De Sousa: Baltimore police corruption limited to a 'very few bad apples'

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and new police Commissioner Darryl D. De Sousa both played down concerns Friday that corruption could be rampant in the city police force — despite shocking testimony in the criminal trial against the agency’s Gun Trace Task Force members.

The two Baltimore leaders with the most control over the Police Department appeared Friday morning in front of the city delegation in Annapolis. De Sousa was asked about the trial this week — including testimony that an officer possessed trash bags full of drugs that had been looted from city pharmacies.

“Questions abound about where they even got those drugs. Did they actually go to the pharmacies themselves and loot them?” asked Del. Brooke Lierman. “What is your plan to block-by-block restore trust in the police officers that we are depending on?”

De Sousa leapt at a chance offered by Liermam to answer at a later date.

“I’ll save that for later,” De Sousa said. “It’s really a big rollout,” he added of his plans to address corruption.

When Del. Mary Washington asked De Sousa how he planned to change the Police Department’s culture, he started off by emphasizing what has been a frequent refrain from Pugh: “It’s very few bad apples that spoil the entire barrel.”

Pugh introduced De Sousa to the city’s delegates and most of its senators at the Friday meeting, though many of the lawmakers said they already knew the commissioner from his 30 years of service with the Baltimore Police Department. And while many of the lawmakers said they were encouraged that his appointment could help turn back a surge of violence, some said they were dissatisfied with what they heard from De Sousa and Pugh on the issue of police corruption.

“In all communities, no matter what the demographics, people are concerned whether or not they can trust our Police Department,” said Del. Antonio Hayes. “The confidence in our Police Department I think has been eroded dramatically. I think they have an obligation to expand upon, how do they plan on going about restoring the public’s trust?”

Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor of the disgraced gun unit are currently on trial on federal racketeering charges, and more than two dozen witnesses have testified in recent weeks that officers were detaining people without cause and pocketing thousands of dollars in cash that they recovered. Six officers have pleaded guilty in the case, and four of them are testifying for the government.

On Thursday, Baltimore County bail bondsman Donald C. Stepp testified that he partnered for years with Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the task force’s supervisor, to resell drugs the officer had taken off the street. Stepp said Jenkins brought him bags full of drugs that had been ransacked from pharmacies as unrest erupted across Baltimore in April 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray.

De Sousa said he is working with the FBI to synthesize lessons from the case that will be “immediately implemented in our trainings.”

He said he is building what he called a “constitutional and impartial policing unit” and mentioned plans to bring a police/community engagement program from Howard University to three local colleges. And he said elements of his forthcoming plans to reorganize Police Department staff “are going to specifically address corruption and overtime within the Police Department.”

Earlier testimony in the racketeering trial suggested that officers had been paid overtime for hours they did not work in exchange for seizing guns off the street.

Lierman said she hoped to hear more detail about plans to address corruption.

“This is the very beginning of an ongoing conversation,” she said after the meeting. “We’ll be pressing the new commissioner on his plans.”

Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the city’s House delegation, said he had hoped for more from De Sousa on how lawmakers can help him put his strategies into action.

“What the hell is the mayor’s violence reduction program going to be? Where are the bills, what is it going to be like?” Anderson asked. “They kind of glossed over that. ... I wanted marching orders from the commissioner.”

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who was in the audience, said he was not surprised to hear Pugh and De Sousa avoid commenting on the Gun Trace Task Force trial because it’s still ongoing.

“The fallout from that will be later on,” he said.

But he repeated calls for De Sousa to fire, or at least reassign, Maj. Ian Dombroski, head of the department’s internal affairs unit. An officer who has pleaded guilty in the Gun Trace Task Force case has testified in the trial that as a lieutenant, Dombroski authorized undue overtime pay for officers as a reward for recovering guns.

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