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The Baltimore Police Department has a long history of corruption and corrosive community relations

"African-Americans accounted for 95% of the 410 individuals the police department stopped at least 10 times," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Vanita Gupta. "One African-American man was stopped 30 times in less than four years." (Kevin Richardson)

The Justice Department’s scathing 2016 report found that “Through all levels of the Baltimore Police Department, from members of command staff down to officers on the street, the Department has not implemented fundamental principles of community policing.” This “us versus them” culture between the BPD and the city’s African American communities is hardly new, however. It has existed for more than half a century.

In 1964, police officers terrorized African American residents in more than 200 homes with illegal searches for the notorious Veney brothers, who wounded one officer and killed another after a Christmas Eve liquor store holdup. Cops dubbed their searches “Superman Warrants” because they broke down doors using their shoulders — like Superman — instead of obtaining court ordered search warrants.

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Four years later came the riots following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When I joined the police academy a few years later, I was surprised we were taught nothing about race relations. I also had no idea I was about to witness the cruelty and illegal behavior of many fellow officers.

Maryland State Prosecutor investigator James Cabezas retires

My first night on the job, I was sternly told at the Eastern District station that the community was my enemy. I was driven to my first midnight foot post by two officers who spent the frigid night sleeping in their heated squad car, parked where no one could see them. I would learn that one was a racist who liked to “joke” that the squad car’s tires were black because of the “n-word” he ran over. He was also a coward who refused to turn on his siren and drive to the scene of a cop’s murder. His partner turned out to be a thief who stole $30,000 from a drug dealer.

I was once sent on an errand so I would not witness police pulling the burglar alarm at Sears while officers stole racks of clothing. Illegal lottery syndicates routinely bribed police to keep their businesses open, until a federal indictment in 1972 charged more than a dozen officers and commanders, including a lieutenant who had been one of my academy instructors.

Other officers didn’t trust me when I refused free beer while on duty. When I tried to intervene as two other cops savagely beat a suspect, I was warned I would be blackballed; no police would ever come to my aid if I needed backup. If I filed a complaint against another officer with Internal Affairs, my name would quickly leak out as a snitch. Another cop even ridiculed me when I joined a church group singing hymns on the sidewalk.

The trial of two detectives was about police corruption, but it provided a window into just how pervasively drugs flow through Baltimore. From a homeless man's storage unit to a waterfront condo in Canton to an elite police unit, the drug trade reaches far and wide in Baltimore.

Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau, who served in Baltimore from 1966 to 1981, used to say, “If you don’t inspect, don’t expect.” If sergeants and lieutenants didn’t hit the streets to check on their officers, he said, they should not expect them to work to a high standard.

Obviously, there was not enough inspection back in the day. Anyone who knows their Baltimore history will remember Pomerleau, who died in 1992, as the most corrupt cop of all, orchestrating illegal surveillance and phone taps of black politicians, ministers, civil rights leaders and reporters. Years after his nefarious activities were exposed, I saw firsthand evidence that he was illegally tape-recording Mayor William Donald Schaefer in City Hall.

Today, of course, we are painfully aware of the lack of supervision of eight members of the BPD’s elite Gun Trace Task Force who were convicted of arresting innocent people, robbing them of tens of thousands of dollars, planting drugs and charging the police department with hundreds of hours in overtime they never worked.

The BPD continues to operate in the 20th century. Hopefully a new commissioner will recognize the need for a massive change.

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James Cabezas (jimcabezas@comcast.net) was a Baltimore police officer for 16 years; he retired as chief investigator for the Office of the State Prosecutor in 2017. His memoir, written with former Sun reporter Joan Jacobson and published in December, is “Eyes of Justice: A Career Crime Fighter Battles Corruption...and Blindness” (eyesofjusticethebook.com).

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