Hundreds of documented examples of law enforcement corruption, abuse, and misconduct have come into the public sphere. Although misconduct is neither a new phenomenon nor a recent trend, there appears to be a deep-rooted taint within the system that is American policing.
Major metro areas of this country are where the national spotlight is focused most often. One such city is Baltimore. The most outrageous example was when six Baltimore police officers were charged in 2015 with killing Freddie Gray, who sustained spinal cord injuries during police van transport. Riots erupted after Gray’s death, and that was followed by a dramatic increase in homicides – 344 that year alone. Many believe the increase was because Baltimore Police Department (“BPD”) officers initiated fewer encounters and turned a blind eye to crime in problematic communities as a form of retaliation against a city populous that appeared to rise up against them. A responsible law enforcement apparatus in Baltimore would have chosen to examine its failures.
BPD’s response was to put Sergeant Wayne Jenkins in charge of the Gun Trace Task Force (“GTTF”) in 2016. GTTF members were tasked with finding and removing guns from the streets of Baltimore. Jenkins’ career had previously been tarnished by an extensive misconduct file. A few months after the Gray riots, this plainclothes unit was told by a deputy commissioner that, “It is time to go out there and do what you know how to do.” If the deputy commissioner meant commit felonies, abuse authority, and enrich themselves in the process, then the GTTF followed those instructions to a tee.
Jenkins and six other officers on the GTTF would roam Baltimore looking for illegal guns and drugs. If Jenkins located a drug dealer known to have a large quantity of drugs or money, he would call that target a “monster.” GTTF members would move in, committing what were in essence home invasions, as there was absolutely no official authorization or paperwork. They would then seize the cash or drugs without arresting anyone. Sometimes even reselling heroin or cocaine through their own private distribution network. All the while, as if that was not enough illicit income, GTTF members would bilk the city by falsely documenting overtime. The details of the GTTF corruption are recounted in Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg’sbook I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad.
It is reasonable to ask: How did the GTTF go for years, committing these types of crimes, without getting caught? The citizens knew about the GTTF. One member was so notorious that he was name-dropped in songs by local rappers. Defense attorney Ivan Bates had been told by numerous insistent clients for years that they were being robbed. Bates was one of several local defense attorneys who would bring evidence against the GTTF to the office of Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby. However, it took the federal government, by accident, to finally bring the GTTF down. The DEA was investigating a Black drug dealer in Baltimore. While listening to an intercepted phone call between that dealer and Detective Momodu Gondo, they realized that something was terribly wrong. The FBI’s anti-corruption unit stepped in and eventually brought the GTTF to justice.
A federal investigation revealed that the GTTF had fabricated evidence, lied on affidavits, entered homes without warrants, conducted illegal surveillance, and planted guns and drugs on innocent people to cover up its mistakes – all in addition to the robberies. The federal investigation resulted in the conviction of a dozen BPD officers for extortion, robbery, racketeering, filing false reports, and perjury before federal grand juries.
So when Mosby appeared publicly outraged about the misconduct of the GTTF, Bates and the other defense attorneys viewed her outrage as nothing more than a cynical public relations stunt.
While the GTTF was disbanded in Baltimore, similar plainclothes units have been used elsewhere, Reason magazine reports. “Jump-out boys,” a nickname for some units, would roll up to groups of people milling on the sidewalk, jump out, chase the ones who ran, and search everyone else. A criminal defense lawyer told Reason that at one point unmarked police squads in D.C. would roll past poor areas and “young men on the corner would reflexively lift up their shirts to show they didn’t have weapons stuffed in their waistbands.”
These acts are not limited to the big cities, though. Several residents of Canton, Mississippi, sued the Madison County Sheriff’s Department alleging plainclothes units harassed Black residents. A settlement and consent decree followed.
This type of policing harms the community and its relationship with law enforcement. It is also vulnerable to abuse and corruption. These types of examples of misconduct will continue until the underlying problems in American policing are solved. The story of the GTTF can be added to the debate of much needed police reforms.
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