A state commission with the power to subpoena witnesses and documents to unravel the culture of corruption that allowed a task force of sworn police officers to run a criminal enterprise from within the Baltimore Police Department met for the first time in Annapolis on Tuesday.
The task force will work for the next two years to make recommendations, which could include reorganizing the police department and changing the way state and local law enforcement authorities interact.
The Commission to Restore Trust in Policing has broad authority and was crafted by legislation last General Assembly session as knowledge of corruption of the Gun Trace Task Force, an elite police team within the Baltimore Police Department, came to light.
Eight members of the nine-member Gun Trace Task Force have been convicted of federal racketeering charges. The officers’ corruption included robbing city residents and suspected drug dealers, and improperly using police resources to plot their schemes.
“We have hundreds of thousands of residents in the city of Baltimore and thousands of police officers who right now are living under a cloud of unyielding uncertainty. The impact of the Gun Trace Task Force, at least of the known parts of it, and years and years and years of policies and, in many cases, a lack of accountability, has set up an unsustainable state of affairs in the city of Baltimore,” Sen. William C. Ferguson IV (D-Baltimore City), sponsor of the bill that created the commission, said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The bill specifically seeks an investigation into the failures of the Gun Trace Task Force and its implications. The commission has broad authority and an unusual amount of power, including the ability to subpoena witnesses or documents and the discretion and authority to make information publicly known.
By Dec. 31, 2019, the commission is expected to release comprehensive recommendations including whether the state should move to completely reorganize the Baltimore Police Department, which has technically been a state agency since the Civil War.
Ferguson noted that the commission has a lot of work to do. The information publicly known now may very well not have emerged were it not for the two indicted officers who pled not guilty and went to trial.
“If all of the officers had pled guilty, there would have been plea deals and maybe we would have heard things here and there, but we wouldn’t know what we know because of these testimonies,” Ferguson said. “That to me is unbelievably sobering and scary.”
Ferguson said one of the things that stuck with him the most was trial testimony of Sgt. Wayne Jenkins bringing trash bags full of prescription drugs to a bail bondsman’s home at the height of unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, at a time when the police commissioner was blaming looted pharmaceutical drugs for increased violence in the city.
“What we now know today is that it was members of the law enforcement community that participated and facilitated the stealing, robbing, the looting and the distribution of those pharmaceuticals that we know cause the end of lives in the city of Baltimore,” Ferguson said.
He told the commission members to dwell on “just how deep and sadistic and awful this was” as they continue their work.
In less than 90 seconds, Ferguson rattled off three dozen questions where the commission could probe deeper: into issues of misuse of departmental resources, knowledge of the corruption by others, failures of internal affairs, problems with oversight.
“Most importantly, how do we make sure that this never ever, ever happens again?” he concluded.
To continue their work, commission members asked Department of Legislative Services staff to track down trial transcripts, internal affairs documents, complaints filed against the task force officers, the general orders of the Baltimore Police Department and organizational charts.
The commission is chaired by Judge Alexander Williams Jr., a retired U.S. District Court judge and former Prince George’s County state’s attorney. The six other members are Sean Malone, former counsel to the Baltimore City Police Department and former labor commissioner in the city; Gary W. McLhinney, director of professional standards for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services; Ashiah Parker, chief operating officer of Baltimore City nonprofit No Boundaries Coalition; Inez Robb, a Sandtown-Winchester resident and chairwoman of Western District Community Relations Council; James N. Robey, the Democratic former Maryland state senator and former chief of police for Howard County; and Alicia Lynn Wilson, senior legal counsel and senior vice president of impact investments for Plank Industries/Port Covington Impact Investments.
Ferguson noted that more information may be needed to clear the names of officers wrongly implicated, to improve morale among rank-and-file officers and attract badly needed recruits.
“It’s an injustice as well to the thousands of police officers who go on the street every single day desiring to do their job honorably and to serve justice and to be public servants to operate within the department that has failed them,” Ferguson said.
Robey agreed. “When you say the impact upon the city’s police department, it goes far beyond that. Policing in Maryland needs this resolved,” he said. “Because I hear from so many of our officers that every time something sinister happens in Baltimore City, [people] look at every cop as being part of that corrupt environment. It’s got to be addressed for the good of law enforcement and the public throughout the state of Maryland.”
The commission is tasked with writing two reports: one this December and a final report in December 2019. The initial report is likely to include goals for their overall work as well as details on resources or powers the commission might need to author the final report.
“This is going to be hard and painful for the city of Baltimore, but I believe deeply that we have got to bring this forward and own up to how bad it was so that we can move forward,” Ferguson said.