Despite the corruption that has sometimes flourished in plainclothes squads such as the Gun Trace Task Force, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison says such units still have a place in the city — particularly amid its relentless violence and other crime.
But Harrison vows to institute better training and better controls.
He says it’s not a matter of eliminating so-called proactive policing, but rather of doing it correctly. “It just has to be done in a constitutional way,” he said.
Some in the community say the officers in these units are not trusted and shouldn’t be on the streets, especially while investigators are still assessing the seeds of the gun task force scandal.
“The fact that they’re even functioning is a slap in the face to the community when the investigations from different levels have not been completed,” said Tre Murphy of Black Leaders Organizing for Change.
“Every community person I’ve talked to has said this practice has to go. It’s not effective, it’s unaccountable, and it’s not building trust with the community.”
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Harrison, who was sworn in as commissioner in March, was asked to speak to the corruption revealed by federal investigators. Gun Trace Task Force Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, six men who served under him, and the previous supervisor of the unit are serving prison terms of eight to 25 years for racketeering offenses, including robbery.
A three-part series published Wednesday in The Sun provided new details of how the corrupt squad operated. The articles, the result of a yearlong investigation, highlighted how most of the officers began criminal activity long before they came together on the gun squad — in particular while serving in other plainclothes units.
While their robberies and drug dealing appear to have been well hidden, the investigation found that commanders ignored repeated warning signs of other misconduct.
Jenkins, for instance, was sued at least four times from 2006 to 2009 while serving in plainclothes units, and found to be at fault in three of those cases. Internal police files show he was not disciplined for the misconduct, and in fact was promoted to other coveted assignments during those years.
In 2014, when surveillance footage raised questions about Jenkins’ account of finding drugs in a man’s car, Internal Affairs investigators recommended suspension, demotion and other punishment. But a deputy commissioner intervened, according to another police commander.
Even amid a 15-month U.S. Department of Justice civil rights review of Baltimore Police in 2015 and 2016, Jenkins and his officers were regularly lying on official reports, stealing from citizens and conducting illegal searches. Meanwhile, the DOJ investigators found that a “disproportionate share of complaints” cited plainclothes officers as “particularly aggressive and unrestrained in their practice of stopping individuals without cause and performing public, humiliating searches.”
A state commission is holding hearings to examine the Gun Trace Task Force scandal. And federal authorities say they have not yet closed the investigation that led to the indictment of Jenkins and the others.
The Baltimore Police Department has said it conducted an Internal Affairs review stemming from the indictments, but has not released the findings. The department typically treats Internal Affairs investigations as confidential personnel matters.
Police commissioners in Baltimore have long deployed plainclothes units to initiate investigations in high-crime areas. Known on the streets as “knockers,” the units have changed names and structure over the years but officers say the work has largely been the same.
Plainclothes officers differ from undercover officers, who assume a false identity. Instead, plainclothes officers conduct investigations and surveillance wearing street clothes, trying to blend in while not having to answer 911 calls.
“There is a level of proactive policing that has to be done in this community and every community,” Harrison said, “in order to prevent crime and displace it and apprehend people who commit it. Otherwise we’re only being responsive, we’re not being proactive in prevention.”
Just last month, federal prosecutors credited the work of Baltimore plainclothes officers in apprehending a man with a gun after saying they observed the “contours of a firearm” in his pants. The man, who had three prior armed robbery convictions, was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Baltimore police commanders also have been touting the work of plainclothes officers working in their districts, posting photos on social media of guns and drugs the units seized.
Harrison did not offer details of his plans to prevent and identify corrupt behavior but said he will put in place “both technological and human” monitoring systems to track officer and supervisor performance. “Some are systems that need to be built,” Harrison said. “Some of them are here, just not enforced, and that could be why we saw what we saw” with the Gun Trace Task Force.
He said he also will establish new training programs that are being explored.
When Harrison became chief of police in New Orleans in 2014, the department was implementing reforms required by a federal consent decree enacted two years earlier. The changes included efforts to discourage overly aggressive tactics, Harrison and others say. “We retrained people to do things properly, and to do that based on observations of whether or not they observed a violation of law,” he said.
Former Baltimore public defender Tonya McClary, who is now the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, said in a recent interview the results have been positive. “It definitely was like the Wild Wild West at one point,” she said.
A top police union official in New Orleans, Sgt. Walter Powers, said plainclothes units there are different from those in Baltimore in that they have always driven marked vehicles and been assigned specific tasks. “You go into an area that’s been crime-ridden with auto thefts, and that’s what you’re looking for,” Powers said.
