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“They were Both Cops & Robbers”: Baltimore Police Scandal Exposes Theft, Cover-Ups & Drug Peddling

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In Maryland, closing arguments are scheduled to begin today for two Baltimore police officers who are part of what has been described as one of the most startling police corruption scandals in a generation. The officers were part of an elite plainclothes unit called the Gun Trace Task Force—but, according to prosecutors, the unit acted more like a criminal outfit. In his opening argument during the trial, the lead federal prosecutor, Leo Wise, said, “They were, simply put, both cops and robbers.” According to prosecutors, the officers stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from city residents. They broke into houses. They stole drugs and then gave them to drug dealers. They carried BB guns that they could plant on people they shot. Six members of the task force have already pleaded guilty. We speak to Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to what’s been described as one of the most startling police corruption scandals in a generation. In Baltimore, Maryland, closing arguments are scheduled to begin today for two Baltimore police officers who face racketeering conspiracy and robbery charges. The officers were part of an elite plainclothes unit called the Gun Trace Task Force, but, according to prosecutors, the unit acted more like a criminal outfit. In his opening argument during the trial, the lead federal prosecutor, Leo Wise, said, quote, “They were, simply put, both cops and robbers.”

According to prosecutors, the officers stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from city residents. They broke into houses. They stole drugs, then gave them to drug dealers. They carried BB guns that they could plant on people they shot.

Six members of the task force have already pled guilty. Baltimore’s state’s attorney has already dropped at least 125 criminal cases related to the task force, but many more convictions have been called into question.

To talk more about this massive police scandal, we’re joined by Sherrilyn Ifill. She’s president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

SHERRILYN IFILL: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Sherrilyn. Explain what’s going on in this Baltimore courtroom.

SHERRILYN IFILL: You know, Rachel, you—I mean, sorry, Amy, you explained so beautifully the scope of the case, but I think I want to zero in on some of the points that make this really unique. So, first of all, remember, this case was brought by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general to Mr. Sessions. Right before he left being the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, this is the case he brought. And he used—said the exact same line, Amy, that you just said, that this is about cops who are also robbers. He brought the indictments against the six officers in this elite gun task force unit. So, that’s important to remember, first of all, that this was the Republican U.S. attorney, now working for Sessions, who brought this case.

And then all of the things that you described make this case really important. And it’s important because we’re right in the process of Baltimore launching this process, this consent decree process, that comes as a result of the pattern-and-practice investigation from the Department of Justice two years ago. And as we launch this consent decree process, we are hearing the revelations of this gun task force unit. This is so important, because what we’re hearing from these officers, who are testifying, is precisely what we’ve been hearing from community residents about the reality of cops who are corrupt on the Baltimore police force. You described it: robbing residents, robbing drug dealers. You know, we heard about kids being arrested on dirt bikes when they’re 8 years old. It turns out these officers were selling dirt bikes. They were engaged with bail bondsmen in Baltimore County, across the city limits, to engage in this drug activity.

And then, even more startling, one officer, who was scheduled to testify the next day in the trial involving this case, was killed, was killed in a Baltimore alley. The first reports were that he was murdered. As you can imagine, this set the town on edge. Then it was unclear whether he was murdered. Then it’s possible that it was a suicide. The Baltimore City Police Department asked the FBI to get involved. The FBI refused to get involved. This officer was killed the night before he was to testify in this trial. And we just learned this week, one of the officers testified that he used to steal money with this officer who was killed. So we have an unsolved police killing. We don’t know whether it was murder, we don’t know whether it was suicide. We have all of these revelations. And we have this process, this moment in which Baltimore is supposed to be transforming its policing through this consent decree.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how long this went on for.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Years. Some say it may have been up to 10 years, but some say at least five years, that this was going on. And that’s why it’s important, Amy, because this was not uncovered by the Baltimore state’s attorney. This was not uncovered by City Hall. This was not uncovered by Internal Affairs. In fact, the police officers who testified this week said that Internal Affairs was just part of the culture. This was only uncovered by a federal investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department. So the questions on the table for us have to be, Amy: What are the structural changes that the city is prepared to put in place? Not only because of the consent decree process, but because there seemed to be no way to find out that this kind of criminality was happening within the police department.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you keep mentioning the consent decree.


