January 22-February 4, 2018
Baltimore Police Department’s Corruption Scandal/Trial
A major corruption scandal within the Baltimore City Police Department has dominated the headlines in local news, as well as some other major news sites, over the past two weeks. Unpacking all the developments, much less the backstory, is why this installment of Baltimore News Flash is a double edition.
To be honest, this story makes me ill. So much so, that I considered abandoning this weekly column after the 3rd week of January.
How can I stand up for my hometown when there is so much wrong happening here? And when, as you will see, the details of the corruption case have gotten dramatically worse, with each passing day?
The answer is that this is my City, and I know that we have been—and can still be—better than this.
This story reads like a serial crime novel.
The Latest Bombshells
The following stories, from the week of January 29 to February 3, are from The Baltimore Sun [http://digitaledition.baltimoresun.com/html5/desktop/production/default.aspx?pubid=99644e1a-52da-4fe3-8f78-a84e4fe4d386]. While I will do some extensive quoting from these articles, you may also want to head to the main web site for The Sun to read the full reporting.
Bombshell #1. Wednesday 1/31/18, p. 1 – Testimony: FBI bugged cops in crash [FBI bugged cops in crash
At gun task force trial, officers heard making plans for false reports
By Justin Fenton The Baltimore Sun]
“A convicted former Baltimore police detective broke down on the witness stand Tuesday [January 30, 2018] when asked about an incident in which the FBI secretly recorded members of the Gun Trace Task Force as they fled the scene of a car crash and spoke of falsifying their time sheets to make it seem that they were never there.
Former Detective Jemell Rayam said the officers had chased the car that got hit.
‘It was bad. It was a bad accident,’ Rayam said.”
- I did a quick online search for details of this crash, which occurred on August 31, 2016. Although several images of the crash were readily available (and it was a bad accident), an accompanying article or television news report was not.
- The circumstances of the August 31, 2016 accident, described below, are eerily similar to another bizarre police-involved accident that occurred after the death of Detective Sean Suiter on November 15, 2017, one day before he was to testify in federal court, probably regarding this same corruption case, although then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis staunchly denied it. You will see a bit more information about Detective Suiter later.
“Rayam, who has pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges, is one of four officers cooperating with the government and testifying in hopes of reducing their sentences.
Rayam’s plea agreement outlined several crimes in the past few years, but in interviews with the FBI and on the witness stand he has admitted that his crimes stretched back at least nine years [italics added]…. The car crash recorded by the FBI device occurred on Aug. 31, 2016, near the University of Maryland downtown, Rayam testified. The Police Department could not provide a copy of the incident report Tuesday.
Rayam said the unit’s sergeant, Wayne Jenkins, spotted a car at a gas station and tried to pull it over, but the car sped off. The officers gave chase, despite a policy against high-speed pursuits.
‘No lights, no lights,’ Rayam can be heard saying on the recording, referring to turning off their emergency lights. The police car’s engine revs in the background.
‘S—. Damn!’ Gondo says, apparently after the crash.
‘Keep going, yo,’ Rayam says.
The officers can be heard discussing the likelihood that surveillance cameras captured them giving chase.
Hersl can be heard saying Jenkins wanted the officers to stay in the area, and to listen on the police radio to see if any other officers would come to render aid.
‘All we had to do was just get out,’ Taylor can be heard saying.
‘Hey, we were never down that street,” Hersl says.
Hersl later says, ‘We could go and stop the [time] slips at 10:30, before that happened. … I was in the car, just driving home.’
‘I was being a follower,’ Rayam testified. ‘I should have called it in’ [italics added].
Jenkins also has pleaded guilty in the case.”
- Who was the Commissioner 9 years ago? Fred Bealefeld(!), whom I have considered to be one of the better commissioners we’ve had in recent years. There is no public indication that Bealefeld was involved in anything crooked, but I wonder how I can trust this, given the levels of lying and coverups that are coming out now.
