How Baltimore police routinely violated people’s rights

New information about a corrupt police unit of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) that was able to rob and steal with impunity for at least a decade has been revealed by an Al Jazeera English investigation.

In The Gang Within: A Baltimore Police Scandal, Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines spoke to the city’s former police commissioner and other high-ranking police officials, who explain that an obsession with arrests and statistics blinded the department to the illegal dealings of members of the now-defunct Gun Trace Task Force unit.

“This police department had a Viking-like mentality. Police officers were told to go out and get arrests, get guns, get drugs … and their worth was judged by the amount of those things that they brought back to the table,” Kevin Davis, former BPD Commissioner, told Fault Lines.

Detective Jemell Rayam and Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, along with four other detectives, pleaded guilty last year to racketeering conspiracy and other charges after the FBI arrested nearly every member of the Gun Trace Task Force unit in March 2017. Two other officers were convicted of several federal charges.

“The Feds [finally caught them] and that’s scary because if an outside agency didn’t stop it, they’d still be out there,” Josh Insley, a Baltimore civil rights attorney who received a confidential Internal Affairs file from a whistle-blower, told Al Jazeera.

‘A free pass’

For years, the plain-clothes officers from the unit were able to operate with impunity in part because of the way police complaints are investigated in Baltimore, and in cities around the US.

In Maryland and 22 other US states an officer’s disciplinary record is kept confidential. Misconduct investigations are secret and are carried out by the Internal Affairs Division.

Former head of the BPD’s Internal Affairs Division, Rodney Hill, told Fault Lines that “I’d heard his [Jenkins] name many times and I’d heard that these guys are doing some really shady things.”

According to Hill, he recommended that Jenkins got demoted but one of the department’s highest-ranking officials overruled him, so Jenkins stayed on the streets.

When asked whether he believed Jenkins and other officers involved had been given a “free pass”, Hill confirmed, “Yes, I would say that.”

Fault Lines examined leaked confidential disciplinary files that reveal Rayam was investigated nearly a decade ago for robbery, but the department kept him on the street.

According to the files, BPD’s Internal Affairs investigated Rayam for the roadside robbery of Baltimore resident Gary Brown in 2009. Although the detective was caught in a series of lies, Rayam was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by a panel of his own officers. He returned to the streets for another nine years before the FBI caught up with him.

“It’s like getting caught tiptoeing out of the window with the mask and the bag with the dollar sign on it out of the crime scene, and that’s still not enough. Then, what is? You know what, getting indicted by the feds. That is. That’s the only stopgap, is to be so notorious that the actual US Attorney’s Office has to come in and indict you off the street,” Insley said.

‘A culture of corruption that has been allowed to exist’

The scandal threatens to undermine reform efforts and a federal investigation into the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody in 2015, setting off mass protests and exposing the deep divisions between Baltimore’s police department and the community.

“Officers are actually public servants, they have the public trust, and they are there to protect and serve the public,” said Jill Carter, a Maryland state senator who is also a leader in legislative efforts to create more transparency and oversight of Baltimore’s Internal Affairs division.

“And so, when they violate the public or are accused of violating the public, it’s something the public should know,” she told Al Jazeera.

After the 2015 protests, the Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation into policing in Baltimore. They found that police routinely violated people’s rights, adding that BPD’s Internal Affairs had enabled those abuses.

Senator Carter added that the impunity reaches far beyond the Baltimore police. 

“This is not something that just exists here in Baltimore, but this whole giving additional or extra deference to law enforcement, treating law enforcement as if they are above the law, above the people – it’s a culture, it’s a mentality,” Carter told Al Jazeera.

“This is not just a matter of a few bad apples. This is a culture of corruption that has been allowed to exist.”

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