During the most recent court hearing on the consent decree designed to transform the Baltimore Police Department, U.S. District Court Judge James Bredar, who is overseeing its implementation, spoke of some impediments to the process thus far. He lamented the lack of a permanent police commissioner for much of the time the decree has been in effect and described the BPD’s training facility as antiquated and inadequate. He then turned to the now infamous Gun Trace Task Force, the corrupt and criminally convicted band of officers within the BPD who committed some of the worst crimes imaginable — and unimaginable.
Judge Bredar spoke of the GTTF’s devastating impact on improving policing in Baltimore. As a result, he called for a “post-mortem” of the GTTF’s activities, to investigate and reflect on how this corruption took place. The goal, he explained, would be to ensure that this episode would never repeat. Judge Bredar concluded that the BPD was not capable of conducting a “post-mortem” without outside assistance. Then-Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle agreed with both the need for the investigation and outside help.
Similarly, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation last year that formed the commission to Restore Trust in Policing. The commission, as explained in its preliminary report filed last December, “was created to explore all matters relating to GTTF — its formation, operation, extent, consequences and implications.” Thus, the commission will investigate how and why the GTTF was able to do so much bad for so long and make recommendations to the General Assembly stemming from its findings.
It is easy to assume that both investigations will explore many important questions, including:
- How were these officers hired?
- Why were they selected for the GTTF?
- How and when did their corruption begin?
- Who knew about their corruption and when?
- What was the trajectory of their corruption, and how did it persist?
- Who attempted to intervene, report and hold them accountable, and what did those attempts entail?
- How were they able to thrive at the very same time that the Justice Department was in Baltimore, conducting the BPD investigation that led to the consent decree?
All of these questions, while necessary to these investigations, are also predictable and insufficient. My concern is that these investigations will focus almost exclusively on the methods, mechanisms and measures of policing operations within the BPD. If so, these explorations will be shallow and will not reach the root of what undergirded the GTTF’s crimes.
To be meaningful, these investigations must explore and excavate the deeper conditions that are involved here. There is a difference between issues and conditions. Issues stem from conditions. Indeed, the conditions that led the GTTF to commit these crimes on streets and in homes, and to victimize countless residents, families and communities in Baltimore, go beyond them and the BPD. They also go beyond policing.
The GTTF preyed upon and victimized black residents, some of whom were engaged in criminal activity and some of whom had nothing to do with any type of criminal activity. The bottom line is this: These officers knew that all of these individuals were vulnerable. At an even deeper level, though, they knew that they were all disposable. They knew that these individuals were disposable to the BPD, disposable to the criminal justice system that churns black bodies relentlessly and disposable to the various institutions that connect poor black men, women and children to the criminal justice system day and night.
Of course, this is nothing new and is everything old. In its report on the BPD, the Justice Department affirmed some of the history of racialized policing in Baltimore and surfaced other systems and institutions — such as education, housing and employment — that connect to the criminal justice system. The overarching, crystal-clear lesson of both the history and the present of policing and the criminal justice system in Baltimore is that black men, women and children have been and continue to be disposable. The GTTF took this lessen to heart.
To get to the bottom of the GTTF’s corruption and all that played into it, these investigations must holistically account for the conditions that led the GTTF to understand that the individuals whom they preyed upon were disposable. These investigations must also examine the role that racial biases and stereotypes played in this travesty and make recommendations for rooting out racial injustices as well as corruption. Accordingly, these investigations cannot solely be about the GTTF and the BPD. The conditions are broader and deeper.
Michael Pinard is the Francis & Harriet Iglehart Professor of Law and the co-director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Twitter: @ProfMPinard.