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The $10M question: Can police corruption happen again? | COMMENTARY

Brent Matthews and Umar Burley coming out of U.S. District Courthouse in 2017 with their attorney Steve Silverman after a judge agreed to vacate their convictions in a case where prosecutors say drugs were planted on them by indicted Gun Trace Task Force Sgt. Wayne Jenkins. Sun Staff photo by Lloyd Fox
Brent Matthews and Umar Burley coming out of U.S. District Courthouse in 2017 with their attorney Steve Silverman after a judge agreed to vacate their convictions in a case where prosecutors say drugs were planted on them by indicted Gun Trace Task Force Sgt. Wayne Jenkins. Sun Staff photo by Lloyd Fox (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Two events took place this week that could not better demonstrate the gulf between the threat of police corruption and the lack of recognition of the seriousness of it from those who are supposed to be guarding against it.

On Wednesday, the city’s Board of Estimates approved $10 million in new settlements for those victimized by the Gun Trace Task Force, the elite police squad that was assembled to get guns and violent criminals off the streets but often, instead, enriched themselves with cash, drugs and jewelry. Total payouts to victims has so far surpassed the $13 million mark. Let that sink in: $13 million.

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Meanwhile, just south of the city, the debate before the Anne Arundel County Council earlier in the week was not about how to prevent similar fraud, but about just how feel-good members could make non-binding resolution 47-20 in support of law enforcement. No mention was made of weeding out bad apples, or protecting citizens’ constitutional rights. Nor was a word spoken about the Anne Arundel police corporal who was arrested this summer on charges he stole guns and other property from a Pasadena home while investigating an unattended death.

No, the resolution was crafted as a sort of clap back against those who would, as its description says online, “delegitimize the honorable profession of law enforcement.” While that language didn’t make it into the unanimously approved resolution, as it did in one adopted in Harford County last month, we have to assume that Anne Arundel’s resolution is nevertheless aimed at those who protest against police abuse of power and call for “defunding” of departments.

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That’s not to besmirch all police officers, whether they serve in Baltimore or Anne Arundel County or anywhere else. Most men and women who wear a badge have genuine desire to serve, to reduce crime, protect their neighbors and help people. It is not an easy job, particularly in this time of political turmoil and well-documented cases of police misconduct. The day of reckoning for blatant discrimination against people of color has clearly arrived, and responsible leaders are rising to this challenge, not retreating into “law-and-order” partisan talking points.

Instead of passing empty resolutions, suburban leaders ought to be asking an important question: Could what happened in Baltimore with the Gun Trace Task Force happen in my community? And, of course, incoming Mayor Brandon Scott and the City Council ought to be seeking answers to a corollary: Could another GTTF happen in the city? We fear the answer in both cases is: yes. And it will remain “yes” until we give it the attention it deserves and reform our departments in such a way that the all-too-human, and often momentary, temptation to react with undue force or steal from drug dealers or disregard basic rights of others is kept at bay by the simple fact that real consequences await. That means dismantling the us-against-the-world mentality of many police departments and the code of silence that prevents officers from reporting one another for misbehavior.

What’s maddening, however, is the slow pace of this reform. The successful prosecution of GTTF members certainly sent a message, but keep in mind that those corrupt cops were still at it during and after the Freddie Gray unrest when “police reform” was a front and center issue. They did not expect to get caught. Granted, there have been some helpful changes in recent years with the widespread use of police body cameras at the top of the heap (at least making it difficult to extort someone while being recorded). And more reforms — monitoring the personal finances of drug enforcement officers, for example, or periodic lie detector tests — are expected to soon be unveiled by a state commission investing the GTTF scandal.

The concern here is that whatever the commission recommends after two years of deliberations, their findings will be ignored, particularly in self-satisfied suburban counties that aren’t inclined to engage in critical examinations of police practices. Weeding out corruption is not disrespecting law enforcement; it’s exactly the opposite. Holding up high standards restores public trust in police, and that’s something in dangerously short supply these days. The Anne Arundel resolution refers to “highest professional standards” as well as “equity, transparency and mutual trust.” Those are concepts we can all believe in. The challenge is in following through on what’s needed to achieve them.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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