- Rayam’s “remorse” (‘I was being a follower,’ Rayam testified. ‘I should have called it in’) sounds suspiciously like the trial testimony of Officer William Porter, one of the officers charged but later exonerated [along with the other 5 officers] in the death of Freddie Gray. Is this BPD culture one of collusion as well as corruption?
“Two men who were robbed by members of the unit also testified Tuesday.
Herbert Tate, an HVAC technician, said he was walking in East Baltimore when Hersl and two other officers, Kevin Fassl and Sgt. John Burns, stopped him and searched him on the street.
Hersl began checking nearby staircases and vacant homes looking for drugs before allegedly finding heroin stashed behind a wall.
Tate said the drugs did not belong to him. Meanwhile, he said he had about $530 on him, and the officers reported submitting only about $220.
Defense attorney Christopher Nieto questioned why Tate was in the area when the officers stopped him.
‘This is not a great neighborhood in Baltimore, is it?’ Nieto said.
‘To me it is,’ Tate said.
Also taking the stand was Dennis Armstong, who admitted he was leaving a storage container where he stowed kilograms of cocaine when he was stopped by the officers.
He fled, ‘throwing snowball-sized chunks of cocaine out of the window, exploding on the street,’ Hersl’s attorney, William Purpura, said earlier in the trial.
Armstrong said the officers took $8,000 from him and reported seizing just $2,800. Police destroyed his storage unit, tearing off the walls that separated it from other units, and took two kilograms of cocaine.
Armstrong testified that he never said anything about the missing drugs because he would have faced more jail time.
In addition to breaking down while recounting the crash, Rayam cried earlier in his testimony when a wiretapped phone conversation with Gondo was played for the jury.
Rayam’s children can be heard in the background. Court records show his wife has filed for divorce since he was criminally charged.
Despite cutting corners in his police work, using illegal tactics and lying to justify searches, Rayam said he never planted drugs or guns on anyone.
If anything, he said, people he robbed might get a break because they were either let go or faced reduced charges.
He said he was airing everything he knew about illegal misconduct in order to clear his conscience and potentially reduce his sentence.
Hersl’s attorney, William Purpura, asked Rayam if he was in ‘a bind.’
‘It’s never too late to do the right thing,’ Rayam said.”
So…. BPD officers can break the law and admit to it in the hope of getting both themselves and their victims lighter sentences?
But, wait! The new commissioner has a great idea….
A Counterpoint: Even as the Police Department is in scandal mode, new Commissioner De Sousa wants to restart plainclothes policing – Wed. 1/31/18 p. 2 [Plainclothes policing could return
De Sousa considering bringing back units to search for guns, drugs
By Kevin Rector The Baltimore Sun]
“Acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa is considering putting plainclothes officers back onto the streets to search for guns and drugs, he said.
‘I am evaluating to see what best practices tell us, what the research tells us, on plainclothes, and if it has an effect on reducing crime,’ he said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Such units have been praised for driving down crime in the past but also criticized for violating residents’ rights. The practice was halted last year, after officers of one of the most touted plainclothes units in the department — the Gun Trace Task Force — were indicted on federal racketeering charges.
De Sousa, a 30-year veteran who spent about six years in plainclothes units and who took over the Police Department earlier this month, said the department has learned lessons from that case. It is a top priority of his to ensure that officers under his command ‘engage the community in a constitutional manner’ at all times.
But police also must be effective in targeting the thousands of known ‘trigger pullers’ who are driving record violence in the city, he said.
‘We know who our violent repeat offenders are,’ he said. ‘There’s an emphasis to safeguard the community, there’s an emphasis to reduce the violent crime in Baltimore City, and it’s my vision and it’s my goal to do that in an expedited fashion.’
