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What did Baltimore cops learn from the Gun Trace Task Force? Seems like nothing. | COMMENTARY

More than three years after seven officers from the Gun Trace Task Force were arrested for harassing citizens in Baltimore, more possible corruption has been unveiled in the city's police department.
More than three years after seven officers from the Gun Trace Task Force were arrested for harassing citizens in Baltimore, more possible corruption has been unveiled in the city's police department. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

I was reading an advanced copy last week of a book about Baltimore’s rogue Gun Trace Task Force, the Baltimore Police Department unit that terrorized residents, often while on duty, by robbing and exploiting them. I was interrupted by the breaking story of yet another Baltimore police officer charged with extortion, kidnapping and threatening arrest — also while on duty and acting with the help of three other officers.

It has been more than three years since members of the Gun Trace Task Force were arrested for the crimes I was reading about, and yet here we were, seeing it all over again, just as brazenly. It is as if nothing has changed.

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According to charging documents, Sgt. James Lloyd allegedly demanded a refund from a home improvement contractor because Mr. Lloyd and his girlfriend were upset with the patio the contractor installed. Mr. Lloyd also threatened to arrest the contractor for a suspended driver’s license if the man didn’t give him money and allegedly said that the real problems would start if he were to take the contractor out “into the woods.” Three other on duty Baltimore homicide officers, considered to be the best of the best on the force, are also said to have shown their guns and badges to scare and intimidate the contractor.

Think about that. More than three years after the Gun Trace Task Force officers were arrested, and three years since the city entered a federal consent decree, four Baltimore police officers, on duty, were bold enough to drive to the county, threaten a home improvement contractor and take $3,500 from him.

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Despite the egregiousness of these crimes, and the continued pattern of corruption within the Baltimore Police Department, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison at first refused to name all of the officers, except for the officer charged with a felony. Had the victim not spoken to the police and had charges not been taken out against one officer, chances are that the community likely would have never known about this incident.

All of this is because of two practices that absolutely must be changed:

  1. The police department hides behind the outdated Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and refuses to disclose the names of officers accused of misconduct unless they are charged with a felony.
  2. The state’s attorney’s office of Baltimore generally refuses to disclose misconduct complaints related to open investigations, even though the law, the constitution and basic rules of fairness clearly dictate otherwise.

Police officers are civil servants who carry deadly weapons as a part of their uniform. They are simply not entitled to the patriarchal protections that the legislature, the police commissioner and the state’s attorney’s office gives them. There is no place for this type of secrecy in our criminal justice system. Law enforcement officers are part of criminal investigations aimed at taking away individual freedoms and interfering with people’s liberty and their presumption of innocence.

Make no mistake about it, criminal defendants are always entitled to information about officers’ honesty and integrity whether the investigation is open or closed. It is patently unfair, and undermines our system of justice, that the state’s attorney’s office and the police shield open files from criminal defendants. And those who hide behind the ambiguous shield of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights are as much a part of the problem as those who commit the misconduct.

We need to shine a light on law enforcement officers’ misconduct. If the allegations are not true, let them say so on the stand. If officers are not strong enough to withstand the disclosure of the allegations to the public, maybe they should not be considered strong enough to carry a deadly weapon as part of their uniform. The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights must be repealed. The protections are outdated and they harm individuals as well as the criminal justice system.

Moreover, the police and the prosecutors must stand up and be brave and disclose all open allegations of misconduct, particularly those that relate to honesty and integrity. We should accept nothing less. There is no room in the criminal justice system for this pervasive and historic level of secrecy and silence that protects solely the wrongdoers.

Debbie Katz Levi (deborah.levi@maryland.gov) is director of special litigation at the Office of the Public Defender’s felony trial division in Baltimore.

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