Guest Commentary: Independent Panel Needed on Police Corruption
By Dan Sparaco
The last police corruption scandal the size and scale of what’s been discovered in the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force involved a cop named Mikey Dowd in East New York’s Seven-Five.
There’s a movie about it, and in describing Dowd’s thieving from drug dealers and dealing of drugs himself, and his creation of a blue mafia running NYPD’s 75th Precinct, the cops interviewed in that movie sound a lot like the cops on the stand in the trial of detectives Danny Hersl and Maurice Taylor in Baltimore.
Dowd’s crimes, coming to light in the bad old days of high-crime New York, were a gut-check moment for that city’s leadership in the early 1990s. The crimes of the cabal lead by Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, in one of the Baltimore Police Department’s “elite” squads, should be the same for Baltimore’s leaders. But so far, the response from Baltimore simply pales in comparison.
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) said earlier this month the department is moving in the right direction because she removed a commissioner (with no history with the criminals in the Gun Trace Task Force), and replaced him with a new one (who can’t say the same).
The few weeks of Commissioner Darryl De Sousa’s tenure have been less than promising: An apparently aborted purge (the fabled “glitch” that turned off a variety of command staff cell phones). Leadership announcements made then reversed (because of past corruption of a major appointee insiders knew about and leaked). A raft of new units creating more, not better oversight of overtime and police behavior.
De Sousa also proposes a second “inspector general” – in addition to the one the city already has, to be housed in police headquarters. As if anyone could have any faith in the Baltimore Police Department’s ability to investigate itself at this point.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board recognizes the problem and has ever so slowly begun to turn against Pugh. But on the issue of police reform, the paper’s editorial board has latched onto the idea of putting civilians on the trial boards that adjudicate cases of police misconduct.
All well and good, but it’s just window-dressing. One person, likely to be out-voted in every close disciplinary case, sitting at the small end of a very large funnel of unchecked police activity on the street (which could be honorable, heroic or otherwise, but on a daily basis is essentially unknown to most of us who rely on the department to function).
Baltimore can’t look to its new consent decree monitor as an anti-corruption tool because it was not approved by Maryland’s federal court do to this job. The Gun Trace Task Force racketeering conspiracy is not a matter of training or policy or differing interpretations of the Fourth Amendment. It is activity we already know is illegal, living at the heart of the department’s operation, management and street-crime strategy.
A more drastic solution being bandied about locally is only viable on social media. We are not about to “disband” our police department – certainly not as long as city hall contends everything is fine, and certainly not after key city council members (including a newly minted candidate for lieutenant governor) have staked their own reputations on the success of Police Commissioner De Sousa. (Maybe he can succeed. We can only pray that he does, and that the early missteps are just the result of a rash, still unexplained decision to get rid of his old boss.)
Those who think we can just make our police department disappear don’t tell us what we should do with the 3,000 people currently working there, and shockingly, propose no way to figure out who is corrupt, and who isn’t, to find the systemic faults, and retain those who have been doing their jobs in good faith.
A recent op-ed in the Sun exemplifies this position. It calls for the creation of a mythical peacebuilding authority from the rubble of the police department that would be disbanded. It’s a rebranding proposal. Nice optics, maybe. A potential win, just like putting a civilian on a trial board. But it’s not real reform or an anti-corruption plan. (And by the way, all of it is premised on having to “rethink our relationship with Baltimore’s police union,” as if that would be some polite exercise.)
The same author’s take on this issue a year ago sensibly described the obstacle to real change – the fact that Baltimore city’s police department is an agency of the state, thanks to political decisions made 150 years ago. The details are not relevant. What’s important are the laws that prevent the city’s mayor and city council from passing any law or taking any action that directs or impedes the commissioner in his or her management of the department. All the mayor can do is fire the commissioner if she disagrees with him (as recently demonstrated).
There is currently a resolution kicking around the city council (18-0067R) that asks lawmakers in Annapolis to let the city control its police department, but by creating something well short of modern-day executive accountability. The resolution seeks to create a board of police commissioners on the grounds that other cities “have long had direct civilian oversight of their police departments” through similar boards. But to say these artifacts of 19th-century governance were designed for “civilian oversight” as we understand it today is an historical stretch. Almost as old as the laws giving the state control over the Baltimore Police Department, these boards as they exist today create a political buffer between the police and elected officials.
We don’t need a new bureaucracy with a patina of citizen control to oversee the trial board system Baltimore already has, hamstrung by the same Byzantine collection of legal protections that make it difficult for any police commissioner to carry out appropriate discipline. There is no point in taking back control now if it means leaving in place the legal regime that makes reform so difficult. (A smarter take on “disbanding” sees this as the real issue.)
There are a couple bills in Annapolis seeking changes with our police department, but a year after the Department of Justice sounded its alarm, they are laughably modest. One calls for audits. Baltimore has plenty of unfinished audits already, and we really don’t need another one to decide we have a problem. Another requires police districts to be redrawn every ten years. Frankly, 10 years hence feels like a future we cannot even imagine. (And strangely, for all the talk of reform, the mayor has not asked her colleagues in Annapolis to make any change that would give her control of the police department, or reform the disciplinary process.)
It’s time for adult supervision.
We need help from those in Annapolis who truly love Baltimore, to do here what New York did in 1992, after the 75th Precinct’s Mikey Dowd was caught. In New York, then-Mayor David N. Dinkins (D) created the Mollen Commission, to investigate and root out corruption. It got staff and funding. We can’t do this in Baltimore today because our mayor and city council don’t have the power. Annapolis does.
Baltimore needs a commission – independent from city hall, independent from the police department, accountable to the state, and fully funded by it. The commission needs full power to subpoena and review the disciplinary files of any and all police officers, any internal affairs file and any court file. It needs the power to interview any and all witnesses and to hold hearings in which lying is punishable with prison. It needs to determine the scope of the corruption and recommend how the department should be managed with integrity in the future.
And it needs to be led by someone of stature and unquestioned qualification. If he’s interested, Judge Robert M. Bell comes to mind. The Bell Commission. Nice ring.
Debating the fine points of district boundaries or audit schedules is like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. And we’re clearly not ready to answer the bigger questions about police discipline, political accountability or department structure going forward.
To the leaders of the city’s delegation to Annapolis: please help. We’ve already hit the iceberg.
Dan Sparaco is an attorney and former assistant deputy mayor of Baltimore.