From a federal judge questioning whether officials have what it takes to implement to civil rights reforms, to a sergeant charged after an alleged drunken crash, the Baltimore Police department has had a difficult July.
The Baltimore Sun has published over 20 stories this month reporting on alleged misconduct by officers, budgetary mismanagement and questions over new efforts to hold the department accountable.
The department has been under heightened scrutiny for at least the three years, since the death of Freddie Gray following injuries he sustained in police custody and the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights investigation that began soon after.
But July has been an especially turbulent month, with stories about individual officers’ misconduct, fallout from the Gun Trace Task Force corruption case, ongoing issues stemming from the civil rights probe and continuing fights over the department’s overtime budget.
Police spokesman TJ Smith said The Sun’s coverage underplayed or overlooked things the department is doing well. He said police are making progress on implementing the civil rights decree and that commissioner Gary Tuggle is not being held back by his interim status.
“He’s making decisions as if the title doesn’t exist to make each day a better day and closer to our goals of compliance, transparency, community trust, and more,” Smith said. “We are more than confident that we are making the right changes and are headed in the right direction. It isn’t easy and it isn’t overnight.”
The bad news reports began on July 3, with news of an officer being charged with assault. That story yielded two follow-up pieces: One describing how the officer has been the subject of an internal excessive force review and another based on an interview with the assault victim .
On July 13, The Sun reported that a detective with a long history of complaints had been suspended and was facing an internal investigation over allegations of domestic violence that led to a judge ordering him to give up his gun. The next week, the same detective faced an internal disciplinary trial over allegations of misconduct in a robbery investigation.
On July 16, it emerged that an officer had refused to investigate a report of a man with a gun, saying the problem wasn’t in her district. Police officials said they had identified her the following day and she no longer works for the department.
This week, an officer was charged with drug trafficking. Smith said it was the department itself which “spearheaded that investigation.”
“Is it embarrassing? Of course it is,” he said. “Is it necessary and part of greater reform efforts? Absolutely.”
Police said they were reviewing video showing an officer loading a boy into a police car saying, “I’m about to send this kid to the [expletive] hospital.”
Gun Trace Task Force fallout
New consequences continued to flow from the federal investigation into the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, a special unit whose members robbed citizens and were paid unearned overtime.
Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers teamed up early in July to seek the release of a drug dealer who was sent to prison based on testimony from two of the officers . Later in the month, Baltimore County Police said that a former city officer who had joined their ranks was suspended in connection with allegations stemming from the case and that another officer lost his job.
On Friday, the department argued in court that, in civil lawsuits, it should not be held responsible for the misdeeds of the members of the Gun Trace Task Force.
Questions over consent decree
The federal judge overseeing the federal consent decree, which requires the police department to make civil rights reforms, questioned whether the department was up to the task of making change. Earlier in the month, a monitor who is paid to keep an eye on the department’s progressed criticized the department’s decision to lock down a neighborhood as officers investigated the killing of a homicide detective.
A community panel created as part of the consent decree process recommended the creation of a powerful new oversight agency to hold officers accountable. Meanwhile, members of the current civilian oversight board refused to sign a confidentiality agreement that it said was an attempt to gag them.
At a hearing Thursday to update Judge James K. Bredar, he again expressed grave concerns about the department’s ability to implement change without a permanent commissioner.
Battles about overtime
The City Council has become increasingly concerned about the police department’s overtime spending, which ran to almost $50 million last year. Council members said they would start holding monthly hearings to keep an eye on it. And in a largely symbolic move, a council committee refused to approve the budgeting measure necessary to foot last year’s cost. Tuggle reassigned 115 officers to patrol the streets in an attempt to rein in costs.
The ongoing dispute prompted a top police union official to weigh in, blaming senior managers in the police department for mismanaging their resources.
Smith cited several public events that show officers working with the community: A pep rally for teenagers, an academy class graduation, the beginning of a basketball league and a chaplain graduation. Next week Smith said the department plans to announce a series of health events.
“Quite frankly … you guys don’t cover our good stuff,” he said.
Amid the turmoil, Mayor Catherine Pugh is seeking a new police commissioner after her pick for the job resigned after being charged with failing to file federal tax returns. The advertisement for that job was released in the middle of the month, saying the city was seeking a “can do, reform minded” candidate.
Violence continues to plague the streets, with an average of more than one person a day being killed in July.
Homicides are down 17 percent and shootings down 12 percent compared to the same point in 2017, according to the latest data. But earlier in the year, the declines were larger, and last year saw historic levels of violence.