In Baltimore, former commissioner Kevin Davis put all plainclothes officers back on uniformed patrol after the gun task force indictments in 2017. A few months later, he started new “District Action Teams” of officers who worked in uniform but were charged with doing proactive investigative work.
The police department has since changed their apparel, putting the teams in a modified uniform of khakis or military-style tactical pants with vests that say “POLICE” across the chest.
The number of officers deployed in plainclothes units is far lower than a decade ago when the Violent Crimes Impact Division was touted as the key force that helped drive homicides below 200 victims in 2010, for the first time since the 1980s. The division had nearly 300 detectives when it was created in 2007.
This February, then-acting Commissioner Gary Tuggle said about 100 officers were working on District Action Teams under the direction of commanders in each of Baltimore’s nine police districts — not under a separate chain of command, as sometimes in the past.
Bridal Pearson, who chairs Baltimore’s civilian police review board, said there is a significant lag time between when complaints are filed and when they reach the board. So he couldn’t comment on whether the District Action Teams are generating complaints.
Pearson said he believes the Gun Trace Task Force scandal had its roots in a shift to zero tolerance in the early 2000s and an “us vs. them” mentality. It led to a culture in plainclothes units that bred aggressive behavior and misconduct, Pearson says. “It will continue in different forms if they’re not restructured,” he said.
Some police experts say the department should institute a rotation policy that cycles officers out of plainclothes units and through other types of work.
“If you keep [using] the same people, you’re not going to get anything different,” said Ronal Serpas, former chief in New Orleans and Nashville. “ ‘Groupthink’ starts to set in,” he said. “The next thing you know, you’re in federal prison.”
RaShall Brackney, a longtime Pittsburgh police officer who is now the Charlottesville, Va., chief, got rid of plainclothes units there.
“When you have that kind of autonomy, that group will start reinforcing its own negative and/or positive behaviors,” she said. Brackney said she could not risk the former.
Jerry Rodriguez, a Los Angeles Police Department veteran, served as a Baltimore deputy commissioner from 2013 to 2015, overseeing police accountability. He said that when he came to Baltimore, he saw that the department was proud of its plainclothes culture — but it was instantly apparent to him it was problematic.
“You have to be careful what you ask of your officers, because they’ll get it for you, and the ends do not justify the means,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a balance you have to keep — to provide the community with good quality of life where you reduce crime, but don’t do it in such a way where it’s oppressive or overbearing or they break the law.”
In Los Angeles, Rodriguez had helped investigate the CRASH team scandal in the late 1990s in which plainclothes officers were planting evidence and lying about cases. He said Los Angeles police got much more selective about who got to work in plainclothes and instituted oversight such as checking officers’ finances.
The Sun’s investigation found that during Jenkins’ career, the department was focused on arrests of suspects for guns or drugs. It didn’t follow up to see whether cases led to convictions or instead were dropped because of improper conduct or lack of evidence. An analysis of Jenkins’ cases from 2012 to 2016 found 40 percent were dropped, even as he was being praised for the volume he was bringing forward.
Just days before Davis was fired last year amid Baltimore’s continued violence, he said he wanted to create a program to track arrest outcomes. His successor, Darryl De Sousa, announced the creation of such a unit, putting it under a new Inspector General’s office.
Retired Col. Edward Jackson was brought back to serve as inspector general and oversee the reviews. “I did a few, but that was put on hold due to staffing,” Jackson said in an interview. He left the agency earlier this year.
Jackson, who has also been a criminal justice professor for two decades, said the Baltimore department remains overwhelmed by crime, with too few officers to cover the streets and staff needed initiatives.
“The elephant in the room is that officers are under pressure to get back out on the street instead of sit in the station and write a proper report,” Jackson said.
The lack of follow-through is hurting the battle against crime, he said — fueling a cycle. “Our inability to provide enough street coverage is linked to the inability to make proper handgun cases.”
Jackson said that extends to commanders, who he says were often too involved in crime-suppression initiatives to focus on oversight and reform.
Many criminal justice experts say prosecutors should be an important outside check on police. In Baltimore, the State’s Attorney’s Office said it does not track case outcomes by officer or unit to spot trends. It does have a protocol for responding to individual reports of misconduct, a spokeswoman said.
The office has a “review process where attorneys are required to escalate individual cases to our Public Trust and Police Integrity Unit in instances where the integrity of officers is called into question,” spokeswoman Melba Saunders said.