Maryland Senate approves panel to probe Baltimore police corruption

From left, federal prosecutors Leo Wise, Stephen Schenning (podium) and Derek Hines speak to the media after a guilty verdict in the federal trial of two Baltimore Police detectives with the city's Gun Trace Task Force.
From left, federal prosecutors Leo Wise, Stephen Schenning (podium) and Derek Hines speak to the media after a guilty verdict in the federal trial of two Baltimore Police detectives with the city's Gun Trace Task Force.(Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Over the objection of Baltimore's mayor, senators from across Maryland voted unanimously Thursday to create a special commission to investigate unanswered questions surrounding the city Police Department's disgraced Gun Trace Task Force.

The bill passed 46-0 in the state Senate and was expected to pass the House of Delegates — even as Mayor Catherine Pugh called the investigation unnecessary.


But state Sen. Bill Ferguson said the crimes committed by the corrupt task force — and other allegations that arose from the federal criminal case against it — were too urgent to be ignored.

"Today's unanimous passage of the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing in the Senate demonstrates the urgent need of this process," said Ferguson, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "Unanimously, the Senate has spoken saying we need to get to the bottom of this tragic experience if we ever want to move Baltimore forward.

"This is a great first step, and I'm hopeful we'll see rapid action in the House," he added. "We can't afford to wait on this issue."

The Senate legislation now must be reconciled with a similar bill that already passed the House.

Alexandra M. Hughes, chief of staff to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, assured passage of Ferguson's version of the bill.

Ferguson said the commission is needed to investigate how high up in the Police Department the corruption may have gone and whether police officials ignored the officers' actions.

He attached the proposal creating the commission to an existing bill calling for routine state audits of the Police Department.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's public safety committee, called the commission's creation a "great thing."


"I'm grateful to Sen. Ferguson for showing courage and leadership to exercise oversight over the Police Department," said Scott, noting that the Baltimore Police Department is legally a state agency. "The more eyes looking into this, the better. As long as it's a state agency, the state should be providing oversight."

The commission would be tasked with conducting a 20-month investigation. The panel would be authorized to issue subpoenas, call witnesses to testify and compel the production of written and electronic records. A preliminary report would be due at the end of 2018 and a final report would be required a year later.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson on Tuesday proposed a special commission to investigate unanswered questions surrounding the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.  

The Democratic mayor has said federal officials already are keeping a close eye on Baltimore police under a consent decree that followed a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. The investigation found that officers routinely violated the constitutional rights of local residents, particularly in predominantly poor, black neighborhoods. The Justice Department also said city police routinely used excessive force; mistreated protesters, youths and people with mental disabilities; and improperly dismissed sexual assault complaints.

"I don't think that it's necessary," Pugh said Thursday of the special commission.

The federal case against the Gun Trace Task Force is among the worst corruption scandals ever to hit the Police Department. Six officers pleaded guilty to various federal crimes, including racketeering and robbery, with some of them flipping on their former colleagues and helping federal prosecutors secure guilty verdicts against the two officers who went to trial.

The seven-member commission proposed by Ferguson would be staffed by the state's Department of Legislative Services and Office of Legislative Audits, which would hire contractors to help with the work.


Two members of the commission would be appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan, two by Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and two by Busch. The commission chair would be jointly appointed by the three state leaders.

The legislation calls for at least four of the seven commission members to be lawyers and at least three to be Baltimore residents.

At the conclusion of its investigation, the commission would recommend "whether a reorganization of the department is warranted and, if so, options for a such a reorganization," as well as recommendations for improved oversight of the department and its specialized units, the bill states.

Ferguson's bill also calls for the state to conduct financial and performance audits of the Baltimore police force at least once every six years, as auditors do for other state agencies.

While Baltimore's police department is funded entirely by city taxpayers — and the mayor has the power to hire and fire its police commissioner — it is legally a state agency and subject to the laws of the General Assembly, not Baltimore's City Council.

Police spokesman T.J. Smith has said Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa has "already taken several steps to review the agency pitfalls that allowed this corruption to persist."

"We hired an Inspector General, we recently announced the appointment of Deputy Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who brings with him his wealth of federal experience, we created an overtime abuse unit, and we've established an anti-corruption unit to specifically examine the GTTF case," Smith said in a statement.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said Wednesday she opposes a proposal for a state commission to investigate unanswered questions surrounding the Baltimore Police Department’s disgraced Gun Trace Task Force.