Baltimore police corruption inspires state bills for stiffer punishment for officers, payouts for victims

As the trial of two former Gun Trace Task Force members unfolded in Baltimore last week, Ivan Potts was telling state lawmakers in Annapolis how the rogue unit ruined his life.

“I just spent two and a half years in prison for something I didn't do, at all,” Potts told the House Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers are now weighing reforms in the wake of the scandal — including whether and how to compensate the task force’s wrongly imprisoned victims.

Potts’ gun crime conviction relied on testimony from the now-disgraced unit, whose indictments and prosecution have captivated the city for months. A judge vacated Potts’ conviction after the indictments last year, but Potts said he has not been made whole.

“I was found guilty because they testified against me, and they just painted a picture that I couldn't fight,” he said. “I really lost everything.”

Revelations from the three-week trial already have prompted reactions from state lawmakers, including plans to put the state in charge of auditing police spending, and punishing officers who break department policy with jail time. More legislation is expected.

Update: Baltimore Police officers found guilty in Gun Trace Task Force corruption case »

“I don't think anything is off the table,” Sen. Bill Ferguson said.

“The extent of the lawlessness clearly outlined during the task force trials has upped the urgency,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “We all have very, very grave concerns about the systemic culpability that allowed such heinous crimes to happen for such a long period of time.”

Eight members of the unit were indicted on federal racketeering charges. They are accused of falsifying testimony, bilking the city for overtime, selling stolen guns and drugs, robbing residents — effectively operating a crime ring for years under the cover of their badges.

Six officers pleaded guilty; four have cooperated with federal prosecutors. Two pleaded not guilty; during their trial, former task force colleagues helped prosecutors portray the unit as cops-turned-robbers who brutalized the city they’d sworn to protect.

Between the revelations of the trial and other cases involving city police officers caught on body cameras planting drug evidence, state lawmakers from Baltimore say they’re developing and pitching ideas to restore faith in the city’s beleaguered police department.

Del. Cory V. McCray has suggested that state auditors review police department spending in the same way they do the city’s liquor board and school system. The Baltimore Democrat said the process would likely detect an overtime scam such as the one to which task force members have admitted.

Del. Bilal Ali has introduced a bill that would make it a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail if an officer deliberately turned off a body camera.

“At some point, we have to realize that we’re over the top with police corruption in the Baltimore Police Department,” the Baltimore Democrat said.

The police department did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the police union that represents rank-and-file officers in Baltimore, said the task force case shows “egregious” misconduct for which officers are rightly being prosecuted.

“They thought they were above the law, but there’s laws in place and these guys are being prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and they should be,” he said.

Ryan flatly dismissed the proposal to imprison officers who turn off body cameras as “totally ridiculous.”

“Have we had some issues in the recent past? Absolutely,” Ryan said. “But as a whole, the majority of our police officers are professional and love what they do and are there for the community. Let’s support those officers.”

Ali also introduced the bill that brought Potts to Annapolis.

It would give a state grant of up to $5 million to people who are wrongly incarcerated because of police misconduct. It expands on an existing law that allows such grants, but until last year applied only to people who received a pardon from the governor. The state has approved such grants only five times since 1984.

Ali’s legislation would grant innocent people wrongly incarcerated because of police misconduct a minimum of $50,000 for each year spent behind bars. It would require either a pardon from the governor or a certification from a state’s attorney that the person was erroneously convicted.

Potts and his public defender contend three members of the Gun Trace Task Force planted a gun on him and lied about it. They say the cops also seriously injured him during the arrest and lied about it.

“I'm broke, I'm poor. But I've got a good spirit,” Potts told lawmakers. “I believe in God, and I'm trying to make a positive change in my life and a positive change in my city. … In Baltimore right now, it's just filled with negativity. We don't see no hope.”

Prosecutors have sought to vacate convictions in about a dozen cases that relied on the testimony of the officers.

The task force case and separate body-camera investigations have prompted Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s office to drop hundreds of cases that relied on the testimony of implicated officers.

The Baltimore public defender’s office says that number should be in the thousands.

The Baltimore Police Department is operating under a consent decree negotiated with the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure that residents’ civil rights are protected.

Since the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent riots of 2015, state policymakers have grappled with the question of how to restore trust between Baltimore police and the communities they serve.

At the outset, lawmakers looked for ways to improve the transparency of police discipline and to invest in the community.

The more recent scandals, coupled with record homicide rates, have lawmakers crafting broader ideas to help Maryland’s biggest city deal with crime.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he’ll release an “omnibus” crime plan he’s been working on since the summer, before the most scandalous allegations about the task force were public. He said it would provide money for witness relocation programs, prison education and job training programs.

It would also change court procedures so that police could get wiretaps for gun crimes and other shifts to address what Zirkin called “a crisis” in the city.

“We want to do a holistic approach,” Zirkin said. “We want to touch everything from sentencing to probation to witness-tampering to gun crimes to expungement to the Safe Streets program.

“Our goal is to move the needle, and move the needle in in a meaningful way.”

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