Corruption, turnover, violence: Baltimore Police Department faced many problems in 2018

The Baltimore Police Department faced an unprecedented number of challenges in 2018, including leadership turnover, cases of officer misconduct, continued high levels of violence and the final convictions in one of the biggest police corruption scandals in city history.

“It’s one of the most troubling years that the department has had,” said Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee.

Right at the top of the department’s struggles were the racketeering convictions of eight members of its once-elite Gun Trace Task Force. Two sergeants and eight detectives robbed citizens under protection of their badges and claimed massive amounts of overtime for hours they did not work. In November, a ninth officer, former Baltimore and Philadelphia cop Eric Snell, pleaded guilty to charges that he conspired to sell drugs with the GTTF members.

The scandal only reinforced the community’s deep distrust of the Police Department at a time when widespread policing reforms were under way. A consent decree reached between the city and the U.S. Justice Department mandates a wide range of reforms, including limits on when and how officers engage individuals suspected of criminal activity, more training for police on de-escalation tactics and interactions with youths, those with mental illnesses, and protesters, and enhanced civilian oversight and transparency of the department.

More from the 2018 Year in Review »

In 2018, many residents expressed frustration about the slow progress of the reforms, and the federal judge overseeing the process also raised doubts about the city Police Department’s ability to make the required changes without consistent leadership.

The department was led by three different commissioners in 2018. Former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was fired in January. His replacement, agency veteran Darryl De Sousa, lasted just a few months before he resigned in May after being charged with failing to file federal taxes. Gary Tuggle, a former DEA special agent whom De Sousa recruited to be one of his deputies, ascended to the interim spot.

The search for the next permanent commissioner continued through the end of the year, with Mayor Catherine Pugh naming Joel Fitzgerald, the police chief of Fort Worth, Texas, as her choice. The pick must be approved by the City Council, which is expected to vote in January.

As turnover continued at the top, a number of cases of alleged officer misconduct were reported in the ranks.

In January, prosecutors charged an officer whose body camera footage appeared to show him placing drugs in a vacant lot and then retrieving them. Officer Richard A. Pinheiro Jr. said at his trial in November that he was re-creating the discovery of evidence for documentation purposes, but a judge still found him guilty of misconduct in office.

In July, an officer who declined to respond to reports of a man carrying a gun in his waistband downtown because it was not her assigned district left the department.

In August, a viral video emerged showing a Baltimore police officer repeatedly punching a man in the face before taking him to the ground. The officer resigned from the department. He was later charged with first- and second-degree assault and misconduct in office.

Another officer was fired in October after police said he was found intoxicated and slumped over in his patrol vehicle near Pigtown. The same month, a high-ranking Baltimore police commander quit after slamming a chair into a wall during a heated meeting with interim Commissioner Tuggle’s chief of staff.

A look at recent Baltimore Police scandals »

One of the department’s highest-profile cases — the death of homicide detective Sean Suiter in November 2017 — remained unsolved. His death has been investigated by the department as a homicide, but in August an independent review board determined that Suiter likely killed himself. The latest wrinkle in the case came in November, when a video leaked to media showed Baltimore police homicide detectives interviewing an informant who described Suiter’s death as a homicide and identified a lead on a possible suspect.

Baltimore continued to see high levels of violent crime in 2018. The city surpassed 300 homicides for the fourth year in a row. It has earned the grim designation of having the worst homicide rate among the nation’s 50 largest cities last year, according to FBI data released in September.

Most of the city’s homicide victims continue to be young, black men. But the year’s victims also included young children caught in the crossfire and elderly people targeted for their vulnerability.

There was the death of 7-year-old Taylor Hayes, who died two weeks after she was shot while riding in the back of a car in West Baltimore in July. Police have charged Keon Gray, 30, in her death. He is due in court in February.

Months after Taylor’s death, her 5-year-old half-sister Amy Hayes, was injured in a shooting as she walked to a corner store to buy juice.

The same month, 3-year-old Darrell Johns was injured, along with 38-year-old man, in a shooting outside the boy’s East Baltimore home. Police have not made an arrest in either shooting.

There was also 83-year-old Dorothy Mae Neal, who police said was raped and assaulted inside her West Baltimore apartment. She died as a result of her injuries. Police have charged 14-year-old Tyrone Harvin as an adult. He has a trial scheduled for January.

Randolph Cockrell, a 67-year-old homeless man, was beaten to death with a brick as he slept on a porch in Northwest Baltimore on August 7. Police have charged 20-year-old Dion Dixon, who is scheduled for trial Jan. 23.

The city’s most violent stretch came in September and October, when 35 people were killed in each of those months. Among them was Johnathon Greenidge, a 26-year-old former Southern Arkansas University football player. Also killed in September was 25-year-old Timothy Moriconi, who was killed while walking home in Riverside, a neighborhood where such violence is unusual. Two people were charged in Moriconi’s death.

Mayor Pugh has pointed to an overall decrease in violent crime, calling the high homicide totals of certain months as outliers. She has pointed to her violence reductions zones, which concentrate government services, such as street-cleaning and job services, to particularly violent areas of the city to help drive down crime.

Scott said he’s pleased that violence has declined from last year, but noted that the rates of violence are still far above where they were just four years prior.

“It’s an agency on the brink, but it’s an agency on the brink of what? Despair? Or greatness?” Scott said.

He said the police department needs structural changes, policy improvements and stability. And he sees some positive signs, such as the coming consent decree reforms, an active and engaged city council, along with city legislators and residents pushing for reforms.

“You have this coalition” that is vested in change, he said. “It starts with making the necessary changes.”

The city and U.S. Justice Department are in the first year of implementing reforms mandated under the consent decree. Much of the work in the past year included re-writing police department policies on practices such as the use of force. The training of officers on the new policies and monitoring their implementation are expected to begin next year.

As the department works on reforms, it continues to face a continuing challenge of recruiting and retaining quality candidates to fill its ranks. A staffing study released in September found the department does not adequately staff patrol, forcing the supervisors to cover patrol needs with pricey overtime.

“When you’re down this far, the number of police we have here, it’s tough to see any bright spots,” said Baltimore Police Sgt. Michael Mancuso, the new president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3.

“You’ve got an exhaustion level there. It’s been going on for years. The morale is down. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. My hope is that we get a police commissioner in here and the right police commissioner and they are here for a while.”

Pugh’s administration has said it wants to attract more local, female and minority candidates. Some changes, such as making the application process online, has led to an increase in applicants, which city officials said they hope will lead to more officers. A CitiStat report released at the end of November, however, found that the surge in applications had not yet resulted in more hires.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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