Two months had passed since Gary Brown accused Baltimore police officers of stealing $11,000 from him, and if he had any chance of getting that money back, he needed people to believe him. So on Aug. 27, 2009, Brown took a lie detector test, court records show. He passed.
That same day, one of the officers he accused, Michael Sylvester, walked into an M&T Bank branch to cash a “negotiable instrument” worth $10,842, according to federal court records. Sylvester then deposited $6,000 in cash into his Destinations Credit Union account in Parkville, a transaction so out of character that bankers there filed a “suspicious activity report” with the U.S. Treasury Department, according to several federal lawsuits against the police department.
Two officers with Sylvester when he stopped Brown — Jason Giordano and Jemell Rayam — later misled internal investigators and flunked a lie detector test about the encounter, according to court filings and investigative notes. Still, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office office made the decision not to bring criminal charges against the officers even before the investigation concluded, according to records and lawsuits.
More than a year after federal prosecutors convicted eight Baltimore police officers on sweeping corruption charges, the city faces a wave of new litigation even as older lawsuits wind through the system. Rather than end a sordid and difficult time for the department, the criminal trials and plea bargains produced evidence that’s now exposing the city to potentially devastating civil damages, records show.
The court filings seek tens of millions of dollars and dredge up old allegations while highlighting new ones with details never before released, such as the bank deposit and treasury alert. And unlike the focus on specific crimes by Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and his Gun Trace Task Force, these lawsuits introduce a timeline of what attorneys call decades of corruption in the department.
To prove the most crucial elements of the lawsuits — that Baltimore police have a pattern and practice of poor training and civil rights violations that leadership ignored — attorneys argue that only the names of the officers and task forces have changed. The tainted “flex squads” of the early 2000s gave way to dishonest SET teams, which led to the VCIS units and, most recently, the GTTF, the lawsuits say.
Jenkins and his colleagues weren’t an aberration, the plaintiffs argue, but the natural outcome of years of neglect, poor training and a lack of will to stop the abuses.
“Defendant BPD has implemented a policy or custom of condonation, or deliberate indifference, to the use of excessive force, illegal search and seizures, and misuse of police powers by Defendant BPD officers,” attorney John Rhodes wrote in a lawsuit filed July 7 by his client, Nancy Hamilton. “Defendant BPD has failed to adequately train and supervise Defendant BPD’s officers in proper arrest, search and seizure, use of police powers, and use of force.”
In June, a Baltimore Sun investigation called attention to lax supervision in the police department’s plainclothes units, which critics say contributed to a culture of corruption. Two more lawsuits have been filed since then. Many of the court filings specifically cite Sun reporting.
City Solicitor Andre Davis did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article. City attorneys have not yet filed written responses to an August lawsuit filed by Herbert Tate or to the filing by Hamilton, who said members of the Gun Trace Task Force kidnapped and assaulted her.
On Thursday, the city asked a federal judge for more time to respond, according to a filing in federal court. The same day, the Office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said it would move to dismiss nearly 800 cases tainted by the Gun Trace Task Force.
Davis and other city attorneys have argued that the department is not liable in the lawsuits because the actions of Jenkins, Rayam and other officers were so far outside the scope of their duties that they alone are responsible for any civil verdicts. It’s a critical point, because under terms of a memorandum of understanding with the police union, Baltimore police must pay all costs and judgments against officers sued in the line of duty.
In at least one case, the city has filed counterclaims against the officers in an effort to force them to pay any damages themselves.
If the city proves the officers acted outside their scope of duty, it would be partially protected, and plaintiffs would be forced to try to collect from officers who are stuck behind bars for years or even decades. State law caps judgments against municipalities and public employees at $400,000.
But proving the officers acted independently won’t necessarily help the city in federal court, where damages aren’t capped on civil rights violations and constitutional issues, according to attorney Joshua Insley, who is representing clients in three lawsuits.
In fact, Insley argues, the city’s fixation with proving that Jenkins and cohorts operated beyond the the department’s ability to monitor and contain them could open it to far bigger financial losses. By trying to show the officers essentially did their own thing, city attorneys strengthen the federal argument that the department’s systemic lack of training and oversight led to civil rights violations, he said.
