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In Baltimore, public trust erodes amid police scandal

February 17, 2018

This photo combo from images provided by the Baltimore Police Department show from left, Detective Marcus Taylor and Detective Daniel Hersl. Taylor and Hersl were convicted of robbery, racketeering, and conspiracy on Feb. 12, 2018, in a trial that's part of an ongoing federal investigation into corruption among rogue members of the city's beleaguered police force. Acting Police Commissioner Darryl DeSousa says the department is determined to mend fences with the community. He’s introduced plans for random integrity and polygraph testing and created a new anti-corruption unit.(Baltimore Police Department via AP, File)

BALTIMORE (AP) — Confidence in Baltimore’s sworn protectors has badly deteriorated in recent years, but it may be hitting rock bottom after admissions that corrupt police detectives on an out-of-control unit resold looted narcotics, conducted home invasions and falsified evidence.

With the city under a federal consent decree requiring expansive police reforms, recent courtroom revelations outlining an astounding range of abuses by rogue officers stretching back to 2008 is making it far tougher to convince people in this starkly divided city that a shiny badge promises integrity.

The Gun Trace Task Force, described by federal prosecutors as a “perfect storm” of corruption, was a more chilling reality for some residents than any street gang. Earlier this week, a jury found two Baltimore detectives guilty of robbery and racketeering in an explosive federal investigation that’s seen six disgraced law enforcers plead guilty.

“A lot of people were seriously traumatized by these cops,” said Akai Alston, a 26-year-old youth outreach coordinator who has turned his life around after a grim adolescence dealing drugs and a conviction for accessory to murder.

Authorities say they’re determined to mend fences in a city struggling with a corrosive mix of narcotics, illegal guns and despair rooted in generational poverty. But the attitudes of the many Baltimoreans who mistrust their law enforcers has only been reinforced by the scandal.

“It’s only going to make it harder to build the kinds of coalitions for public safety that everybody knows Baltimore needs. It’s going to make people suspicious of all officers — not just the bad ones — all of them,” said David Harris, who researches police behavior as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Many locals snort in derision when asked if they trust city police officers. A statehouse lawmaker this week even proposed dismantling the 165-year-old force and rebuilding it from scratch.

Acting Police Commissioner Darryl DeSousa says that weeding out corrupt officers will be one of his top priorities, telling reporters “it sickens me to my stomach” to see what occurred with the elite gun unit.

DeSousa introduced plans for random integrity and polygraph testing and created a new anti-corruption unit, not only to probe the activities of the disbanded unit, but also that of a number of current officers and supervisors whose names came up in the corruption trial.

While rogue detectives admitted to lying for years to cover their tracks, it’s an open question as to whether the force’s command structure had enough integrity to expose them. In a city obsessed with crime statistics, they were praised for taking guns off the streets.

Yet there was no shortage of red flags that members were crooked.

One task force officer, Jemell Rayam, was suspended for two years after admitting to receiving money from an $11,000 theft by another officer. When his police powers were somehow reinstated in 2012, he was bumped up to the plainclothes gun unit.

Another ex-detective, Momodu Gondo, was shot multiple times outside his home in 2006, just two months out of the police academy. At the time, a commander told TV cameras that the 23-year-old was a “very well-respected rookie,” but Rayam told jurors Gondo was actually shot by fellow drug dealers. The two ex-detectives admitted to running interference for a heroin-trafficking ring that included Gondo’s childhood buddy.

From the stand in U.S. District Court, Gondo testified that he robbed money for years, never sweating internal affairs.

“It was just part of the culture,” he said.

Words and phrases that disgraced detectives used in federal court to describe illegal police tactics appear to have swiftly made their way into the local lexicon.

Ex-detective Maurice Ward testified that the rogue unit carried out as many as 50 “door pops” a night — accelerating their unmarked vehicles at people hanging out on corners, slamming on the brakes, and chasing whoever fled.

They entered homes with no court approval in illegal “sneak and peeks.” Motorists driving what the unit’s leader, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, termed as “dope boy cars” — mostly new model Hondas — were sought-after targets, often pulled over on false or flimsy pretexts.

“I wish somebody told me I was buying a ‘dope boy car,’” construction worker Russell Anderson quipped as he hopped in a 2017 Honda Accord TLX outside a convenience store.

The illegal tactics were no laughing matter for Andre Crowder.

In 2016, he was driving his mother’s Honda Acura with tinted windows when he was pulled over by Jenkins and two members of his thuggish band. They claimed to discover a gun.

Crowder claims they went to his family’s house and stole $10,000 in cash — money he says was from selling his own car. By the time he was able to post bail three days later, his 3-year-old son was hospitalized with pneumonia. The toddler died in a hospital eight hours later.

“I never had hard feelings for police before. But after this situation and losing the last days with my little boy, I look at every last cop as corrupt,” said Crowder, his voice rising with emotion, before heading off to his job working for the city’s solid waste department.

Charges against him were dropped shortly after the detectives were indicted in March.

Ivan Bates, a defense attorney who represents a number of people victimized by the rogue detectives and who is running for the state’s attorney’s office, is among the critics who say State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby should never have allowed these officers to testify as complaints stacked up over years.

Additionally, U.S. prosecutors have said an assistant state’s attorney, who has not been publicly identified, tipped off the dirty officers about the corruption investigation.

Public defenders and Mosby herself say thousands of cases touched by corrupt Baltimore police are likely tainted. Some 125 cases have been dropped so far. Many residents fear some hardened criminals will end up getting released.

“Anyone with sense knows the floodgates are about to open,” Alston said in the troubled Sandtown neighborhood. “There’s going to be criminals coming back out on these streets.”

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David McFadden on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dmcfadd

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