Yet another problem with Baltimore's Gun Trace Task Force

Of the many problems that have emerged since the indictments of nearly all the members of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, the fact that the squad’s dissolution is the driving factor in a 25 percent drop in citywide gun arrests this year could have the most lasting consequences. According to statistics reported Sunday by The Sun’s Luke Broadwater and Kevin Rector, the division of which the task force was a part has logged 277 fewer gun arrests so far this year, and the task force was only disbanded in March. In a city awash in guns and gun violence, even a momentary drop-off in gun crime enforcement could have far-reaching and deadly consequences.

We do not disagree with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis’ decision to shut the task force down. The fact that such a large share of what is arguably the department’s most important mission was being accomplished by one small squad — comprising just nine of the more than 2,500 members of the department — suggests problems with management and the setting of priorities aside from the apparent lack of supervision that made the unit’s nefarious activities possible. If those nine officers — eight of whom have been indicted and/or pleaded guilty on assorted corruption charges — can take so many guns off the streets, why can’t the rest of the force be more effective at it as well?

Police spokesman T.J. Smith raises a fair question about how many of the gun arrests the unit logged were legitimate. The indictments against the eight members paint a picture of a unit that was just as lawless as those it pursued, and hundreds of cases that relied on members’ testimony are now being reconsidered or thrown out altogether. If the task force’s productivity was a product of unconstitutional searches and seizures — or even the planting of evidence — then it did more harm than good. Ends-justify-the-means policing serves only to drive a bigger wedge between the department and the community, leading to uncooperative witnesses, disbelieving juries and a reliance on street justice rather than the sort that comes in courtrooms.

But to whatever extent the task force’s success relied on expertise, tactics and the development of informants, it can and must be replicated. Commissioner Davis has the right idea in moving that enforcement activity into uniformed District Action Teams that report to district commanders. Under whatever guise they’ve had over the years, centralized violence prevention units have produced trouble in equal or greater measure than their results, including complaints of brutality and unconstitutional policing on top of the recent corruption. Putting uniformed groups of officers based in each district in charge of getting guns off the streets promises greater accountability and should enable the squads to develop the localized expertise that’s crucial to stopping violence. Some districts are showing signs of progress, if not yet enough to outweigh the decline from the dissolution of the Gun Trace Task Force.

What will make the difference is getting as many officers as possible engaged in the kind of police work that leads to gun arrests and seizures. The department’s thin ranks and inflexible patrol schedules make that task more difficult, but there are other steps the commissioner and Mayor Catherine Pugh can take. Councilman Brandon Scott suggested in a Sun op-ed this week that the department should make a major push to increase telephone and on-line reporting of minor crimes, and to develop a trained, volunteer auxiliary force to take reports of certain crimes in person. Doing so, he argued, would free officers to do higher-level police work while also likely improving the customer service experience for citizens. They’re good ideas that the city should pursue.

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