The corruption indictments this year against Baltimore’s elite Gun Trace Task Force has produced an unintended — and undesirable — consequence: a major decline in gun arrests in the city.
As Baltimore struggles under surging gun violence, gun arrests are down 25 percent from last year.
Much of the decline has come from the police department’s operational intelligence division, of which the task force was a part. The division has made 277 fewer gun arrests this year, a 67 percent drop. Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the dissolution of the task force in March has been a factor.
The end to “their methodology of work certainly has contributed to a decline in gun arrests,” Smith said. But he added that some of the successes claimed by the unit “might not have been lawful arrests.”
The task force was entrusted with a job that Police Commissioner Kevin Davis described as a key to quelling the city’s historic violence: getting illegal guns out of the hands of trigger-pullers.
A federal grand jury indicted seven members on racketeering and other charges in March and an eighth member in August. The officers are accused of robbing suspects and law-abiding citizens, filing false court paperwork to cover their tracks and committing overtime fraud.
Four have pleaded guilty. Four are fighting the charges.
With the indictments, the task force was disbanded. Davis redirected resources away from other specialized plainclothes units and created uniformed District Action Teams to enforce gun laws at the district level.
Smith said the department is “proud of the work” of the new teams, and the department regularly touts their success in seizing firearms. But the teams aren’t pulling nearly as many guns off the street as the task force did.
City data show that gun arrests began to decline immediately after the arrests of the first seven task force members.
In January and February, gun arrests increased over the first two months of 2016. But gun arrests declined by 42 percent in March compared to the same month in 2016. They were down 46 percent in April and 39 percent in May.
In August, amid another summer of violence, police made 77 gun arrests, down more than 34 percent from the 117 arrests of August 2016.
Overall, the 25 percent drop in gun arrests this year is far greater than the 4 percent dip in total arrests by city police for all crimes. The decline in gun arrests has led to a corresponding decline in gun seizures as well; they are down 27 percent since February.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, has expressed concern for months about declining gun arrests. He said police need to be skilled at the district level at seizing guns and making gun arrests.
“If we were relying too heavily on the Gun Trace Task Force to get the guns, that was a bad model to have anyway,” he said. “It’s important to me that district commanders have areas where they can control. We shouldn’t be depending on one centralized group to get all the guns off the street.”
Davis has said the new District Action Teams provide that localized focus, and are still building capacity and experience.
Gun arrests attributed to district teams are up in several districts compared to this time last year, the data show.
Gun arrests made by officers in the Northern District, which includes Station North, Hampden, Johns Hopkins University and Roland Park, are up 41 percent year over year. In the Western District, which includes Sandtown-Winchester, Coppin State University and Mondawmin, they’re up 40 percent. In the Southern District, which includes Federal Hill and Brooklyn, they’re up 23 percent.
In September, Southern District Action Team officers broke up a dice game in Westport, chased a man, arrested him on a gun charge for a revolver he allegedly tossed during the chase, and then discovered he had two vehicles parked in the area, police said.
After obtaining a search warrant for the vehicles, officers located and seized 11 more firearms, including several semi-automatic rifles, and ammunition, police said.
“Great job Southern District Action Team!” Davis tweeted, with a picture of the guns piled on a table.
For all the gains, though, they haven’t been enough to offset the huge decline in task force arrests — an indicator of how prolific the team was.
Police commanders created the Gun Trace Task Force a decade ago to zero in on gun offenders, a perennial target of Baltimore’s law enforcement and political leaders in a city crippled by some of the worst gun violence in the nation.
Davis called the approach a key element of his plan to reduce the years-long surge in homicides in the city. (He has also lamented the fact that arrests for illegal gun possession in the city often don’t result in long prison sentences, in part because as a first offense, the crime is a misdemeanor in Maryland.)
Lt. Chris O’Ree, a city commander who was assigned to work with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, praised the unit in the Baltimore police newsletter in October 2016. He said it was getting guns off the street at breakneck speed.
“This team of dedicated detectives has a work ethic that is beyond reproach,” he wrote, and commended Sgt. Wayne Jenkins for his leadership.
“Sergeant Jenkins and his team are responsible for arresting handgun violators; as well as tracking the origins of guns and how they get into the hands of Trigger Pullers. … Ten and a half months into the year and Sergeant Jenkins and his team have 110 arrests for handgun violations and seized 132 illegal handguns. This is no small task.”
Jenkins was one of the highest-ranking officers to be indicted.
He has pleaded not guilty.
“Mr. Jenkins recognizes the serious nature of the allegations against him,” said his attorney, Steven Levin. “Putting aside the seriousness of those allegations, there is no question that Mr. Jenkins worked tirelessly to get guns off the streets of Baltimore. The statistics should reflect that he was responsible for the seizure of a great number of weapons, and that should not be forgotten as he faces these pending charges.”
Jenkins has resigned from the police force.
Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University who studies police integrity and corruption, said the argument is common in corruption cases.
It is often the case that “the more productive police officers in terms of things you can count” — such as guns seized or arrests made — also attract more citizen complaints, Stinson said.
When productive officers are charged with corruption or other crimes, Stinson said, they often take up a “noble cause corruption” defense, in which they justify their actions by saying, “We’re doing it for a noble cause, the greater good.”
“We teach that in ethics courses, in criminal justice courses in universities,” Stinson said. “But no. That’s not right. The ends don’t justify the means. You can’t engage in corrupt activities, committing crimes yourself, in order to prevail against the bad guys.”
Beyond destroying community trust in police, which makes securing convictions before juries more difficult, such actions can undercut legitimate police actions when they are exposed, Stinson said.
“They are going to start losing criminal cases by cutting these corners,” he said.
That’s already happening in Baltimore.
The indictments have caused prosecutors to reconsider nearly 200 cases.
Through September, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby had dropped or planned to drop charges in 109 criminal cases that relied on the testimony of the officers, her office said. Prosecutors were reviewing 88 more cases.
A spokeswoman for Mosby said the federal indictments have had a “definite impact” on the office’s ability to prosecute gun cases.
“Despite these challenges,” spokeswoman Melba Saunders said, “we remain committed to making our communities safer and getting the perpetuators of violence off of our streets.”
Stinson said the fallout from the corruption case makes clear just how important it is for the police department to “find a way to get guns off the streets legally.”
“The police have to figure out how to conduct their business without depriving people of their constitutional rights and allowing for illegal conduct by their police officers,” he said. “It takes innovation in policing. It takes rethinking the way the police department is going to conduct itself. And it’s not an easy task.”
University of Baltimore criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross said disbanding the Gun Trace Task Force “sounds a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
He said specialized units develop an expertise at combating a specific problem.
“They have their sources, their confidential informants and they really understand how the crime unfolds,” he said. “It would be better to train [new members] to step into the shoes of these [indicted officers] and to have better controls on their activities.
“Getting guns off the street is an important activity of a big city police department.”
Scott, the councilman, agreed. But he said shoring up other elements of the police department — including patrol — also must be a priority. He said staff shortages in patrol are limiting how effective officers can be at the district level.
That also impacts gun arrests, he said.
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“With us being short on patrol, patrol doesn’t really have the time to be proactive, because they’re answering so many calls,” Scott said. “We want to make sure that they can stop the people robbing kids coming home from school.”