Plainclothes drug and gun officers, known locally as “knockers” or “jump out boys,” earned their nicknames in Baltimore by stalking through neighborhoods looking for individuals engaged in suspicious or outright criminal activity, then leaping out of unmarked vehicles in jeans, T-shirts, ball caps and black police vests to confront those individuals on the street.
The tactic led to many chases, and sometimes to running gunfights. Descriptions of alleged drug dealers tossing bags of heroin and loaded handguns while being pursued by plainclothes detectives were common in Baltimore court.
The units were disbanded by De Sousa’s predecessor, Commissioner Kevin Davis, after the March indictments of most members of the Gun Trace Task Force.
Six members of the unit have since pleaded guilty in the case, including to robbing residents and criminals of cash, drugs and guns, some of which they resold on the streets, to filing false court paperwork and to making fraudulent overtime claims.
Two other members are standing trial in federal court — with their former colleagues who pleaded guilty testifying against them, admitting that the task force engaged in abuses that community members have associated with the ‘knockers’ for years….
Davis’ move away from plainclothes policing followed the city’s agreeing to a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department that mandates sweeping police reforms. The consent decree is based on a Justice Department investigation, prompted by the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent riots in 2015, that found widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing practices in the city, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.
The investigation found a ‘disproportionate share of complaints’ against the department related to plainclothes officers’ being ‘particularly aggressive and unrestrained in their practice of stopping individuals without cause and performing public, humiliating searches.’
Given that the “federal court case” is going on now, I would think that restarting a plainclothes unit would be the last decision Commissioner De Sousa should be considering, especially since he was Davis’ protégé—and deputy commissioner! Not to mention that De Sousa is already breaking away from the consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department that mandates “sweeping police reforms”—not the same old dirty tricks.
Bombshell #2. Friday, 2/2/18, p. 1(?) – Cops Steal Drugs—and resell them—during Freddie Gray Riots
[‘Over the top,’ witness says
Bail bondsman tells of getting bags of stolen drugs from Sgt. Jenkins
By Justin Fenton The Baltimore Sun; Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article]
“A Baltimore County bail bondsman testified Thursday [February 1, 2018] that he partnered for years with the supervisor of the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force to resell drugs the officer had taken off the street.
Donald C. Stepp, 51, said Sgt. Wayne Jenkins made near-nightly trips to his waterfront home in Baltimore County to drop off drugs — including once in the middle of the night during the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray.
Stepp said Jenkins pulled into his garage and removed two large trash bags full of prescription drugs that Jenkins said came from looted pharmacies….
Stepp was one of the latest in a string of more than two dozen witnesses testifying in the federal racketeering trial of two gun task force officers, Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor. Six officers, including Jenkins, have pleaded guilty in the case, and four of them are testifying for the government.
Stepp said Jenkins brought him into police headquarters, placed orders with him for equipment not authorized by the department, and brought him along on raids where the officers robbed people of thousands of dollars and drugs. Stepp had hundreds of images on his cellphone to back many of his accounts.
Stepp also testified that he committed several break-ins at Jenkins’ direction, including one in which an unidentified Baltimore County police officer was a participant…..
Federal authorities have said 27 pharmacies — about a third of the city’s pharmacies — and two methadone clinics were looted on the day rioting broke out. Nearly 315,000 doses of drugs were stolen, including powerful opioids, and police said in 2015 that they believed the influx of such drugs was helping fuel the city’s spike in violence.
In pleading guilty in the case, Jenkins admitted to a range of crimes, including reselling the looted drugs.
Stepp said he made more than $1 million selling drugs, and gave Jenkins between $250,000 to $500,000 over the years.
Stepp said Jenkins told him the Gun Trace Task Force was a group he had hand-picked to be a “front for a criminal enterprise.” He also said there were other officers from other units working with Jenkins, but he did not name any on the witness stand. Federal prosecutors have said their investigation with the FBI is continuing.
Earlier in the trial, federal prosecutors displayed two large bags that were recovered from Jenkins’ vehicle. One was full of black clothing and masks, the other full of tools such as crowbars, lock cutters, a machete, and a grappling hook attached to rope.