AMY GOODMAN: And consent decrees are under siege all over the country—

SHERRILYN IFILL: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —during the Trump administration. Explain what it was—


AMY GOODMAN: —what this is.

SHERRILYN IFILL: So, the consent decree came as a result of the federal investigation—this is under the Obama Justice Department—of the Baltimore Police Department. They laid out a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing in the city, and then negotiated with the city, said, you know, “We’re suing you,” and negotiated with the city an agreement, a consent decree, which is a federally supervised settlement. And that consent decree is supposed to do certain kinds of things that will transform policing in Baltimore.

But in the meantime, we had a new election, and Mr. Trump came into office. And his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, doesn’t believe in consent decrees. And, in fact, right up at the moment that the consent decree was to be fully approved by the federal judge, Sessions tried to pull out, tried to pull out of the consent decree process. In fact, we tried to intervene in the case, to make sure that this process would go forward. The judge, to his credit, would not allow the Department of Justice out. They said, “You negotiated the consent decree. You’re staying in this.” So, we’re very closely monitoring this process to make sure that the Department of Justice does its job, but also to make sure that the city and the Department of Justice are taking all of this into account in terms of thinking through what kind of transformation is needed in Baltimore.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the state’s attorney now—


AMY GOODMAN: —dropping 125 cases and looking into many more.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Well, think about all of the people who were arrested as a result of the officers in this task force. All of those convictions, all of those pleas—I mean, even if you weren’t convicted, you’ve got an arrest record. All of that has to now come into question. And so, the state’s attorney has a big job in front of her to deal with that.

We also have one other shoe that hasn’t dropped in this case yet, Amy, which is quite shocking. The reports are that there was an assistant state’s attorney that tipped off the officers that they were under investigation. We haven’t heard the name of that assistant state’s attorney yet, but that’s yet another issue that has to be dealt with.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Well, how did the officers find out? At some point, the officers found out that the feds were looking into this, although, I have to say, the officers engaged in this conduct even during the federal pattern-and-practice investigation. That’s how bold they were. But at some point, it’s reported that—

AMY GOODMAN: And these, the officers on trial, are Detective Daniel Hersl—

SHERRILYN IFILL: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —and Detective Marcus Taylor.

SHERRILYN IFILL: That’s right. They wouldn’t accept the plea. And so, the question is: Who tipped them off? Who tipped off the group of officers that they were being investigated? And the rumor is that there was an assistant state’s attorney that tipped them off. We haven’t heard the name yet. We haven’t had confirmation of that. But that would, once again—here’s something that ostensibly doesn’t even fall within the bounds of the consent decree, but that has to be taken up.

So, there are a lot of different proposals in Baltimore right now, that Baltimore needs a police commission, that, first of all, we need a full investigation and a scrubbing from top to bottom, a Knapp Commission for Baltimore. Many people are suggesting that, that we need an ongoing commission that oversees the Baltimore Police Department, that it can’t just be the one police commissioner.

But, you know, one of the things that’s most important, Amy, here is, people have to learn, out of this case, that you have to listen to the community. People in the community have been talking about the officers in this force, have been talking about the kinds of corruption that’s now being confirmed, and they were disbelieved. And so, when people looked at the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray and said, “Why are people tearing up their own community? Why are people responding in this way?” And many of us were saying this reflects the frustration of years of this community. This reflects the frustration of not being heard. This reflects the frustration of not being believed. This reflects the frustration of not believing that police officers in their community, at least all of them, are fully engaged in public safety.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is the city of Freddie Gray.

