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What will it take to convince Baltimore police that plainclothes cops are a bad idea?

Baltilmore Police Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the head of the elite Gun Trace Task Force a criminal enterprise of police officers who were robbing people and dealing drugs. (Kevin Richardson)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison believes that plainsclothes police officers are an effective crime fighting tool, and he doesn’t plan to get rid of the squads anytime soon. But Baltimore’s track record with plainclothes units gives us ample reason to disagree.

The squads, made up of officers who are not undercover but wear everyday street clothes rather than uniforms, come with too much baggage and distrust.

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As The Sun’s Justin Fenton wrote in a recent three part series, plainclothes officers with the Gun Trace Task Force brutalized Baltimore citizens for years. They would descend upon neighborhoods looking for black men in particular to steal from, plant evidence on and falsely arrest. The officers exerted a glaring and overt abuse of power to terrorize people for fun and monetary gain.

The seven officers involved, including ringleader Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, are now serving jail sentences of eight to 25 years, but the havoc they wreaked on people’s lives and the reputation of the police department will be felt for a long time. And they are just the most egregious example of plainclothes units that have corroded police-community relations in Baltimore. No matter how effective police commanders think they are in terms of seizing drugs and guns, the aggressive tactics of “knockers” and “jumpout” squads have long driven a wedge between the the department and those it is supposed to serve.

Mr. Harrison told The Sun that the department needs to participate in proactive policing to stop crime, including a high number of homicides and non-fatal shootings that doesn’t seem ready to let up anytime soon. We too want the police to come up with innovative strategies to deter criminals. We would all love to live in a city where we don’t depend on home security systems and have to watch our backs so much. We just don’t think plainclothes officers are the way to achieve that.

There are plenty of other approaches to proactive policing, such as using more undercover officers who infiltrate crime rings in disguise, or simply deploying more uniformed officer patrols. Their very presence will serve as a deterrent. Something about being able to don a baseball cap and jeans fosters an environment of exclusiveness and sends the message that these officers are separate from the rest of the department and somehow don’t have to follow the same rules.

We like the strategy the department deployed recently, as reported by Kevin Rector, that requires officers to spend more time in 120 “micro-zones” across the city that have seen high rates of violence over the last five years. The new “place-based policing strategy” requires officers to spend 15 to 20 minutes three times a shift in the zones doing community policing and enforcement.

This kind of policing will help officers build relationships with the community it needs to help solve crimes. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young recently called on families of homicide suspects to “turn them in.” We agree, but we also recognize that it’s easy to say standing from a podium at City Hall. If citizens don’t trust the cops to protect them from violence and retaliation, they’re not going to cooperate. And given their history in Baltimore, plainclothes units are only going to make that problem worse.

We would make two other points: Plainclothes officers are also easier to impersonate, and they are more at risk of being mistaken by their fellow officers as threats to the community rather than protectors. That’s what happened in 2011 when officer William H. Torbit Jr. was shot and killed by fellow officers during an altercation outside the Select Lounge. He was trying to break up a fight, but he wasn’t in uniform, and other officers on the scene thought he was armed and dangerous, so they opened fire.

We thought the era of plainclothes policing was over when former Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis disbanded the units in 2017 after the Gun Force Task Unit officers were indicted. He made the right decision at the time. Sadly, the units were brought back.

Some are suggesting the squads could continue with better supervision. But there were plenty of red flags that were ignored when it came to The Gun Trace Task Force. The supervisors simply didn’t do their jobs.

These units have been around for a long time, but they have also long been problematic. The Gun Trace Task Force was the most visible example of corruption, but other plainclothes officers have beaten up suspects and been accused and arrested for other crimes as well.

The units were credited for years when Baltimore homicides were at their lowest, but it came at the expense of excessive use of force and civil rights violations too. We don’t want to go back to that time.

We encourage Mr. Harrison to continue changing the culture of the department, pushing for good policing while not violating people’s constitutional rights. Plainclothes officers aren’t part of that equation.

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