Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis is doing his job when he advises his the Baltimore Police Department to be cautious about investigating what led to the Gun Trace Task Force corruption for fear of inviting more civil litigation. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young aren’t doing theirs when they listen to him. Mr. Davis’ advice on this matter is no doubt well intentioned and in keeping with his responsibility to counsel his clients on how to minimize their legal exposure, but Messrs. Harrison and Young have a different responsibility, and the need to make sure nothing like the GTTF corruption could happen again should trump any concerns about civil litigation.
Both Mr. Harrison and Mr. Davis said during and after a hearing this week of the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing that they believe a thorough review is necessary and appropriate, but two years after the first indictments in the case, it hasn’t happened. Mr. Davis explained that "we have to figure a way to do a really thorough investigation, while at the same time protecting our clients.”
We join commission member, assistant secretary for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and well respected former Baltimore cop Gary W. McLhinney in shaking our heads over the department’s willingness to heed that advice. “We have a much bigger issue here in dealing with the fallout from GTTF than his concerns of possible litigation," he said.
Indeed. The big question surrounding the Gun Trace Task Force is how its corruption could have been so brazen and could have gone on for so long without someone in the department finding out about it and putting a stop to it. The unit’s crimes — robbery, drug dealing, false arrests, overtime fraud and more — came to light not because anyone in the BPD put the pieces together but because of an unrelated federal wiretap. Was this a matter of horrifically sloppy internal controls, or did more people in the department know about it and look the other way? If it’s the latter, are any of those complicit cops still on the force?
We appreciate that the U.S. Department of Justice is, apparently, doing its own investigation under the auspices of the city’s consent decree over unconstitutional policing practices. But if we were in Mr. Harrison’s shoes or Mr. Young’s, we wouldn’t be willing to wait around to find out what the DOJ uncovers. There’s no telling how long it will take the feds to finish their probe and share the results with the city. If Mr. Harrison is running the show, he can act on any troubling information he discovers immediately.
Delaying an investigation won’t ultimately change the city’s legal exposure. The truth will come out eventually, whether as a result of the DOJ investigation or an internal one, and if that leads to more lawsuits, it’s just a question of when not whether. Meanwhile, the lack of an internal investigation carries the potential for operational problems. Mr. Harrison has made beefing up accountability for Baltimore officers a top priority of his young tenure as commissioner, but what message does it send that he’s willing to let someone else take the lead on the biggest accountability question of all, or that he is letting the possibility of civil litigation get in the way of finding the truth?
Mr. Davis, a former federal judge, rightly gets a lot of respect in Baltimore, but he works for the mayor, not the other way around. This is one time Mr. Young and Mr. Harrison need to ignore his advice.