SHERRILYN IFILL: This is the city of Freddie Gray. So, for those—you know, I tweeted out this week, you know, “Where is the national media on this?” Because, you know, the national media descended on Baltimore when the unrest was happening, to find out, you know, what was going on and why were people so-called rioting, and, you know, the language that was used to describe these young people, that they were “thugs” and so forth. But now, when we get this really important piece of the puzzle to explain what really was happening in these communities, the national media is not in Baltimore. They’re not there to get the answer.

And so, I think this case is so important because, to the extent that we’re looking at this around the country, issues of policing and the need for policing reform, Baltimore provides a perfect place to look at it. Look, this is not just about the community. This is also about officers. If you’re a—you know, we talk about good apples and bad apples. If you’re a good apple, I mean, when—what we’re hearing this week, the revelations in this trial, suggests that no good apple could prevail in that environment. In fact, there’s one officer who was a new recruit, new trainee, went out and—went out with one of these seasoned officers. And when it was clear that he would not rob drug dealers, he was no longer asked to be part of the task force. So, police officers themselves, to those who have integrity and those who believe in public safety, should be interested in this case, should care about this and should want change to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: You also tweeted, as you castigated the national media, saying, “Where are you?” you said that this corruption trial “has the potential to reframe our entire natl conversation abt. law enforcement & minority communities.”

SHERRILYN IFILL: Absolutely, because, as I suggested it, it confirms so many things that the community had been saying over years. And the reframing that needs to happen is to bring those voices to the table, to allow those voices to have air, to let them be believed, that communities are a key part of the public safety narrative. Without question, Baltimore has been besieged by violent crime over the past few years. And I’ve been saying for some time that until we resolve the issue of policing and trust between—the distrust, the legitimate distrust, that many members of the community have for law enforcement, we can’t deal with issues of public safety. And this demonstrates the way in which communities have been preyed upon by officers in ways that make them unwilling to trust the police. They will not call and say, “This is what I saw.” They will not be witnesses. They will not trust those who claim they need their help to solve crimes. So, until we deal with that issue, until we deal with the legitimate distrust of the community towards law enforcement, because of officers like those in this task force, we can’t get to the kind of public safety outcomes that everyone wants.

AMY GOODMAN: Your organization has just sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice about Baltimore and about the lack of training that’s been exposed by an academy instructor. Explain what’s going on.

SHERRILYN IFILL: OK, here’s the other shoe that drops. If you can believe this, Amy, last Friday, the officer charged with training the police recruits in legal standards that govern their conduct announced on Friday that a third of the recruits set to graduate that weekend, last weekend, had failed the tests, the basic scenario training tests, that govern their knowledge of the legal standards under which they are to operate. That is, probable cause for arrest and so forth. A third of the recruits. Now, this is not Sherrilyn Ifill who said this. This is the officer charged with training the recruits, who rings the alarm bell and warns that a third of them are not ready. They graduate anyway, on Saturday.

And so, we sent a letter to the Department of Justice, we sent a letter to the mayor, saying, “No officer who has failed the test of constitutional policing should be patrolling our streets. This is not fair to the community. It’s also not fair to those cadets. Retrain them. Train them until they can pass the test.”

Instead, what they did was they gave them an older, less rigorous test, so that they could all pass. This is the kind of thing that—this is happening while this trial is happening, while we’re moving forward with the consent decree. And part of what we asked for is we want to integrate all of these processes. We want to bring this all to the table. This is a difficult job for the mayor, a difficult job for the new police chief, without question, a difficult job through this descent decree. But it begins with confronting the problem. And the problem is not just that there’s violence in the community, which is how it’s too often framed by city leaders. The problem is that there are also problems in the police department. Even the Fraternal Order of Police came out the same day and said, you know, officers need better training to meet these constitutional standards. This seems—

AMY GOODMAN: They actually thanked the academy instructor.

