The city of Baltimore doesn’t dispute that the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force police squad committed crimes and violated people’s rights. But attorneys for the city will try to convince the state’s highest court Monday that the officers’ conduct was so bad, taxpayers should be let off the hook from paying judgments.
How could the city’s liability shrink as the conduct grows worse? The answer lies in whether the Court of Appeals decides the officers were “acting within the scope of their employment," which would require the city to indemnify them.
The city argues the officers were rogue criminals acting against the Police Department’s mission, and should have to pay for their own actions. Plaintiffs’ attorneys contend the police supervisors ignored warning signs or worse, encouraged the officers to work outside the lines.
Millions of dollars might hang in the balance: The victims are not likely to see any money if the officers, who are serving prison sentences and owe restitution to the government, have to pay.
Outgoing City Solicitor Andre Davis said the city is putting two test cases before the high court to expedite the resolution of an issue that likely would have arisen in each case — there are at least 26 lawsuits against the GTTF officers pending in state and federal courts — and take years of litigation, which would add additional costs.
“This situation with the GTTF is unprecedented — this kind of street-level thuggery and racketeering, over many years, engaged on this scale,” Davis said in an interview. “So we needed guidance.”
Plaintiff’s attorneys are upset that the city is seeking a ruling that could bind all cases.
“The bottom line is that it is overreach for the City to ask the Court of Appeals to provide it with blanket indemnity on the issue of whether it should be responsible for the GTTF,” said attorney Bill Sinclair, who represents a man who spent eight years in prison after officers planted drugs on him. “This is a case-by-case, fact-by-fact issue, and the victims should have the right to discover to what extent the Police Department was aware of what was occurring and/or blessed it, either expressly or implicitly.”
The cases going before the Court of Appeals involve two men stopped and arrested by GTTF officers — one of whom, William James, has since become a homicide victim, and Ivan Potts, whose case was vacated but who has been indicted subsequently by federal prosecutors on drug conspiracy charges.
James said he was pulled over in East Baltimore and had a gun planted on him in 2016 after he refused to provide information to the officers. Potts also said he was assaulted and had a gun planted on him in 2015. Both cases were settled for $32,000 each, although no money has changed hands while the haggling over whether the city or the officers must pay is argued in court.
The city is arguing it isn’t responsible for paying victims because members of the Gun Trace Task Force were “criminal co-conspirators who just happened to be officers of the Baltimore Police Department.”
“Criminals who commit willful felonies against and terrorize members of a community, in furtherance of a personally motivated criminal conspiracy, and in contravention to the interests of their employer, cannot ever be said to be acting within the scope of their employment,” the city wrote in its brief. “Accordingly, the City should not have to expend taxpayer dollars to pay judgments entered against convicted criminals who committed the most outrageous and heinous torts, simply because [they] happened to be employed by the BPD.”
Victims of those officers and their attorneys have a different take.
The officers’ conduct “reflects all the traditional hallmarks of ‘authorized’ police activity," said attorneys for Potts, who said the officers beat him and planted a gun on him in 2016.
“In fact, the officers could not have committed any of their tortious acts against [the victims] without the authority that BPD entrusted them," the attorneys wrote.
The police department’s plainclothes officers have long been associated with civil rights abuses and crimes, and the BPD incentivized those abuses and failed to discipline officers, according to attorneys representing others who have complaints against the city. Attorneys representing a collection of victims compiled a searing account of the agency’s history of being unable to curb abuses.
Breaking News Alerts
A coalition of advocates including the Public Justice Center and ACLU of Maryland submitted an amicus brief — a court filing supporting the plaintiffs — saying the city must be forced to pay if it wants to make amends.
“The city’s short-term goal of avoiding financial liability for the actions of BPD’s officers is at odds with its stated goal of restoring trust in police and with enabling honest officers to police effectively and safely," the coalition wrote.
Davis, the city solicitor, said in an interview that the city being forced to pay wouldn’t change how commanders approach the issue.
“I personally believe that every police commissioner and every command officer finds this behavior unacceptable, abhorrent, horrible and counterproductive,” he said. “So I don’t think you need to permit people to sue the city in order to incentivize officials to do the best they can put to put the best qualified, best trained and most dedicated officers on the street.”
A Baltimore Circuit Court judge previously ruled that the city must indemnify the officers.
The convicted officers, who are being represented by lawyers paid for by the city, likely will fight the claims against them. Former GTTF Det. Maurice Ward is a defendant in the Potts case. He pleaded guilty and cooperated with the federal government, outlining a long list of crimes, but has maintained that he never planted a gun on anyone or was aware of the squad doing it.
Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the ringleader of the GTTF, recently spoke out from prison to tout body camera video that refuted claims of another man who said a gun was planted on him by the squad. That evidence prompted the man’s attorneys to withdraw his lawsuit.