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Baltimore officers guilty in corruption saga short on heroes

The Associated Press — By DAVID McFADDEN - Associated Press

BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore's latest police corruption saga could be tough to sell as a TV crime drama, short on heroes and too extreme to attract loyal viewers.

Detectives in an elite unit praised for taking guns off the streets secretly dedicated themselves to shaking down citizens and hunting for "monsters" -- bigtime drug dealers with loot to rob. Their leader, a sergeant with a golden-boy reputation and a sledgehammer approach to policing, kept actual sledgehammers -- along with grappling hooks, black masks, even a machete -- in duffel bags in his police-issued car.

Crossing the line from law enforcers to law breakers, members of the Gun Trace Task Force had become thugs with badges, stealing cash, reselling seized narcotics, sticking illegal GPS trackers on the cars of their robbery targets and lying under oath to cover their tracks.

Task force members who pleaded guilty months ago hoping to shave time off their sentences revealed these and other jaw-dropping details as two of their colleagues insisted on going to trial. The result: A jury convicted Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor of robbery, racketeering, and conspiracy on Monday evening, and they face up to 20 years on each count.

Even in a city all too familiar with abuses by law enforcers, the fallout from these stories of police criminality has been bad so far and the scandal promises to get a whole lot worse for Baltimore's already fragile criminal justice system.

Revealing police criminality stretching back to 2008, the four ex-detectives told jurors about everything from armed home invasions to staging fictitious crime scenes and routinely defrauding their department.

They testified that their supervisor, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, a former amateur mixed-martial-arts fighter, told them to carry BB guns in case they needed to plant weapons, conspired with a crooked bail bondsman, and occasionally posed as a federal agent when shaking people down.

Two of the detectives, Momodu Gondo and Jemell Rayam, admitted to leading double lives as police officers and armed drug dealers, even running interference for a heroin-trafficking ring run by Gondo's childhood buddy.

Public defenders are calling into question each and every case touched by the disbanded unit's officers, several thousand of them over the last decade. Currently, roughly 125 tainted cases involving the eight indicted Baltimore law enforcers have been dropped.

"Beyond the sheer credibility issues that should have been raised at the time, given how embedded their crimes were in their police work, all cases involving these officers are tainted," said Debbie Katz Levi, head of special litigation for Baltimore's Office of the Public Defender.

Police leaders have said the corruption revolved around a small group of rotten officers, but critics say the rogue unit was a product of the department's own deep flaws.

Last week, acting Police Commissioner Darryl DeSousa announced the creation of a Corruption Investigation Unit to probe not only the activities of the disbanded unit, but also that of a number of current officers whose names popped up during testimony. Days later, he said he was receptive to the idea of an outside review.

"We recognize that this indictment and subsequent trial uncovered some of the most egregious and despicable acts ever perpetrated in law enforcement," DeSousa said in a statement issued immediately after the Monday evening verdict.

He said he's committed to cleaning house, but it's an open question as to whether Baltimore's police force has enough integrity and resolve to expose other rogue officers. It was a federal investigation that brought these men down, and years of discriminatory and unconstitutional policing have led to court-ordered reforms, overseen by a monitoring team under a federal consent decree reached between Baltimore and the Justice Department.

"I'd be willing to bet that lots of people — not just one or two — but a number of people knew that there was something stinking and rotten about this unit. And they just chose to look the other way," said David Harris, who researches police behavior as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

On the courthouse steps, acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning said he's hopeful this case "will begin a long difficult process" of examining how the Baltimore force polices its own. "We hope that police officers live up to the honor and privilege of the badge," he said.

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David McFadden on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dmcfadd

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