SHERRILYN IFILL: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: His name, Sergeant Josh Rosenblatt.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Rosenblatt, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s quoted in The Baltimore Sun as saying, “We’re giving them a badge and a gun”—


AMY GOODMAN: —”tomorrow, … the right to take someone’s life”—

SHERRILYN IFILL: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —”if it calls for it, and they have not demonstrated they can meet [basic] constitutional and legal standards.”

SHERRILYN IFILL: Can it be—can it be more condemning? I mean, what a line. That comes out of the police department, not from the outside. And so, to me, that’s a cry for help. For him to publicly say that, he is ringing the alarm bell, that even the police union can hear, that anyone can hear. And yet those officers graduated anyway.

And so, our letter really demands that the mayor and that the police chief deal with these officers, make sure that they’re trained properly, re-examine the training that they’re even providing, and be able to say to the community of Baltimore that we have put no officer on the street who has not been fully and adequately trained and who has not demonstrated his or her competence in understanding the laws that govern their conduct. A badge, you know, a shield, a gun, a Taser, pepper spray—these are the instruments, the implements, that we give these individuals to walk through the community.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there are so many cases here, and so many you’ve been involved with. This is from WBAL. Former Baltimore Police Detective Momodu “Gondo also said Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere coached officers on what to say after a fatal shooting in 2009. Former gun squad Detective Jemell Rayam shot and killed Shawn Cannady after a traffic stop. Gondo said Rayam said it was a close-range shot, and Rayam was heard to say: 'I just didn't want to chase him.’”

SHERRILYN IFILL: Yet another case. And that deputy commissioner resigned this week. He says it’s unrelated to this. He says he did not coach this officer. But, yes, Shawn Cannady was killed. Turns out it was at close range. Shockingly, his family received only a $100,000 verdict in their wrongful death suit—yet another revelation that came out of this trial. I mean, this is—I don’t know how to even describe the depth of corruption that we have heard and lawlessness that we have heard in this trial.

And this should be echoing throughout the nation, not to dump on Baltimore, to recognize that the community has legitimate concerns, that this is a law enforcement apparatus that needs real help, and really to reinforce for us something that you raised, Amy, the importance of a federal presence. This would not have come to light without that investigation by Rod Rosenstein, by the U.S. attorney, that would—

AMY GOODMAN: By the man who’s under serious fire by President Trump right now.

SHERRILYN IFILL: That’s right, under serious fire right now. This would not have—we would not have an apparatus for transformation without this federal consent agree, that came as a result of the pattern-and-practice investigation by Loretta Lynch, when she was attorney general. This all has come as a result of federal intervention.

And yet we have a president and attorney general now who have put the brakes on it. They have turned off the tap on pattern-and-practice investigations, and they will no longer use their resources to engage in those kinds of investigations in communities, and no longer even work with police departments cooperatively, as they had been doing in some jurisdictions. You might have seen that San Francisco, in the city of San Francisco, the state attorney general is now taking over the policing reform apparatus, because the Department of Justice has kind of withdrawn. So, this narrative about what it really takes to transform police departments, and the critical importance of federal intervention, is part of the story of Baltimore, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And also you have this year the enormous rise of activism, people at the grassroots trying to hold those accountable. And just this past weekend, you have, in Baltimore, organizers of a grassroots [anti-]violence effort in Baltimore declaring a successful ceasefire—


AMY GOODMAN: —this past weekend. So, while some Baltimore police are on trial for acting like criminals, street organizers are keeping the peace? Explain what this ceasefire is.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Well, Amy, this is an incredible movement that has sprung up from the grassroots in Baltimore, community leaders just saying, “No more.” It turns out, third time’s the charm. This is the third time that Baltimore Ceasefire has attempted to have a ceasefire weekend. The first two times, unfortunately, there were killings that happened during those weekends. But nevertheless, it was important for community leaders to speak out, to come out, to say, “We won’t have it.” And this time, 72 hours, no murders. This was really important. And, you know, it shows that the community and their own vision of what their community can be is an important part of the public safety equation. It’s not just about police officers. It’s about community activism. It’s about communities taking control of their neighborhoods, as well.

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