Stepp said Jenkins had him buy the items and other supplies, such as GPS tracking devices the officers used illegally. Prosecutors displayed Stepp’s Amazon order history showing those items.
Stepp testified that he held onto the photos documenting some of his interactions with Jenkins “as insurance.” “I didn’t trust [Jenkins] toward the end. I was starting to worry about my life,” he said. Stepp said he became nervous when he saw Jenkins and his unit had been arrested, but gradually got back into drug dealing using connections he had before linking up with Jenkins.
At one point he took an expensive watch taken during one of Jenkins’ robberies, and threw it into the water behind his home. An FBI dive team recovered it, where it was displayed to its owner earlier this week in court for the first time since it was taken.”
These actions raise a host of questions about the BPD’s role in the riots that occurred after the death of Freddie Gray, known as The Baltimore Uprising. In particular, I’m even more inclined to believe the reports by Douglass High School students that on the day of the riots, (1) they were prevented from boarding their transit busses when schools were dismissed, and (2) the police goaded these students into the brick-and-bottle-throwing incident that was shown on the news. Moreover, it makes me rethink my support of then-Commissioner Kevin Davis’ efforts to restore order and make necessary changes in department policies, tactics, and transparency over the rest of his term.
As recently as 4 weeks ago, I defended Commissioner Davis in a letter to the editor published in The Sun!
To my chagrin, 8 days later, Commissioner Davis was fired by Mayor Catherine Pugh and replaced by Commissioner De Sousa [See Baltimore News Flash – Edition 3]. But while my trust in Commissioner Davis has since been destroyed, my initial distrust of Commissioner De Sousa has only grown.
Bombshell #3. Tuesday, February 5, 2018 – Momodu Gondo Implicates Deceased Detective Sean Suiter in Gun Trace Task Force Scandal [http://www.wbaltv.com/article/testimony-in-federal-corruption-case-implicates-slain-detective/16573578?src=app by Jayne Miller and David Collins]
Just when I thought this corruption case couldn’t get any stranger, today, WBAL-TV reported that Momodu Gondo (previously referenced in Bombshell #1) testified that Detective Sean Suiter (who was killed under mysterious and covered up circumstances on November 15, 2017, one day before he was to testify in federal court) was also guilty of stealing from targeted individuals for personal gain. At the time, Commissioner Kevin Davis lauded Suiter as a stellar officer and even denied that his death had anything to do with either his planned testimony or even the current corruption case. However, this article further states that Gondo’s allegation against Suiter was known by the FBI when the other officers were indicted on corruption charges in March 2017.
This report, like all the others I’ve commented on here, raises even more questions about what has been going on in the Baltimore Police Department. Even if the FBI knew about allegations against Detective Suiter, I think it is disgraceful to bring up his name now that he is dead and cannot defend himself.
And there that’s weird car accident on the day Detective Suiter died. In the confusion of securing the massive crime scene in Harlem Park, while investigators were keeping residents from entering the area, a pair of policemen in the vicinity of University Hospital got involved in a two-car crash that supposedly had nothing to do with Suiter, and yet was reported as if it did.
Moreover, it shocks me to think that our Mayor and City Council are so supportive of and confident in our new Commissioner that, yesterday, they announced plans for hearings to make De Sousa the permanent Police Commissioner in Baltimore.
I am not a reporter or an investigative journalist. At best, I consider myself a decent opinion writer. But this scandal is something else again. Sadly, it confirms my low opinion of my City’s leadership—some of whom I helped vote into office! Sadder still, I’m beginning to see this situation as a reflection of the larger assault on our very democracy, our highest ideals—any form of shared Truth, Fairness, and Decency. From Baltimore to Washington, D.C., and beyond, we are all falling for the new reality: Trumpian dystopia.
Who can we trust anymore?