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Rodricks: Gun Trace Task Force case takes us to rock bottom in Baltimore

A look a the timeline of our coverage of the Baltimore Police racketeering case from the first day U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein announced the charges until the trial. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

In the steady stream of reports that come out of the Baltimore Police Department, I see just in the last few days that 24-year-old Anthony Alston was arrested in connection with a January homicide; that 26-year-old Derrick Rawlings and 20-year-old William Blanding were arrested during a traffic stop, allegedly with a 9 mm handgun that had a partially obliterated serial number; and that 38-year-old Kirby Payne was arrested for his alleged involvement in armed robberies of two downtown stores.

And there are many others, too many to list. The work goes on, every day.

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The reports arrive with mug shots and photographs of confiscated guns, drugs and cash. I react with the mixed feelings of a lot of longtime Baltimoreans — profound appreciation for the efforts of district officers and detectives to stop the ruinous violence that’s killing the city, and profound frustration with the incessant demand for drugs at the root of so much crime.

Young, able-bodied men keep turning to the streets for a livelihood — until it puts them in prison or graveyard. The generational break in that cycle never seems to come.

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A group of Baltimore residents gathered at a news conference Friday and said authorities enabled the Gun Trace Task Force officers by failing to stop them. The event was organized by defense attorney Ivan Bates

As for the police, Baltimoreans make an assumption — that the majority of them carry out their duties with quiet bravery and professional pride, with integrity both legal and personal, and for the sake of public safety. That’s the first instinct, anyway.

Unless you’ve had a personal encounter ranging from brutal to boorish that convinced you otherwise, you probably regard most police officers in that ideal — physically and mentally tough, dutiful, well-trained, savvy and dedicated to serving a greater good. Most of their arrests hold up.

But the sad story in Baltimore for the last few years, and peaking now with the Gun Trace Task Force trial, runs counter to that ideal. And to deny the grim reality of a corrupted culture — to trivialize the GTTF case as “a very few bad apples” — is to miss an opportunity for this beleaguered city to ever recover and grow.

I go back to Fred Bealefeld, who served as police commissioner from 2007 until 2012. I remember the look on his face as he described taking badges from 17 police officers who had been charged with accepting kickbacks for steering drivers from motor vehicle accidents to the Majestic towing service in Rosedale. It was somewhere between shame and disgust.

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Sun reporter Justin Fenton is interviewed about his coverage of the corruption trial of two Baltimore police officers.

Ultimately, dozens of officers were implicated; some of them had falsified reports and added damage to cars to boost the amounts that could be claimed from insurance companies. The scope of the scheme, in both its duration and in the numbers of officers who took cash, was stunning. It seemed to shock even Bealefeld.

As in the Gun Trace Task Force case, it took federal investigators — the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office — to expose the corruption. In the towing case, it was a whistleblower from outside the Police Department who got the investigation started.

The case against the gun unit, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins’ peripatetic band of pirates, started when local and federal authorities traced the source of drugs from a fatal overdose in Harford County to one of Jenkins’ officers.

I admit that the crimes the GTTF officers are accused of are more brazen, more sinister and, in the midst of Baltimore’s long surge of violence, more Gotterdammerung-ish than I imagined. They go far beyond the Majestic towing case or anything we’ve seen brought to court before.

But the testimony about Jenkins and his collaborators should be shocking only to people who have not been paying attention, or who have been in denial about bad-cop culture as they drive around with their Blue Lives Matter bumper stickers. Jenkins and his men were predators, posing as guardians of the city as they fed off its troubles, and one of their many rewards must have been the willingness of some supervisors and colleagues to look the other way.

This is why the staggering costs of the GTTF will include more shattered trust — citizens who previously had full faith in police wondering, as they never wanted to before, if the typical officer is telling the truth.

A Baltimore County bail bondsman testified Thursday that he partnered for years with the supervisor of the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force to resell drugs the officer had taken off the street.

Baltimore was already said to have a bad case of jury nullification — the refusal of citizens to convict even when the evidence is strong. That was ascribed along racial lines to people who supposedly did not believe cops or were too willing to abide crime, particularly drug dealing. Unfair as it might be to all the good cops, the GTTF case will make even more Baltimoreans suspicious.

That’s a horrible thing to contemplate, because we were just starting to recover from the Freddie Gray spring, and because integrity in the front line of law enforcement is fundamental to criminal justice, to civil society and a functional city. This is existential stuff, which is why it’s unsettling to be here — in my experience, rock bottom in Baltimore.

I don’t know what the mayor and police commissioner have in mind for rebuilding public trust in the police force. But it better be good.

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