The Baltimore police corruption verdicts Monday and the other guilty pleas that proceeded them have prompted a long list of ideas from the city’s new police commissioner, the mayor, City Council members and legislators for ways to restore the public’s trust in the department and prevent something like this from happening again. But the people with the most at stake are Baltimore’s honest cops — the ones who came to the profession for the right reasons and who now find their jobs infinitely more difficult. They need to stand up and be part of the solution, too.
The scope of the corruption uncovered by the federal investigation into the Gun Trace Task Force and the duration of the criminal conspiracy described in testimony leave little doubt that others in the department knew or at least suspected that members of the unit were acting outside the law. Even if they were “bad apples,” as Commissioner-designate Darryl De Sousa has suggested, and not representative of the vast majority of officers, the supposed “good apples” were at best blind to the corruption in their midst if not accepting of it. How much earlier could this corruption have been stopped if honest cops had spoken up?
The possibility that higher ranking commanders in the department were in any way complicit in the rogue unit’s activities was raised when one witness testified that Dean Palmere, until recently a deputy commissioner, coached a task force member on how to avoid punishment after a police shooting, an allegation he denies. But how often did supervisors look the other way so long as this unit kept making arrests and seizing guns? Other testimony in the trial suggested that overtime fraud was a widely accepted practice in the department as a means of rewarding good performance; the actions by these corrupt officers were merely egregious examples of a culture of skirting the rules. What if someone had blown the whistle about those abuses years ago?
The trial provided evidence of at least one instance in which members of the unit tried to recruit a new officer into their scheme. Det. James Kostoplis testified that when he was new to the task force, his sergeant, Wayne Jenkins, floated the idea of robbing drug dealers and keeping the money. Mr. Kostoplis balked and he said he assumed Mr. Jenkins was simply testing his integrity. But what if Mr. Kostoplis had said something to Internal Affairs — particularly after he was abruptly transferred out of the unit? Would the department have been able to uncover what was going on before the FBI did?
For some of the accused officers, the trial was not the first time the department became aware that they had been involved in misconduct. Det. Jemell Rayam, who pleaded guilty in the task force corruption scandal, was caught up years before in an Internal Affairs investigation into the alleged theft of $11,000 from a man during a traffic stop. He plainly lied to investigators about his relationship with another officer, yet a trial board cleared him, he was returned to duty and promoted. Sgt. Thomas E. Wilson III, who was implicated by a witness in the trial as having acted as a security guard for a drug dealer, was caught in 2005 conducting an illegal, warrantless search and then later falsifying paperwork to cover it up. Internal Affairs recommended he be fired, but a trial board merely gave him a 15-day suspension without pay. It was his second time before a trial board; two years before, a federal judge accused him of lying in court, but he was only docked five days of leave and forced to undergo training. He is still on the force.
The Baltimore police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, has steadfastly opposed allowing trained civilians to sit on trial boards, and rules governing their composition have traditionally provided accused officers with a friendly audience. Mayor Catherine Pugh has been pushing for years to put civilians on trial boards, and it’s a sticking point in the current negotiations, but it shouldn’t be something for the union to bargain in the first place. Though she has not yet requested legislation mandating it during this year’s General Assembly session, Mayor Pugh says she will. In the past, the union’s objections have scuttled the legislation. Baltimore’s honest cops can’t allow that to happen again. Baltimore police officers who care more about protecting the integrity of their department than they do about protecting colleagues accused of misconduct need to testify in favor of that legislation, no matter what the union says.
Baltimore police officers struggle every day to convince witnesses to crimes that pursuing justice in the courts is more important than obeying the code of the streets. Now they need to stand up and show the public that the rule of law is more important than the thin blue line.
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