“The city’s shell game defense of saying, ‘We didn’t know what they were doing,’ just shows their wishful thinking approach to these cases,” Insley said. “The ‘outside the scope of their duties’ argument doesn’t help them in civil rights cases.
“Even if the city were to win on all of the indemnification issues — and they won’t — it doesn’t help them at all on the real issues of these cases. They are obsessed with the small stuff and avoiding the stuff that can really put them in jeopardy."
So far this year, federal judges in two cases involving Gun Trace Task Force members have refused motions by the city to dismiss it from the lawsuits.
At least five federal lawsuits filed this year target the department and at least some former members of the Gun Trace Task Force, as did a few filed last year that remain open. Several attorneys represent an array of clients, but their filings are nearly identical and use verbatim language, a sign they are collaborating in at least part of the process.
The lawsuits outline many instances of abuse by police, including allegations of theft, kidnapping, planting evidence and lying on affidavits. Defendants include not only convicted former officers but also supervisors and some officers who are still in the department.
And unlike most lawsuits in which plaintiffs must prove what happened, most of the current filings include incidents already investigated and proven by the FBI and U.S. Justice Department.
The plaintiffs and allegations in the federal complaints include:
>> Herbert Tate, who in 2015 spent three months in jail after Daniel Hersl — later a member of the Gun Trace Task Force — and another officer arrested him on drug and other charges. Tate said the officers planted the contraband, and prosecutors agreed, dropping all charges in March 2016. This was a year before the federal indictments against the gun task force were announced.
>> Nancy Hamilton, who said that in the summer of 2016 Jenkins and other officers kidnapped her and her husband while they were running errands in Baltimore County. The officers drove them around for more than an hour before taking them to their home in the county to search for money, she and federal prosecutors have said. Hamilton has a similar suit pending in state court.
>> Michael Saunders, who was on the way to an auto auction with $18,000 in cash when, he says, Jenkins and others took the money and planted a gun on him. Prosecutors dropped all the charges against Saunders in March 2017.
>> Robert Johnson, who spent four years in prison on a weapons charge and accuses police officers of illegally stopping him and searching his car.
>> Blanton Roberts, who spent two years in prison after officers arrested him on his front porch, claiming they saw him reach for a gun. In the summer of 2017, prosecutors dropped all charges against him, and he was freed from prison.
>> Kenneth Bumgardner, who said officers from the Gun Trace Task Force rammed his car in 2016, then broke his jaw with a “blunt force” to the head.
Bumgardner and Blanton were two of the first plaintiffs and are further along in the litigation process. Federal judges have denied the Baltimore Police Department’s motions to have the cases thrown out, and the city has been ordered to turn over thousands of pages of emails, internal investigations and other documents detailing what senior officials knew about the actions of the corrupt gun task force officers.
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“When we get that discovery information, I think you’re going to see that everybody knew all along what was going on. That’s where you are going to find the smoking gun in all of this,” Insley, the attorney for several plaintiffs, said.
Attorneys for many of the plaintiffs have taken similar strategies, highlighting historical cases involving what they call rogue and corrupt officers violating the rights of innocent citizens. In court pleadings the attorneys argue that the department knew about many of the allegations against Jenkins, his men and others long ago, yet still promoted them and kept them employed.
By leaving them on the job, the Baltimore Police Department put the lives and rights of the plaintiffs and other citizens in danger, the lawsuits argue.
In each of the pending lawsuits, lawyers suing the city prominently highlight the case of Gary Brown, the man who in 2009 accused officers of stealing $11,000. He never filed a lawsuit, apparently did not get his money back and is not a party to any of the current litigation. Attempts to reach Brown were unsuccessful.
One of the officers accused by Brown, Rayam, was later indicted in the Gun Trace Task Force case and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Sylvester, who deposited the money in his bank accounts, has not been charged with a crime. He reached a deal to resign from the police department and went on to work in the Baltimore City Clerk’s Office assigned to a Circuit Court judge’s courtroom. He is no longer listed on the city’s online employee database. Sylvester has declined to comment in the past on his connections to Rayam and allegations he was involved in wrongdoing. The Sun was unable to contact him.
Giordano, who was suspended for one month over the Brown incident, also has not been charged with a crime. He remains a Baltimore police sergeant. Baltimore police did not respond to an email or phone calls seeking comment. The Sun was unable to reach Giordano.