Members of a state commission created to look into the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force scandal convened their first meeting in Annapolis on Tuesday, with a state senator offering a sobering assessment of the state of the city to emphasize the importance of their work.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing “truly may be one of the last hopes our city has to restore trust in the fundamental nature of democracy in government.”
“When that’s broken, all of it is broken, and I fear that’s where we may be,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said the panel should find out “who knew, what did they know, when did they know it, why didn’t they say something. How deep does it go? … How could the system have failed this badly for this long?”
“Most importantly, how do we make sure this never, ever, ever happens again?” he said.
The panel, approved signed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, will look into systemic problems that helped the rogue police unit commit crimes for years as well as uncover new facts. Their charge includes exploring a reorganization of the police department and the dynamic between state and city oversight.
“I think everything is on the table,” Ferguson said in an interview after the meeting.
While Mayor Catherine E. Pugh previously opposed creation of the commission, some city leaders have been pushing for increased city control of the police department, which is, through a quirk of law, a state agency.
Though the federal trial of the officers aired a wide array of details about what the officers did, the police department has not offered a public accounting of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal. Only last week did a police internal affairs commander tell City Council members that seven officers are under investigation connected to the department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. Two other officers were investigated and cleared, Lt. Col. LaTonya Lewis said.
Such internal investigations have been kept confidential, with police citing state law. Just last week, interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle wrote in an email to city council members that discussing such investigations in any way would be a “criminal offense.”
“Thus, I cannot and will not provide you with any additional information. Additionally, I ask that you no longer make inquires of this nature with any member of the department,” Tuggle wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
Eight Gun Trace Task Force officers were convicted of federal racketeering charges, and those sentenced so far are serving between seven and 25 years in federal prison.
Convicted officers who became government cooperators outlined how the officers regularly violated citizens’ rights, conducted illegal searches, tracked people without warrants, stole drugs and money, and took unearned overtime pay. They generally did not fear getting caught, saying it was “part of the culture.”
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The ringleader, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, admitted to an array of crimes including lying about drugs that police had planted on an innocent man. Jenkins also stole and resold dirt bikes, conspired with a Baltimore County bail bondsman to sell $1 million worth of drugs Jenkins had taken off the street, and carried around tools and masks to carry out robberies.
The police department, already under a federal consent decree and facing the worst large-city murder rate in the country, has had three police commissioners this year alone. Prosecutors said earlier in the year they were reviewing thousands of potentially tainted cases, while civil liability from lawsuits brought against the city “is immeasurable,” Ferguson said.
The panel is chaired by retired U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams, and consists of six other members selected by Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
The members are Gary McLhinney, a former city police union president who now oversees standards for the prison system; attorney Sean Malone; Ashiah Parker, of the No Boundaries Coalition; West Baltimore resident Inez Robb; former Howard County Police chief and state Sen. James Robey; and Alicia Wilson, a resident and vice president with Sagamore Development.
The first meeting was preliminary, with commission members being introduced to legislative services staff who will be assisting them, and picking dates for future meetings. Commission members requested an array of documents and information for staff to begin gathering, including trial transcripts, police department policies and the names of prosecutors who handled the gun unit’s cases prior to their indictment.
Commission members also asked if they could receive internal affairs complaints against Gun Trace Task Force officers, and the outcome, and asked whether the attorney general’s office could lend legal advice to help them navigate issues obtaining such documents.
The commission has subpoena power, and Ferguson has asked the commission to make recommendations about additional resources or authority it may need that the legislature could approve in the next session.