I represented hundreds of Baltimore’s accused during my tenure as a federal public defender. Clients shared compelling accounts of mistreatment by Baltimore police. Federal indictments were often based entirely on officers’ uncorroborated words.
The accused’s credibility against sworn officers’ stood little chance of success: Were a defendant to speak, a jury would hear his criminal past. However, disciplinary records of officers’ past wrongs were rarely aired, despite detailing lawless behavior that could impact their credibility. Consequently, the accused’s reports of planted evidence and fictionalized probable cause were silenced.
Despite decades of outcry from our vulnerable communities, no one listened.
Now, the ugly truth has voice: Baltimore police — whose sacrosanct word formed the backbone of a system that processed our city’s young men — are now defendants charged with crimes aligned precisely with the conduct these young men reported for decades.
This is a #MeToo moment of reckoning for our city.
Until now, the justice system was not only dismissive of, but too-often contemptuously disinterested in, an inner city Baltimore defendant’s word. Likewise, it eschewed any suggestion that law enforcement was less than truthful. This presumption we now know is naïve.
Testimony last week in the Gun Trace Task Force trial revealed, among other disgraces, that officers we paid and trusted to keep us safe have been profiting from infusing our community with drugs. Make no mistake: Our officers were selling the very looted pharmacy drugs the police department officially blamed for Baltimore’s post-riot spike in crime.
Our officers are the drug dealers they are entrusted to take off the streets! No wonder the riots. No wonder our city is mired in violence and a seemingly intractable culture of drug abuse.
The justice system is now tasked with whether to accept the word of people it systematically disenfranchised through inordinately long prison terms based on the word of Baltimore police now charged with the precise conduct those disenfranchised men voiced year after year.
Consider the notion that the justice system imploded in part because our residents’ voices were silenced on the faulty assumption that the truth was in sole possession of our police force.
Can anyone devoted to justice sleep at night? How many people now serving long sentences were victims of the very dereliction this trial exposed? How many draconian sentences imposed, often reluctantly by sympathetic judges bound by mandatory minimum sentences, were the byproduct of a system we must all profoundly question? While petitions for exoneration based on conduct by the individual officers identified in the immediate scandal are pending, what about the imprisoned who were victim to the same types of corruption by platoons of other officers who remain undetected?
The government is to be applauded for bringing this prosecution. It is just as critical to underscore that while many of the officers pleaded guilty — so that we have no doubt about the existence of their lawless behavior — two have pleaded not guilty; we have not heard their entire defenses, and they are presumed innocent until a jury finds otherwise.
As a community, where do we go from here?
Inevitably, some may minimize this as “a few bad apples.” Not surprisingly, our new police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, with our mayor by his side, already took this uninformed, dangerous position. True, there are many devoted, hardworking officers who risk their lives daily, for ours; I can only imagine their devastation. However, it would be irresponsible and regressive to think the line is drawn as narrowly as to these few charged officers. In addition to self-reports to counsel and volumes of citizen complaints, a city officer unrelated to the GTTF case was indicted two weeks ago by a city grand jury on charges including fabricating evidence.
No one can say — or should say — with any confidence how far the rot goes.
To want to believe there is no further corruption is to revert to the now ill-fated presumption of police integrity; to wonder, to probe and to question, is to believe in a robust and honest system of justice.
Some small steps forward: our leaders must disabuse themselves of the notion that the GTTF prosecution has fully excised the cancer. Instead, they must view our city’s recovery through the lens that there is a significant likelihood the cancer is more pervasive. Our courtroom rules should accommodate a meaningful inquiry to the relevancy and thus admissibility of officers’ disciplinary records illuminating prior acts of corruption.
The justice system needs a new mantra. As Martin Luther King said in his letter from a Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This trial proves his point. Our city’s challenge is embodied in his words.
Until we heed the #MeToo siren for change, our mass incarceration lies on the foundation of mass corruption.
Kathryn Frey-Balter (firstname.lastname@example.org) was a federal public defender in the District of Maryland from 1992 until earlier this year; she is now an adjunct professor of law and a freelance writer.