The federal prosecutors putting members of the Baltimore Police Department’s once elite, now disgraced Gun Trace Task Force on trial said that the unit had gone so bad that it became both the cops and robbers rolled into one. That wasn’t news to the people in Baltimore’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods who have been complaining about “knockers” and “jump out boys” under their various guises for years. These squads of cowboy cops roam around city neighborhoods looking for trouble — and looking like trouble in unmarked cars, jeans, tactical vests and backward baseball caps. They have shown both a marked success in getting guns and drugs off the streets and in generating police brutality lawsuits.
Last year, when federal prosecutors handed down indictments alleging a long-running conspiracy by members of the gun trace task force to rob civilians, plant evidence, defraud the taxpayers and more, then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was so horrified that he ordered his officers back in uniform immediately. Now, amid a trial that is dropping daily bombshells suggesting matters were even worse than those indictments let on, the new police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, says he’s thinking of putting cops back in plain clothes.
How many times do we have to make this same mistake? Commissioners keep disbanding these units when corruption gets too high and professionalism gets too low. It happened to the Violent Crimes Impact Section, the Special Enforcement Section and now the Gun Trace Task Force. But the units put guns and drugs on the table for get-tough-on-bad-guys-with-guns photo ops, and commissioners keep bringing them back, promising they’ll be on a tighter leash this time. Instead, the corruption gets more brazen, community trust in the department sinks and the criminal justice system gets that much more broken.
But Commissioner De Sousa says he wants to look at the research before making a decision, and who could argue with that? He points specifically to a new report this month from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Policy Research that studied various police and public health interventions aimed at stemming violence in Baltimore and found that the “hot spot” policing practiced by VCIS was the most effective, decreasing homicides by 12 percent to 13 percent and non-fatal shootings by 19 percent compared to what otherwise might have been expected.
But what the research discusses is a strategy of geographically focused enforcement of gun laws, not drug laws, as the latter in some circumstances actually led to increased violence. The report says nothing about the fact that the officers were out of uniform, and it is able to draw no conclusions about other iterations of these plainclothes squads. And the report makes clear that when units like this go bad — through corruption, unconstitutional policing and other abuses — they cause more harm than good.
We've got plenty of evidence of that. It was VCIS officers who picked up a pair of city teens in 2011 and dropped one on the other side of town and the other in a Howard County park with no shoes or cellphone. It was VCIS officers who tackled Anthony Anderson, an unarmed 46-year-old man, in a parking lot in 2012, leading to his death from blunt-force trauma. The city paid a $200,000 settlement in 2009 after a VCIS officer beat up a man who had done nothing more suspicious than order a chicken box at an East Baltimore carryout, and in 2011, Baltimore paid a $100,000 settlement after VCIS members battered a 65-year-old church deacon who was rolling a tobacco cigarette outside his own home. In 2013, a VCIS officer pleaded guilty in a conspiracy to protect a drug dealer from police, supply him with drugs and falsify reports.
Plainclothes officers in New York killed Amadou Diallo and Eric Garner. Baltimore plainclothes officer William H. Torbitt Jr. was killed trying to help break up a fight at a club when his fellow police saw his gun, didn’t realize he was a cop and opened fire.
Mr. De Sousa worked plainclothes himself for several years early in his career, and he is steeped in a department that long prized the macho, badder-than-the-bad-guys swagger of these units. But whatever results they have produced, they are toxic. Other cities have found other ways to reduce violence, far more than any iteration of Baltimore’s knockers and jump out boys ever have. Mr. De Sousa should research that, instead.
Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.