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After Baltimore’s GTTF scandal: Breaking through ‘the blue wall of ignorance’ | COMMENTARY

Members of the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing listen to former deputy Baltimore police commissioner Dean Palmere, lower left, during his online testimony.
Members of the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing listen to former deputy Baltimore police commissioner Dean Palmere, lower left, during his online testimony. (Zoom)

Dean Palmere testified the other day that he did not know about the criminal practices of officers assigned to Baltimore’s now defunct, forever infamous Gun Trace Task Force, and I’ll tell you why this former deputy police commissioner seemed credible: He blamed his ignorance on failure to communicate, co-workers “siloed” from each other and supervisors too busy to look back at mistakes.

Those are very familiar organizational flaws.

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If you’ve ever been in the military or worked for a corporation, nonprofit or government agency, you probably find it plausible that Palmere would not know that some officers were behaving like a band of pirates — especially if those cops were good at getting guns off the streets of a city infested with them.

Palmere, a deputy to multiple commissioners during the GTTF’s reign of corruption, told members of the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing that he never received information about problems with the officers assigned to that unit.

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Fifteen cops have now been charged in connection with the GTTF scandal. How was it possible that a savvy, veteran commander was out of the loop?

Palmere told the commission that no one from the department’s internal affairs unit alerted him to any issues.

“I think, in a sense, you are working in a silo,” Palmere said.

But even after the GTTF scandal broke, he did not ask questions or call for a review.

“At the time, I didn’t really think about it, because you’re handling other day-to-day operations and the investigation was still pending,” Palmere said.

So OK, he was busy. Violent crime surged during Palmere’s time as deputy commissioner — it’s still a horrible, grinding problem in the city — so I guess his lack of awareness of GTTF misconduct is understandable. Most Baltimoreans won’t knock a top cop for being focused on crime.

Palmere said he was deeply disturbed by what the GTTF pirates did because he was a career cop from a law enforcement family. “It’s disgusting to me,” he said, “because I am proud of my profession.”

It’s important to note that federal prosecutors never accused Palmere of wrongdoing, and crooked cops who cooperated with the investigation never said that police brass knew of their crimes.

Still, that the GTTF could do what it did for so long — and that it took federal prosecutors to put a stop to it — speaks to some serious organizational problems in BPD and, moreover, to a culture that tolerates misconduct. It’s been called “the blue wall of silence.”

I spoke about that recently with Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now a sociologist on the faculty at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He’s been interviewed by the commission.

Moskos believes that most officers who sense something amiss just turn away. “They don’t want to get hit when the [expletive] hits the fan,” he says. “That is often mistaken for the blue wall of silence. It’s really a blue wall of ignorance: You don’t want to know because bad [expletive]'s gonna happen and you don’t want to be there because there is guilt by association.”

Moskos says there are common factors in police corruption. It usually occurs among specialized units, particularly those focused on drugs, and when their members are isolated from peers who might sense something wrong. “When [specialized units] are physically removed from other cops in a different building, [that] prevents the good peer pressure from influencing them. No one is giving them the stink eye,” Moskos says.

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Another problem occurs when too many officers of certain character or tendencies get assigned to the same unit. “Like attracts like,” Moskos says. “It was some Chicago cop who told me that corrupt and brutal cops are attracted to each other like some magnetic force.”

Moskos points to one more warning sign that might seem counterintuitive — assigning highly decorated officers to specialized units.

“Sometimes,” he says, “highly decorated cops are the best on the force. … But other times, you gotta go, ‘Wait a second, they’re just cowboy cops.’ Whoever makes the most arrests in the police department, I would always look at that person. And they might be great. But you can’t constantly ignore these warning signs.”

So there’s a lot for the GTTF commission to unpack here. Same for the former federal prosecutor who is now conducting an overdue review of the BPD’s worst scandal.

If there’s any tendency to view the scope of the scandal as aberrant, or to think organizational issues alone are BPD’s main problem, consider what happened over the summer.

Prosecutors in Baltimore County indicted a city detective, Juan Diaz, for his alleged role in an extortion and kidnapping scheme. Diaz is accused of helping Sgt. James Lloyd, a homicide detective, squeeze money out of a contractor whose work on a patio at Lloyd’s home in the county left him unhappy and looking for a cash settlement.

Lloyd was arrested in July. Prosecutors allege that he threatened the contractor with arrest, then drove him to a bank and ordered him to withdraw money for a refund. It was also alleged that Lloyd mustered a posse of three other detectives, one of them Diaz, to help him intimidate the contractor.

Lawyers for the detectives say their clients are innocent. Both men have been suspended without pay.

Coming as it does in the long shadow of the GTTF scandal, and with the BPD under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to clean up its act, you have to wonder: Why does this stuff keep happening? Can reformers really change the culture? Is there something missing in how the BPD schools its officers?

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who came from New Orleans, has imported from that city a heralded peer intervention program (Ethical Policing Is Courageous) that trains officers and supervisors to identify danger signs and intervene to keep a colleague from ethical breaches.

By the look of things, that training can’t start soon enough.

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