Eight officers on the Baltimore Police Department's now disbanded Gun Trace Task Force have been indicted on federal charges, including racketeering, conspiracy and robbery. Out of the six who have pleaded guilty, four are cooperating with the government and crossing the fabled "blue wall of silence" to testify against their fellow officers.
Michael Pinard, a law professor at the University of Maryland, says their testimony over the last two and a half weeks mirrors the findings of a scathing US Justice Department report a year and a half ago.
"The overarching theme of the DOJ report is the Baltimore Police Department as an institution of culture violates the constitutional rights of those who are poor and black in the city," he said.
While some, including Acting Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, have argued that the cops involved in this scandal are not emblematic of the entire department, Pinard says the testimony points to systemic problems.
"There are some themes that we're seeing here," he said. "We often here about "a few bad apples" - that's a lot of a bad apples. And with the authority to shoot and kill?"
Momodu Gondo, a former member of the disbanded Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force, took the stand in the federal trial of two of his former mates in the task force Monday and for hours described how he and the others used their police badges to search homes illegally, detain citizens illegally, target people they thought had cash in their homes by illegally using GPS trackers on their cars.
Gondo is one of six officers who have pleaded guilty to charges, including racketeering, conspiracy and robbery. He is one of four testifying against Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor. “Sometimes, officers in the specialized units get their hands dirty,” he said.
Here’s a summary of Gondo’s testimony.
· He said he’d stolen approximately $100,000 from citizens since 2008 and named several officers who had been involved in robberies with him. One of them was Detective Sean Suiter, who was killed in November, the day before he was to testify before a federal grand jury in a case that involved planted evidence.
· He said Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere coached officers on what to say to the internal affairs officers investigating a 2009 shooting. Palmere denied the allegation to The Baltimore Sun and announced his retirement. He said the two have nothing to do with each other.
· Gondo said he and others stole drugs, guns and money from drug dealers re-sold the drugs and put the guns back on the street. If he arrested the drug dealer, he only entered part of the cash he took as evidence and pocketed the rest, knowing the drug dealer wouldn’t complain because the money was acquired illegally to begin with.
· Gondo admitted to tipping off drug dealers to police whereabouts. He said one, a friend he grew up with in West Baltimore, told him about someone who kept a lot of drugs in an apartment. Gondo put a GPS tracker on that person’s car so he could tell when the person wasn’t home. The he, former task force officer Jemell Rayam and Gondo’s friend robbed the home of money, heroin, jewelry, a watch, and a gun. Rayam is one of the officers who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government.
· He also testified that the officers regularly searched storage units where they believed dealers kept drugs. In one incident, he said, he and Det. John Clewell, the only member of the task force not indicted, went to get a warrant to search a unit and when they got back the discovered it had been “ransacked by Rayam and Hershl.”
· Gondo also said officers almost doubled their salaries by regularly falsifying timesheets and signing each other’s over time slips.
Momodu Gondo, one of the former members of the task force who is cooperating with the FBI, testified Monday in the trial of Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor that he and others frequently stole guns and drugs. He said they often sold the drugs back to drug dealers and gave the guns to friends who were drug dealers. And sometimes, he said, he would tip off those friends to police whereabouts.
Gondo also said he'd been falsifying reports and robbing civilians as a Baltimore cop for sixteen years. And he ticked off a list of officers he said he stole money with, including Sean Suiter, the homicide detective who was slain with his own gun in November the day before he was to testify before a federal grand jury in this case. His murder remains unsolved.
Some of the cops Gondo named are among those indicted, some are not and some are still on the force.
In addition, Gondo, the fourth officer to testify, said Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere, who has led plain clothes units, coached cops on what to say to the Internal Affairs Division of the BPD.
Palmere told The Baltimore Sun Monday that Gondo was lying and announced his retirement.
Baltimore Police spokesman T. J. Smith said in a statement that De Sousa "has formed a Corruption Investigation Unit that will be led by a Lieutenant Colonel. The unit will specifically focus on the actions of the Gun Trace Task Force."
He called the charges in the testimony "disturbing, unacceptable, and criminal."
"We are working diligently to investigate and hold those who tarnished the badge and violated public trust accountable for their actions," he wrote. "The citizens deserve better and the hardworking honorable men and women of this agency deserve better."
But D. Watkins, author and editor-at-large for Salon.com, says what he's hearing in this trial is very similar to what he experienced growing up in East Baltimore in the 1990s.
"When I was coming up, police officers used to tell us if you get caught selling drugs, give us a gun and we'll let you go," he said. "So some of us had stockpiles of guns and they were 'get out of jail free cards'."
In fact, he said, city police officers "have a reputation."
"We're seeing a small teensy glimpse into how dirty the department is."
He says when he and others like him tried to talk about the police corruption they saw - evidence planted on them or money stolen--their claims were dismissed by jurors, judges, and society.
"Everybody knows that if you black and you poor - and you in some kind of oppressive situation nobody cares about you," he said. "Not even the affluent black people with money - they're not listening to us."
The federal trial continues - with the Baltimore police in the national news - again.