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Baltimore’s Lonely Fight for Police Reform

The trial of two crooked cops could mark a turning point for the broken department, despite Trump's indifference to the problem.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, in December to push President Donald Trump’s false narrative that illegal immigration—and sanctuary cities, like Baltimore, that protect undocumented immigrants—are driving up violent crime in America. “Over the last two years,” he said, “this city in particular has experienced violence like we haven’t seen in nearly a quarter of a century. The violent crime rate is up nearly one-third. Rape is up by 22 percent. Murder is up by half. Baltimore has a higher murder rate and a higher violent crime rate than Chicago with less than a quarter of the population, if you can believe it.”

Baltimore’s record-breaking crime rate last year certainly has city leaders and residents on edge. But rather than confront the root causes, or maybe offer the federal government’s help, Sessions used the occasion to segue to Trump’s bogeyman: MS-13. Never mind that the gang, while active in Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., has barely any presence in Baltimore. Nor that his claim of a 13 percent increase in violent crime in America was a willful misrepresentation of the facts.

What stood out most about Sessions’s speech is the criminal behavior he didn’t address: police abuse. For all his talk about law and order, he has made it plain that he has little interest in curtailing the problem in Baltimore and elsewhere. In March, he sent a memorandum to Justice Department leadership and U.S. attorneys nationwide, all but disavowing his own authority to prosecute police misconduct. “Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective local policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”

Sessions has acted on that belief by trying to scuttle police reform in Baltimore. The city, its mayor, and police commissioner had implored the Department of Justice in October 2014 to assist them with their troubled police department, and the Obama administration responded with a damning federal investigation and a mutually agreed consent decree. All that was left was for a judge to hold a hearing and sign off on the path forward, but on the eve of that hearing last April, Sessions’s lawyers insisted the government needed more time to review these measures. At the hearing, John Gore, the federal government’s acting civil rights chief, told the court that Sessions had “some grave concerns” about whether going ahead with a court-enforced reform plan was in Baltimore’s best interests.

But in Baltimore, where officials had already lost control of their police department, U.S. District Judge James Bredar was having none of it. “The problems that necessitate this consent decree are urgent,” the judge wrote in an order in April. “The parties have agreed on a detailed and reasonable approach to solving them. Now, it is time to enter the decree and thereby require all involved to get to work on repairing the many fractures so poignantly revealed by the record.”

The rot in the Baltimore Police Department is well documented. A 164-page report from the Justice Department in August 2016 chronicled how for years its police officers abused the public’s trust—as well as their right to be free from unjustified stops, from the needless use of force, and from discrimination on account of their race, socioeconomic status, or the neighborhood where they lived. By enforcing the consent decree, Judge Bredar heard Baltimore’s cry for help.

For the better part of the past three weeks, those cries echoed ever louder in a federal courtroom in Maryland, as federal prosecutors have, once again, exposed how broken Baltimore’s police force have become. The trial, and resulting verdict, could be the turning point in the city’s history of lawless policing.

“The Gun Trace Task Force wasn’t a unit that went rogue. It was a unit of officers who had already gone rogue,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise told jurors in his opening statement, referring to an elite plainclothes unit whose mandate was to keep Baltimore’s streets free of illegal guns and drugs. A sprawling investigation spearheaded by then-Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein—now the U.S. deputy attorney general, overseeing the Justice Department’s Russia investigation—found that the task force was itself a criminal enterprise, one carried out with the blessing or blind eye of supervisors and others within the department.

Federal prosecutors would go on to indict eight officers, get six to plead to lesser charges in exchange for their testimony, and offer immunity to a number of victims, many of them drug dealers who were targeted by the officers. Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, the two officers who chose to fight the charges against them in court, “were, simply put, both cops and robbers at the same time,” Wise said during the trial.

Over eight days, the allegations presented to the jury was the stuff of crime novels. Jurors heard tales of detectives selling recovered drugs and guns back onto city streets. Of illegal GPS trackers being placed on suspects’ vehicles so as to follow their every move. Of BB guns stashed in an officer’s service vehicle, nearly identical to the officer’s service weapon, for purposes of planting them in the event of a violent confrontation. Of a sketchy partnership with a bail bondsman to break into cars and then steal and sell the spoils, which were often drugs. In one astonishing incident, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, who pleaded guilty to his crimes and later became a witness against his two colleagues, is said to have staged the break-in of a safe, captured it on video, and then pretended that he and his unit had just recovered $100,000 in dirty money. The only problem: The officers had already opened the safe prior to the recording and kept for themselves another $100,000. The rest was all an elaborate cover-up.

In the second-to-last day of testimony, one of the convicted officers, Momodu Gondo, offered what is likely the most revealing vignette of the entire trial. In so many words, he admitted that his own crimes—all the lying, stealing, and the impunity that followed—were endemic to the police department. “It was just part of the culture,” Gondo testified. “I wasn’t getting complaints. I wasn’t putting my hands on people.” This culture has compromised the state’s own ability to prosecute crime: The Gun Trace Task Force’s intransigence has tainted hundreds of pending criminal cases, and hundreds more could follow. Lawlessness will have bred more lawlessness.

Last week, Hersl and Taylor were convicted of racketeering and robbery. The trial and verdicts are a confirmation, this time in a court of law, that the protests that engulfed the city after the death of Freddie Gray didn’t happen in a vacuum. The officers who brutalize communities, targeting citizens without a shred of suspicion, are the result of the same corrupt culture as those detectives who then go on to commit crimes in elite anti-gun squads. When not even the police academy in Baltimore can graduate recruits with a basic understanding of the Constitution, it’s not hard to comprehend why officers then become a law unto themselves.

Jeff Sessions may not like the federal government’s meddling in local affairs, but when the locals aren’t even prosecuting or investigating their own, the law places the onus on the federal government and those line prosecutors in Baltimore to go after corruption and systemic constitutional wrongs. To pretend otherwise betrays the rule of law Sessions claims to defend. Following the law is what his now-deputy, Rosenstein, did when he brought indictments against Hersl, Taylor, and many others. Following the law is what a police monitoring team is doing now, under the watch of a federal judge, as it seeks the views from the community on how to best shape the future of the Baltimore Police Department. These avenues, for once, may reverse the rot that went unheeded for far too long.