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In Baltimore, Brazen Police Took Every Chance to Rob and Cheat

BALTIMORE — Stacks of bills, $100,000 in all, taken from a safe. Garbage bags full of stolen prescription drugs dumped on the black market. A motorist robbed of $25,000.

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In Baltimore, Brazen Police Took Every Chance to Rob and Cheat
, New York Times

BALTIMORE — Stacks of bills, $100,000 in all, taken from a safe. Garbage bags full of stolen prescription drugs dumped on the black market. A motorist robbed of $25,000.

The crimes were not carried out by civilian criminals, but by Baltimore police officers. They are among the dozens of bombshells in one of the most startling police corruption scandals in a generation. In a trial in Baltimore federal court, witnesses and even the officers themselves have described an elite squad gone rogue, taking every opportunity to rob those they were supposed to be policing or protecting, and barely bothering to cover up their deeds.

The daily disclosures of dangerous, embarrassing and shameless acts come at a particularly bad time for the Baltimore Police Department, which is battling a runaway crime problem in an environment already poisoned by deep mistrust in the police.

The department was in fact under investigation by the federal government for systemic civil rights violations while the officers carried out many of their crimes — which included selling seized guns and drugs back onto the streets, sending innocent people to jail, recruiting civilians to rob drug dealers and using GPS devices to track and rob the innocent.

Six officers have pleaded guilty; four are testifying against the two who are now on trial.

The case fits a pattern of corruption scandals involving anti-crime units that rack up arrests and praise, but do not have enough supervision, said Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and a former Baltimore police officer who went to the police academy with one of the accused officers. But this one is far worse, he said. “It’s shocking what they’ve done and how long they’ve been doing it.”

The case has raised questions about the beleaguered department’s ability to reform itself or fight crime effectively. “Baltimore juries, already famously skeptical of police, will now be that much less inclined to take officers at their word, and witnesses will now be even more reluctant to cooperate,” an editorial in The Baltimore Sunsaid.

The officers on trial, Detectives Marcus Taylor and Daniel Hersl, were members of the Gun Trace Task Force, a seven-member group of plainclothes detectives whose hard-charging tactics led to hundreds of arrests and the recovery of illegal guns.

Last year, its members, including its current and former supervisors, were indicted on racketeering charges.

Taylor and Hersl also face charges of extortion, using a firearm to commit a violent crime and submitting phony overtime claims.

“They were simply put, both cops and robbers,” said Leo Wise, the lead federal prosecutor, in his opening argument.

The trial comes amid intense scrutiny on police departments nationally, and mounting pressure on officers to work to heal rifts with minority communities after findings by the Justice Department that some departments, including those in San Francisco, Chicago and Baltimore, have a pattern of unconstitutional and biased policing. In Baltimore, the members of the anti-crime unit were so reckless that they carried out elaborate criminal schemes even as Justice Department investigators were scouring departmental records and interviewing the officers’ colleagues as part of their civil rights investigation.

But the officers believed that their victims would not speak up. “More than likely, a drug dealer is not going to complain about their money being taken,” said Momodu Gondo, a former member of the gun unit who testified Monday. He wore an orange jail jumpsuit, having pleaded guilty to an array of crimes.

Gondo estimated that he had stolen as much as $100,000 from people during his career and said he had once given a gun he took during a home invasion to a friend who was a drug dealer.

The gun unit’s criminal schemes appear to have started at least five years ago.

The police accounts continue a drumbeat of negative news that has battered Baltimore’s police, which was highlighted by Freddie Gray, who died in 2015 from injuries suffered while in police custody. His death was followed by days of rioting and unsuccessful attempts to prosecute the officers involved in his arrest.

Last year, Baltimore had the highest per capita murder rate in its history. This month, an officer was indicted after a body camera video appeared to show him staging the discovery of a bag of illegal drugs near an arrest scene.

Last month, the mayor fired the police commissioner and appointed Darryl De Sousa, a department veteran, to be the city’s third commissioner in five years.

The fallout from the gun task force scandal has been substantial. Baltimore state’s attorney has dropped at least 125 criminal cases related to the task force and continues to investigate others. The public defender’s office estimates that the number of tainted cases is likely closer to 3,000.

Though the department disbanded its plainclothes anti-crime units after the indictments, De Sousa has said he is considering bringing them back.

Defense lawyers say the two detectives on trial were not involved in the unit’s most egregious crimes, and have questioned the motivations of the parade of disgraced officers and convicted drug dealers who have testified against them.

“The government lumped Daniel Hersl’s wrong conduct — there’s no excuse for it — into a racketeering enterprise” that he had no role in, William Purpura, the detective’s lawyer, told the jury last month.

Some of the gun unit’s misdeeds would test the credence of even the most guileless readers of crime fiction.

One officer, for instance, testified that he was so worried about being caught that he scattered $20,000 cash from an on-duty robbery in the woods behind his house.

The gun unit would sometimes try to deflect suspicion by lending tactical gear, including bulletproof vests, to civilians so they could commit robberies. The officers served as lookouts.

The detectives also kept BB guns in their police cars in case they needed to plant them on suspects, and frequently placed tracking devices on the vehicles of civilians, so they could rob their homes. Some of the civilians were suspected of dealing drugs, but at least one had no criminal record.

The crew stole anything they found of value: Rolex watches, dirt bikes, cologne, Air Jordan sneakers, a Chanel purse, heroin, cocaine, and prescription drugs.

The unit, whose purpose was to get guns off the street, even stole and sold guns. One incident began with the traffic stop of Oreese Stevenson, a 38-year-old with a long criminal history, in March 2016.

After arresting Stevenson, the detectives stole his house keys and read his driver’s license to find where he lived. Four of the unit’s officers entered his house and used tools to pry open his safe. They stole $100,000, which was half the money in the safe, along with 2 kilograms of cocaine, a $4,000 Breitling wristwatch, designer clothes, and other items, according to testimony.

The gun unit’s supervisor, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, then began to film on his mobile phone — a video shown during the trial — that purported to show the detectives opening the safe for the first time and discovering the remaining $100,000.

Jenkins then listened to Stevenson’s phone calls from jail, he told prosecutors, and learned that Stevenson’s girlfriend was seeking legal help to recover the stolen money.

Jenkins wrote a note that purported to be written by a woman who said Stevenson had gotten her pregnant. He placed the note on the girlfriend’s doorstep, knocked and ran off.

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