Baltimore police recall officers from ATF task force under unclear circumstances

The Baltimore Police Department, faced with staggering gun violence in the city, has sharply reduced the number of officers detailed to a special task force that has seen success in recent years in solving killings and dismantling the gangs responsible for them.

The decision to reassign six officers reduces to eight the number of Baltimore Police detectives supplied to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives under a long-standing arrangement that combines local and federal resources to tackle significant drug, gang and gun cases in the city.

Despite a federal consent decree mandating transparency from the Police Department, the agency provided little information about the circumstances surrounding the decision, even changing its reasoning Monday.

Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, at one point on Monday said Acting Commissioner Gary Tuggle had pulled all of the city’s officers assigned to the task force due to officer safety concerns.

After an afternoon meeting between Tuggle, ATF Special Agent in Charge Robert Cekada and Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur, Jablow changed the official story — saying that seven Baltimore officers and a supervisor would remain on the ATF task force, while the others would be reassigned elsewhere in the Police Department.

He also said the shakeup was not due to safety concerns, as previously stated, but “personality issues.” He declined to elaborate.

Amanda Hils, an ATF spokeswoman, declined to answer questions on the matter. And Hur’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Before the meeting with Cekada and Hur, Tuggle said he expected the issue to “be resolved quickly,” but that it related to “personnel issues” and he couldn’t discuss it in any detail.

“Those federal partnerships are critical to what we are doing, and that bears itself out every day. There are some issues that I am trying to work through,” he said. “I talk to the federal partners every day. We are having a continued discussion.”

Tuggle said his department’s reliance on federal partnerships to combat crime would continue moving forward.

“The crime fight doesn’t change. We are still laser focused on the mission and we’re getting it done,” he said.

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The ATF task force has been involved in some of the largest criminal cases brought in Baltimore in recent years, securing convictions in racketeering cases against gangs and in the fatal shooting of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott.

Since killings in Baltimore first surged in 2015, police and federal law enforcement officials have repeatedly touted such collaborative units as a key part of their response.

The Police Department’s overall homicide clearance rate currently stands at 44 percent for the year, meaning many of the nearly 300 homicides so far this year have gone unsolved.

Beyond solving violent crimes, ATF agents in Baltimore have found themselves in dangerous situations themselves in recent years.

In 2017, police said ATF agents shot a man after he and two others attempted to rob undercover agents at gunpoint during a “controlled purchase” of heroin in West Baltimore. The wounded man and the two others were all charged with armed robbery and assault. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing.

Earlier this year, a man was wounded in a shootout that erupted between alleged drug-dealing rivals in East Baltimore. ATF and police personnel were on the scene immediately, and court records later revealed that federal law enforcement officials had been in the area investigating an alleged drug crew as part of a months-long investigation. Federal prosecutors ultimately indicted 12 people on charges of operating an East Baltimore drug ring — including two who had been arrested in the shootout as well.

The change in the composition of the task force comes about six months after Cekada took over the ATF field division in Baltimore in June, replacing departing Special Agent in Charge Daniel Board Jr.

Tuggle, a former official with the Drug Enforcement Administration, took over the Police Department in May, after then-Commissioner Darryl De Sousa resigned amid federal charges of failing to file tax returns. The City Council is reviewing Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nomination of Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald as Baltimore’s next permanent commissioner.

krector@baltsun.com

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