The state commission exploring the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force scandal heard contrasting testimony in its first meeting held in Baltimore, with the public defender’s office advocating changes to ensure accountability and two police officials saying the department needs to better use existing systems.
Assistant public defender Deborah Katz Levi told members of the commission that information on police officer discipline remains hidden from public view and enables misconduct to continue. She said the panel should also recommend rolling back the statewide Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which sets out the process for police misconduct investigations.
“We have people being beaten, brutalized and terrorized, and we’re still holding these things secret,” Levi said.
But commission member Sean Malone, an attorney who once prosecuted internal city police discipline cases and now defends officers, questioned whether the police bill of rights was actually the problem.
Michael Davey, an attorney who represents area police unions, including the city’s in labor negotiations and discipline, told the panel “the tools are there to discipline police officers — it just has to be used.”
Meanwhile, former deputy commissioner Anthony Barksdale, who presided over operations of the department from 2007 to 2012, said commanders need to heavily scrutinize the department’s operations looking for hints of problems, from arrests to overtime spending, and demand accountability.
“It’s broken in Baltimore City, and it’s been broken for years,” Barksdale said.
The meeting was the third held by the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing, which was created by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan. The commission is led by retired U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams, and consists of community members and former officials picked by Hogan and leaders of the General Assembly.
The panel’s early work has been largely laying a basic foundation for how the Police Department operates and what function the Gun Trace Task Force unit was supposed to serve.
Eight police officers from the unit were charged by federal prosecutors with racketeering for regularly robbing citizens, conducting stops and searches without probable cause, and lying in official paperwork. Six pleaded guilty and two were convicted at trial. They were sentenced to between seven and 25 years in federal prison.
The scandal continues to grow. The Baltimore Sun reported this month that a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officer in California who worked with one of the now-convicted GTTF members, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, in another unit in 2013 admitted to the FBI that he also stole and lied. That officer, Matthew Ryckman, has not been charged and the circumstances of his case remain unclear but were disclosed in a letter sent to defense attorneys in California by the U.S. attorney’s office there.
“The admissions by Ryckman, who was not part of the GTTF, underscores how any misconception that the GTTF indictments rid the BPD of serious wrongdoers is wrong,” the public defender’s office said in a statement this month.
Levi’s presentation focused on the difficulty she said defense attorneys continue to have in obtaining records on misconduct accusations made against officers. Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow sat in the audience as an observer, occasionally shaking his head.
“We have to be sleuths, detectives and investigators in every case in Baltimore City to see if we’re getting what we’re supposed to be getting,” Levi said. “If your job is to restore public trust, then you’ve got to help us.”
Malone, one of the commission members, asked Levi whether public defenders had made any complaints about the Gun Trace Task Force officers before they were charged. She and Kirsten Gettys Downs, the top public defender in Baltimore, responded that they have a limited role and have to act in their clients’ best interests, which may not always be initiating a complaint process for them.
Barksdale pointed to a breakdown in rigorous oversight of the Police Department through the Comstat and Citistat programs, both initiated under the administration of former Mayor Martin O’Malley and which involved scrutinizing data and patterns. Barksdale gained a reputation for ruling the meetings with an iron fist — at one point Comstat in Baltimore was discontinued out of concerns it had grown too heavy-handed — but told the commission Tuesday that he had no regrets.
“It doesn’t work when you’re weak,” Barksdale said. “It can be nasty in that room, but there has to be accountability.”
Barksdale said he believed the department needs to run regular undercover “integrity stings” in which officers are tested to see if they steal or give a false account of an encounter.
“You have to sting them hard, sting them early, and sting them often,” he said.
During Barksdale’s tenure, the city experienced fewer than 200 homicides for the first time in a generation, though the Police Department’s signature Violent Crimes Impact Section drew a large number of complaints for its tactics. Many of the convicted gun unit officers passed through that division and racked up misconduct accusations, but Barksdale was largely not pressed by commission members on whether signs were missed.
Still, Barksdale himself offered that the problem was bigger than he realized.
“The one thing this whole mess has shown me is that anything’s possible,” Barksdale said.