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Members Of Elite Baltimore Police Task Force Are On Trial For Corruption

Feb 7, 2018
Originally published on February 7, 2018 8:49 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Baltimore today - closing arguments in a federal corruption trial involving the city's police department. At the center of it - the elite Gun Trace Task Force, a unit that once racked up praise for racking up arrests and recovering hundreds of illegal guns. As it turned out, members of the unit were committing crimes of their own even as they policed Baltimore's streets. Eight officers have been charged. Six pleaded guilty. The other two are the defendants in this case.

Justin Fenton has been in the courtroom for The Baltimore Sun, and I asked him what exactly the officers are accused of doing.

JUSTIN FENTON: It ranged from illegal tactics used to stop and search people on the streets to high-stakes robberies where they would identify big-time drug dealers, put illegal GPS trackers on their cars and break into their homes and steal money.

KELLY: And how have their lawyers been playing it - the two who are fighting these charges?

FENTON: One of the officer's defense attorneys has made the argument that his client did in fact steal money but that officers are empowered to seize money if they believe that there's probable cause that it's, you know, fruits of a crime.

The other officer's attorneys have generally been chipping away at the credibility of the government witnesses, saying they're either drug dealers or officers who pleaded guilty and have an incentive to lie.

KELLY: Does it undermine the case of these two officers who are fighting the charges that some of the witnesses testifying are their former officers from this unit who have pleaded guilty?

FENTON: You know, I think the officers who took the stand - they outlined a wide range of crimes. They are technically charged with incidents going back to the 2014-2015 timeframe and continuing up through their arrests. But they've also told the FBI and testified that they were committing crimes going back to 2008. And it's really raised a lot of questions about the department's ability to police its own. Oftentimes these officers were in the crosshairs of internal affairs but returned to the streets and essentially got promoted into this elite unit.

KELLY: The backdrop to all of this is the Baltimore Police Department has had problems for some time. Just last month, the mayor fired the police commissioner and appointed a new one. This will be Baltimore's third commissioner in five years. So put this in context for us. Do people in Baltimore see this as a band of officers gone rogue, or do they see this as emblematic of a wider broken police force?

FENTON: Yeah, I think one of the challenges here is that these officers have demonstrated that with great ease they were able to deceive judges. They were able to deceive juries. They were able to deceive internal affairs. It doesn't mean that every officer on the force is lying. It doesn't mean they're committing misconduct. But it shows that it's hard to tell who is.

This also comes in the wake of the, you know, Freddie Gray case, Freddie Gray who died in police custody. There was riots here. The city at that point pledged that they were going to turn things around and reform the agency. And for this to happen in the wake of that, I think there's a real crisis of confidence right now in the police department.

KELLY: And what about morale inside the police department? I was interested and saddened to read that last year, Baltimore had the highest per capita murder rate in its history. The police had plenty to do. And now comes this corruption scandal and trial. What's the mood like inside that department?

FENTON: I mean, officers that I know are saying that they can't believe this kind of stuff went on. They say that in their wildest dreams, they wouldn't think that someone was carrying out robberies and home break-ins and all these different crazy things that have come out in testimony.

At the same time, one of the arguments the defense is making is that post-Freddie Gray, with surging violence, it opened the door for this kind of stuff, that the agency was eager to get officers who were willing to go out there, get guns, work hard, work long hours, that there was a morale crisis and that officers like these seemingly stepped up into the void. So now the agency is trying to figure out, how do we rein this in?

KELLY: Justin, thanks very much.

FENTON: OK, thank you.

KELLY: That's Justin Fenton of The Baltimore Sun. He's covering closing arguments today in a corruption trial involving the Baltimore police. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.