Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Al Jazeera takes tough, smart look at corruption in Baltimore Police Department

Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” documentary series has done some fine work in covering Baltimore police-community relations with such reports as “Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City” in 2012 and “Baltimore Rising” in 2015.

Add “The Gang Within: A Baltimore Police Scandal,” which premiered today online and is embedded above, to that list.

While the focus of the documentary is the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, one of the worst debacles in a generation of policing, this is a not a comprehensive, 360-degree look at that civic disgrace. Baltimoresun.com, with months of all-out reporting, is the place to go for that kind of wide-ranging coverage. The producer of of “The Gang Within,” Paul Abowd, himself acknowledged in an email exchange that one of the most powerful cases related in the documentary was first reported by Justin Fenton in The Sun.

But what “Fault Lines” accomplishes in just 25 minutes of film is highly impressive. It makes viewers feel the tremendous pain of two victims of these gangster cops while skillfully framing the larger question of whether Baltimore will ever make any progress in dealing with the corruption in its Police Department as long as it lets the cops police themselves.

Other questions it raises and suggests: How could this have gone on so long without anyone in senior management at the Police Department knowing? Who should have known? Did some officials know and cover up? And why did it take federal investigators to uncover what was operating so brazenly under the noses of Baltimore city officials? What was internal affairs doing while citizens were being robbed, drugs were being seized and sold on the black market and homes were being invaded by what was supposed to be the elite of the Baltimore Police Department?

Two of the people questioned on camera are former Commissioner Kevin Davis and former internal affairs chief Rodney Hill, who retired earlier this year after heading up the division since 2013.

Davis tries to portray himself in the film as a reformer. But the producers and correspondent Natasha Del Toro are not buying that at face value.

Davis starts out saying that when he took over as commissioner in 2015, “the place was a mess. There was no accountability here.”

Talking specifically about the Gun Trace Task Force members led by Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, Davis added, “The lack of accountability in internal affairs contributed to making this group the monsters they turned out to be.”

As for his role as commissioner: “I did my very best to identify some organizational terrorists who had horrific reputations in the community as being brutal and corrupt,” Davis says. “And we did our very best to remove several of these police officers from the Police Department.”

He says he thinks he fired 22 officers in 2016.

“But 2016 was also the year Sgt. Wayne Jenkins carried out some of his biggest heists,” Del Toro tells viewers right on the heels of the claims by Davis.

Viewers are then shown video of criminal acts by Jenkins and his crew.

A few moments later, viewers see archival video of Davis saluting Jenkins and giving him an award for what she says is “valor” at a police ceremony.

“Did you know that the Gun Trace Task Force officers had so many complaints against them?” she asks Davis.

“Did I personally know?” he replies. “No.”

“Should you have known about the number of complaints against these detectives?” the Al Jazeera correspondent follows up.

“I’m going to shy away,” Davis says. “The questions seem like they’re getting into a lot of hindsight.”

Del Toro also asks Hill if he had heard of the task force’s criminality.

“Were you getting a lot of complaints about these officers?” she asks Hill.

“There were definitely a good number, yes,” he says.

Del Toro then tells viewers, “Hill recommended that Jenkins be demoted.” But, she adds, “powerful people wanted Jenkins to stay on the street. Hill says one of the department’s highest-ranking officials overruled him.”

The reason: Jenkins and his crew were racking up arrests and providing the department with good-looking statistics. These criminal cops gave good metrics.

The report broadens its lens to look at larger issues and possible solutions.

“It’s not just a matter of few bad apples. This is a culture of corruption that has been allowed to exist,” state Sen. Jill Carter tells Del Toro. “And so, I think the only solution is that we have to have an independent body that’s investigating and making disciplinary recommendations that are adhered to.”

Del Toro tells viewers: “Jill Carter says the city’s civilian review board is supposed to do just that … but the board’s power is limited.”

Carter says she knows “for a fact that the civilian review board had cases against at least two of the officers in the Gun Trace Task Force” and recommended that they be fired. But those recommendations were ignored.

It is clear from the interviews and reporting done by Al Jazeera that quite a few people in the law enforcement community, at least, knew about these these criminal cops and the evil they were doing on the streets of Baltimore. But no one took any meaningful action until federal agents arrived and behaved the way honest law enforcement officials are supposed to act when confronted with crooked cops.

It is impossible to watch this report and not conclude that Baltimore police have utterly failed in policing themselves. It is also reasonable to wonder after watching whether Baltimore will ever escape the cycle of crime, corruption and national disgrace that now engulfs it if it fails to acknowledge and act on that failure. This is one devastating narrative about Baltimore told on a major global platform that you cannot change with just public relations and spin.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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