Bey and attorney Brandon Mead, the officers ordered the occupants out, found a gun, and took $550 in cash he was carrying and his cellphone.
Mead said Bey was most upset that the officers sent texts to Bey's girlfriend pretending to be him and asking her to send explicit pictures. Speaking outside the courthouse, Bey and Mead said Bey has the texts and plans to go to internal affairs.
"This is still America," Bey said. "It's like, they just do whatever, and it's unbelievable that they've been getting away with this for so long."
The probe of the Gun Trace Task Force was not sparked by citizen complaints, judicial admonitions or internal affairs investigators, but by federal agents. U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein said the Drug Enforcement Administration began looking at the officers about a year ago while investigating a drug organization.
Defense attorneys for suspects and attorneys who settled lawsuits against some of the officers say there were more than enough red flags. The city has paid out at least $524,000 to settle separate claims involving Hersl, Jenkins, Rayam and Ward, The Baltimore Sun found in its review of court records for a 2014 report on police misconduct settlements. Other claims are pending.
The city admitted no wrongdoing in the settlements.
Hersl has been the subject of dozens of complaints and at least three lawsuit settlements. He was featured in The Baltimore Sun's 2014 "Undue Force" series.
"Commissioner Davis seems sincerely committed to maintaining an honest and effective police department," said defense attorney Richard C.B. Woods. "I would be very interested in any explanation the commissioner could provide as to why Hersl was still on the force despite multiple civil case payouts for excessive-force complaints."
Hersl's family defended his work.
"He physically puts his life on the line every single day as he patrols, undercover, the most drug-infested areas of the city and has taken part in bringing to justice some of the city's most hardened and dangerous criminals," the family said in a statement given to reporters on Thursday. "He is a good cop and would never do anything wrong to disgrace" the department or city.
For years, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy maintained a "do not call" list of police officers with integrity problems, whose cases she instructed prosecutors not to pursue. State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, who succeeded Jessamy in 2011, discontinued the practice. Mosby has not used a list.
Prosecutors say there's a difference in court between officers accused of using excessive force and those whose credibility is questioned.
They said they have improved the process for informing defense attorneys about problems with officers. Attorneys still need a judge's approval before they may discuss those problems in court.
"Whenever there was an issue of credibility or integrity as to an officer, we would disclose pursuant to a protective order the entire internal affairs file as to that specific issue," said Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe, who oversees the police integrity unit. "The Maryland courts have determined that credibility issues, or anything that would lead to an integrity issue, we should disclose, and we do."
Public defender Todd Oppenheim said his office has a "fundamental disagreement" about what prosecutors should disclose. He said an excessive-force complaint can represent a credibility issue.
"Whether they're conceding the level of force alleged against them bears on their credibility," Oppenheim said. "It's never the offense itself — it's the coverup."
Baltimore criminal defense attorney Ivan Bates said personnel files contain information that shows "officers shouldn't have been allowed to be called, ever, as witnesses."
"The files show the behavior has been going on for a number of years," Bates said. "Everybody in the legal community, and the general community, knows the allegations from these officers over the years."
Baltimore rapper Young Moose and his attorney, Woods, have long contended that Hersl was out to get him.
The rapper, whose real name is Kevron Evans, was locked up on drug charges in 2014, days before he was to perform at a major concert at the Royal Farms Arena. A judge acquitted him, but he would be locked up again on a gun charge after searches at his and his family's properties.
Hersl at the time denied any sort of grudge. Evans eventually pleaded guilty to a gun charge and is currently on home detention.
Moose's father, Kevin Evans Sr., was charged and acquitted. He told The Sun last week that Hersl took $1,500 from his pockets after the Police Department executed search warrants.
Local defense attorney Paul Polansky, who represented a client who was acquitted in a gun case brought by Gondo, Hersl, Jenkins, Rayam, Taylor and Ward, said questionable car stops or other searches "happen all the time."
"Perfectly good officers make bad judgments," Polansky said. But he also said the Gun Trace Task Force officers had a reputation for being particularly aggressive.
Local defense attorney Lawrence Rosenberg said questions about police work in city cases is pervasive, but misconduct is harder to prove. "It's a very difficult line," he said. "I'm not sure how you separate them."
Rayam and two other officers were accused in June 2009 of stealing $11,000 in cash from a man they pulled over in a traffic stop.
The man, Gary Brown of the 1600 block of N. Smallwood St., filed a complaint with the police. Police launched an internal affairs investigation, according to documents obtained by The Sun.
Rayam failed a 2010 polygraph test, and investigators concluded that he had provided false statements. The investigation resulted in a "finding of Sustained for the allegations of Misconduct General, Misrepresentation of Facts, and False Statements," the documents show.
But an internal trial board acquitted him of those findings in 2012, and the state's attorney's office declined to prosecute him criminally.
"It is the position of the Office of State's Attorney that, for a variety of reasons, this information is not admissible in any case in which these officers may be involved," prosecutors said in a document obtained by The Sun.
Prosecutors informed defense attorney William R. Buie III in January about Rayam's previous internal affairs problems, and that he failed a polygraph test. He won a motion to be able to mention it in a client's case.
"Much of this case bears on the truth and veracity of the officer," Buie said in court.
The proceedings were delayed while prosecutors attempted to reach Rayam by cellphone. When they could not, the prosecutors immediately asked that the case be dismissed.
Buie said that Hersl, who was one of the arresting officers in his client's case, served as the leader of the indicted officers and that he appeared to be a sincere, hard-working officer eager to get "guns and thugs" off the streets.
"I didn't have any problems with him," Buie said. "He seemed to be the leader. The other officers really looked up to him and followed his direction."
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.