Dan Rodricks posed a question in a column that appeared Monday in the Baltimore Sun. Referring to the alleged conduct of the seven members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) Gun Trace Task Force indicted on federal racketeering charges Rodricks asked how come no one in the department noticed what was going on. The United States Attorney made a point of stating that the information that led to the investigation came was learned by DEA agents during the investigation into a drug ring, not from the BPD.
The answer to Rodricks’ question that the culture of the BPD has not fundamentally changed from the culture described in the report of the Department of Justice on the BPD. The supervision of rank-and-file officers by sergeants and lieutenants is lackadaisical and the blue wall of silence has not come down. The code requires officers to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil of fellow officers, even if they are your subordinates.
The problem with supervision is especially acute at the rank of sergeant, if only because there are so many more sergeants than lieutenants and the sergeants are most familiar with what is happening on the street. The situation with Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, one of the indicted examples, serves as a perfect example. Assuming that he did not personally participate in any of the alleged wrongdoing it is impossible for me to believe that he did not have a good idea what the other six officers in his unit were doing. Jenkins earned $168,700 last year of which $83,300 was overtime. It isn’t as if he wasn’t around the unit enough to see what was going on.
The reason that the culture has not changed is that the Police Commissioner cannot get rid of problem officers fast enough to get ahead of the curve. That handicap is most damaging as it applies to the sergeants and lieutenants who are the front line supervisors of the department. The front line supervisors serve as the guardians of the culture of the department and pass that culture along to the next generation of officers entering the department.
Lousy attitudes and bad habits by supervisors beget lousy attitudes and bad habits by the officers they supervise. The good intentions of the Commissioner are not making it down to the street. It is a cycle that must be broken, and I certainly am not the first person to say so.
In 2014 The Sun published its eye-opening report titled “Undue Force” describing how Baltimore had paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that its police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects. Former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts responded to the report with a remark describing the basic problem that he was having in his attempts to change the culture of the department: He bemoaned the fact that his hands were tied by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) and he simply could not act fast enough to discipline officers.
Under the LEOBR a police chief lacks the power to unilaterally impose discipline; before discipline may be imposed an officer has to found guilty of a disciplinary infraction by an independent hearing board, an uncertain process that can take many months to complete. Batts initially stated that he would seek changes to the LEOBR by the Maryland General Assembly but ultimately backed down under pressure from the FOP.
By June of 2015 Batts was under fire for his handling of the riots that followed the death of Freddy Gray in April and for a spike in the city’s murder rate, and he probably knew that his days as commissioner were numbered; in July he was gone. In June 2015 he wrote an op ed published by The Sun that sounded a lot like a parting shot, getting some unfinished business off of his chest.
In his op ed Batts stated that when he arrived at the BPD in 2012 he found a “cycle of scandal, corruption and malfeasance” that “seemed to be continuing without abatement.” He admitted that the problem had not been solved and predicted:
“Our reform efforts will very likely see more police officers arrested. We will have more officers who are forced out because their outdated, outmoded views of policing do not match the standards the community expects and demands.”
Batts was accused of melodrama and disloyalty to his officers because of his 2015 op ed. One thing he can’t be accused of was being wrong.
Ironically, in recounting the history of scandal and corruption in the BPD over the past decade in his op ed Batts referred to the cases of former BPD detectives William King and Antonio Murray who in 2006 were sentenced to hundreds of years in federal prison for robbing drug suspects. The scope of the activity for which King and Murray were convicted pales in insignificance to the scope of the crimes alleged in the indictments handed down last week.
(If you are interested in the history of scandal and corruption in the BPD to which Batts referred there was a recap of it done by Edward Erikson, Jr. in the City Paper in 2015.)
I have been writing about the deficiencies in the front line supervision in the BPD for two years, as I reviewed in my blog post on Sunday. One of my proposals was that the Baltimore city delegation get together with the city council and the Legislative Black Caucus to persuade the General Assembly to pass a public local law that would have the effect of removing BPD sergeants and lieutenants from the LEOBR and therefore allow the Commissioner to move more quickly in replacing inadequate supervisors with adequate ones. A bill like that affecting only the city might have a chance of getting passed. Instead, city and state officials have gone off in various futile directions.
If you are cynical enough you can even see the little political dance that goes on. Councilman Brandon Scott and other members of the city council persuaded Del. Curt Anderson to introduce a bill this year that would have made the BPD a city rather than a state agency, which would have solved absolutely nothing. The bill has been withdrawn, but Scott gets to tell the voters when he runs for higher office that “I tried.”
Mayor Pugh went to Annapolis this year to ask the General Assembly to pass a bill obviating the need for the city council to confront the FOP over the FOP’s reluctance to agree to placing civilians on police disciplinary hearing boards. Knowledgeable observers know that she is asking the General Assembly to do something that the city should do for itself; when the bill fails, however, Mayor Pugh will get to tell the citizens who strongly support civilian participation in the police disciplinary process that “I tried.”
These officials have “tried” alright – they’ve tried to persuade citizens that they are actually interested in solving the problems with the BPD when the reality is that they don’t really want to do the tough work and take on the FOP and its allies. It’s all political bullshit.
In the meantime Commissioner Kevin Davis is coping as best he can. He demoted the commander of the division of which the Gun Trace Task Force was a part, reducing him in rank from Chief to Lieutenant. The commissioner can demote a chief without going through the LEOBR but because of the Baltimore civil service system he can only reduce him to the rank of lieutenant – which is of course a supervisory position. Problem solved?
The commissioner also decided to eliminate another semi-autonomous unit, the plainclothes enforcement unit. Although the commissioner may have doubts about the utility of the unit the move also clearly reflects his recognition of the major problem that he has with command and control – he simply does not have enough reliable supervisors to deal with any more moving parts within the department than absolutely necessary. Davis is trying to reduce the department’s exposure to bad supervision by reducing the number of separate units that have to be supervised. I don’t think that is going to be enough.
If I have one criticism of the commissioner it is that he is not pressing the case strongly enough on the need to give him more authority to get rid of bad officers, particularly in the supervisory ranks of sergeant and lieutenant. Governor Larry Hogan has expressed his admiration for Davis; maybe it is time for Davis to sit down with the governor and ask for his support in making the necessary changes to state law.
The indictment of the seven officers should serve as a wake-up call that the “cycle of scandal, corruption and malfeasance” identified by Batts has not been broken. Indeed, if the allegations in the indictment are true it is the worst scandal in the BPD in recent decades.
Although the Majestic Auto Body kickback scheme involved far more officers the crimes committed in that scandal were child’s play compared to what allegedly went on in the Gun Trace Task Force. The task force allegedly engaged in the type of violent criminal enterprise usually found only in third world countries. Making things even more unsettling is the fact that some of the activity described in the indictment occurred after the BPD had come under heightened scrutiny following the death of Freddy Gray, underscoring the brazenness of the alleged conduct.
It appears to me that Davis is trying to deal with the BPD’s problems without ruffling too many feathers. I don’t believe that strategy will work.
March 8, 2017