Back in February, defense attorney Ivan Bates called a news conference to introduce a group of clients who, he said, had been arrested by members of the Baltimore Police Department’s notorious Gun Trace Task Force, the team of crooked cops who came to work each day looking for ways to profit from the city’s miseries.
They are Eight Men Out now, convicted on federal racketeering charges, but the GTTF crew had for years made criminal use of their badges, robbing suspects of cash and city taxpayers of compensation from illicit overtime. They did this on an epic level and, once indicted, they prolonged Baltimore’s stay on the national map of civic dysfunction.
At his news conference, Bates wanted to make two points — that convictions based on arrests by the corrupt cops were tainted and should be reversed, and that Marilyn Mosby’s prosecutors had failed to detect the bad cops and their bad arrests, and had missed an opportunity to stop their crime spree.
One point managed to stick, the other ... not so much.
Bates’ assertion that the Baltimore state’s attorney should have known about the GTTF must not have influenced enough voters. On Tuesday, Mosby easily beat Bates and another credible challenger, Thiru Vignarajah, who split the opposition vote, giving the incumbent a second term. (The winner of the Democratic primary will be unopposed in the general election.)
In fact, Bates might have inadvertently helped Mosby: By highlighting the sleazy practices of the GTTF, he provided the incumbent state’s attorney with more cover from what, under normal conditions, could have been a fatal blow to her bid for re-election — Baltimore’s horrible rate of shootings and killings during her first three years in office.
Mosby had famously blamed her predecessor, Gregg Bernstein, for a relatively modest increase in homicides that occurred during his term.
But with the homicide count rising to record levels after Mosby took office — 342 in 2015, 318 in 2016, 342 in 2017 — Bates and Vignarajah tried to do the same to her.
This time, however, the state’s attorney had cover, and not just the GTTF mess, but the general turmoil of the last three years — the surge of opioids on the streets, the changes in command at the Police Department; throw in the consent decree for police reforms between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.
In a televised debate with Bates and Vignarajah, Mosby argued that her office had managed a 95 percent felony conviction rate despite the headaches created by the GTTF. And that includes reviewing hundreds of cases involving the gun crew going back years. Mosby’s office recently reported that 1,700 criminal cases had been affected, and possibly tainted, by the GTTF. Some of those cases will be tossed; in others, convictions could be vacated.
Over the last several months, and throughout the campaign, the GTTF horror show unfolded with the sordid details of cop corruption, and some of the cops involved in the robbery and fraud schemes were sentenced just this month.
So the GTTF stayed in the news, and in minds of voters.
A poll conducted for a candidate is always suspect, but the one Vignarajah released last week, from Change Research, had a result I flagged: 83 percent of the 400 Baltimore voters in the survey said they considered police corruption a “major problem.” Asked what was “most important” to them, 51 percent said reducing violent crime, but nearly 30 percent listed “ending police corruption” as their top priority.
We have lived through rough times, a pile-up of problems and scandals against a mind-numbing pace of violence. On the crime front, we look to the mayor, we look to the police commissioner. We don’t as much look to the state’s attorney. As I’ve said before, blaming the prosecutor for the rate of violence is like blaming the chief of surgery for the rate of heart disease.
Some disagree. I’ve heard from Baltimoreans who place a share of the blame right where Mosby placed it when she ran against Bernstein — with the state’s attorney.
And some believe — will always believe — that Mosby's decision to prosecute six police officers in connection with the arrest and death of Freddie Gray contributed to the surge in violent crime. The charges were rushed in the week after Gray’s funeral and the unrest that followed, and Mosby’s prosecutors were unable to get a single conviction. The presiding judge said they didn’t even come close.
So some believe — will always believe — that prosecuting rank-and-file cops for arresting Gray caused other cops to back off, to retreat from proactive policing and that, in turn, caused a spike in the homicide rate
But clearly, enough Baltimoreans believe — will always believe — that Mosby did the right thing, and that she managed to get a conviction rate comparable to her predecessor’s under incomparable conditions.