State Sen. Bill Ferguson proposed creating a special commission Tuesday to investigate unanswered questions surrounding the Baltimore Police Department’s disgraced Gun Trace Task Force — including how high up the corruption went and whether anyone might have turned a blind eye to the officers’ actions.
Introduced as an amendment to Ferguson’s bill that calls for regular state auditing of the city police department, the proposal would establish the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing.
The commission, which would have subpoena power, would be tasked with conducting a 20-month investigation into Baltimore police corruption with a preliminary report due at the end of the 2018 and a final report due at the end of 2019.
It would have the ability to call witnesses to testify and the power to compel production of written and electronic records and other documents.
“We have an obligation to get to the bottom of this tragedy,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, in testimony submitted to the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “There is no time to waste, and the consequences and implications are too important for the future of the City of Baltimore.”
The case against the Gun Trace Task Force is among the worst corruption scandals ever to hit the police department. Six officers pleaded guilty to various federal crimes, including racketeering and robbery, with some of them flipping on their former colleagues and helping federal prosecutors secure guilty verdicts against the two officers who went to trial.
The commission would be tasked with going beyond the scope of the federal case, looking into which supervisors knew what and when they knew it. It would investigate “oversight and supervision of the GTTF and its members by the Baltimore City Police Department, including but not limited to direct and indirect supervision and internal affairs complaints or investigations” and “any knowledge that the Baltimore City Police Department (or any employee thereof) possessed about the actions or inactions of the GTTF,” according to the bill.
T.J. Smith, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said new Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa looks forward to discussing the proposal with Ferguson.
"We've already taken several steps to review the agency pitfalls that allowed this corruption to persist,” he said in an emailed statement. “We hired an Inspector General, we recently announced the appointment of Deputy Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who brings with him his wealth of federal experience, we created an overtime abuse unit, and we've established an anti-corruption unit to specifically examine the GTTF case. We are continuing to move forward and I have zero tolerance for corruption."
The seven-member commission proposed by Ferguson would be staffed by the state’s Department of Legislative Services and Office of Legislative Audits, which would hire contractors to help with the work.
Two members of the commission would be appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan, two by Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and two by House of Delegates Speaker E. Michael Busch. The chair of the commission would be jointly appointed by the three state leaders.
Aides to Miller and Busch said they were just learning about the proposal. A spokesman for Hogan did not respond to a request for comment.
Leaders on the Baltimore City Council welcomed the idea.
Lester Davis, a spokesman for Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said council officials had looked into doing a similar probe before deciding it would be best done at the state level.
“The council president has said you need more investigations not fewer,” Davis said. “The more inquiries you can have, the better. It’s going to take a lot of work to get to the bottom of what happened and make recommendations so we don’t get into that situation down the line.”
Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, said the proposed commission was a positive development. He said he planned to reach out to Ferguson to see if a member of the City Council could be added to the investigative body.
“More eyes looking at the problem is a good thing,” he said.
The legislation calls for at least four of the seven members of the commission to be lawyers and at least three to be residents of Baltimore.
At the conclusion of its investigation, the commission would recommend “whether a reorganization of the Department is warranted and, if so, options for a such a reorganization,” as well as recommendations for improved oversight of the department and its specialized units, the bill states.
The commission members would be volunteers and could meet in closed session by a vote of five members. The commission may deny any request by the public to inspect its records if five members of the commission vote that the information sought is “reasonably related to [Maryland Public Information Act] exclusions,” according to the legislation.
The proposal is attached to Ferguson’s bill that calls for the state to conduct financial and performance audits of the Baltimore police force at least once every six years, as auditors do for other state agencies. While Baltimore’s police department is funded entirely by city taxpayers — and the mayor has the power to hire and fire its police commissioner — it is legally a state agency and subject to the laws of the General Assembly, not Baltimore’s City Council.
“Many are unaware that the Baltimore Police Department exists as an agency of the State of Maryland,” Ferguson wrote. “Given the tense moment the City of Baltimore faces with creating real safety in communities and genuine trust in policing, we have a duty and responsibility to exercise our legislative oversight powers to provide guidance and accountability to prevent future harms.”
State Del. Cory V. McCray, a Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring the House version of the bill, said more auditing of the police department is needed.
“When we talk about overtime, when we talk about how they confiscate things, we have to make sure they are accountable,” he said.
A spokesman for Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said the city’s law department was reviewing the legislation.