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Baltimore needs a Mollen Commission to reform police department

Security footage of an incident where Sgt. Jenkins and Detectives Hersl and Gondo raid an apartment.

The last corruption scandal of the size and scope of the one that took down Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force involved a cop named Mikey Dowd in East New York’s Precinct Seven-Five in 1992. There’s a movie about it (“The Seven Five”), and the cops interviewed for the film described thieving from drug dealers and a blue mafia running the district. They sound just like the cops who took the stand in the trial of Baltimore Detectives Danny Hersl and Maurice Taylor.

Mr. Dowd’s crimes were a gut-check moment for New York’s leadership, and the crimes of the cabal lead by Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in one of BPD’s “elite” squads should be for Baltimore’s. But so far the response from the city has paled in comparison to the steps New York took in the early 1990s, when Mr. Dowd was busted and his crimes became public.

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Just this month, Mayor Catherine Pugh said the department is moving in the right direction because she last month removed a commissioner with no history with the criminals in the GTTF, and appointed a new one who can’t say the same. And Monday, the Baltimore City Council voted overwhelmingly to confirm him in that position permanently.

Darryl De Sousa became Baltimore’s new police commissioner Monday after a vote by the City Council. The 53-year-old career cop had enjoyed widespread support and breezed through the confirmation process since he was nominated last month by Mayor Catherine Pugh.

The weeks of Commissioner Darryl De Sousa’s tenure thus far have been marked by an apparently failed purge (the fabled glitch that turned off a variety of command staff cell phones, leading to widespread confusion and speculation), leadership announcements made then reversed (reportedly because of past corruption), and a raft of new units to layer over others that have failed to monitor overtime or stamp out wrongdoing.

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Mr. De Sousa also proposes a second “inspector general” — in addition to the one the city already has — to be housed in police headquarters. As if anyone could have any faith in BPD’s ability to investigate itself at this point.

The alternatives being bandied about locally are only viable on social media. We are not about to “disband” our police department — certainly not as long as City Hall contends everything is fine, and certainly not after key council members have staked their own reputations on the success of Commissioner De Sousa.

Mayor Catherine Pugh's office won't say whether she reviewed the internal affairs records of Darryl De Sousa, the veteran police officer she had picked to lead the Baltimore Police Department.

And we can’t root out corruption with our new consent decree monitor because the GTTF racketeering conspiracy is not a matter of training or policy. It is activity we already know is illegal, living at the heart of the department’s operation, management and street crime strategy.

The challenge to change lies in the fact that Baltimore City’s police department is an agency of the state. It’s a long story that goes back over 150 years. As a result, and by law, neither the mayor nor the City Council can pass any law or take any action that directs or impedes the commissioner in his (or her) management of the department. All the mayor can do is fire the commissioner if she disagrees with him.

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This lack of control explains why there are bills in Annapolis, rather than our own City Council, seeking changes within our police department. Unfortunately they are minor. One calls for audits, even though we really don’t need another unfinished audit to decide we have a problem. Another requires police districts to be redrawn every 10 years, even though right now, 10 years might as well be never. (And for all the talk of reform locally, the mayor has not asked her colleagues in Annapolis to make any change to the 150-year-old laws blocking real reform.)

A federal jury has convicted two Baltimore Police detectives for their roles in one of the biggest police corruption scandals in recent memory.

We need help from those in Annapolis who truly love Baltimore to do here what New York did in 1992, after Mikey Dowd was caught. They created the Mollen Commission to investigate and root out corruption, and gave it staff and funding. We can’t do this in Baltimore, because our mayor and the City Council don’t have the power to do it.

We need an independent commission, created by state law and fully funded, with full power to subpoena and review the disciplinary files of any and all officers — any IAD file, any court file — to interview any and all witnesses, to hold hearings in which lying is punishable with prison, to determine the scope of the corruption and recommend how the department should be managed with integrity in the future.

And it needs to be led by someone of stature and unquestioned qualification. Judge Robert M. Bell comes to mind. To the leaders of the city’s delegation to Annapolis: please. Don’t let us circle the drain.

Dan Sparaco (dansparaco@gmail.com) is an attorney and former assistant deputy mayor in Baltimore City.

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