By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
As the mayor conducts a national search for a new police commissioner, the damage done to the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), by a series of ongoing scandals has prompted much soul searching among politicians and activists alike.
Recently, Commissioner Darryl DeSousa resigned after he was charged with failure to file tax returns for three years. And the fallout over the crimes of the Gun Trace Task Force continues to grow, as federal prosecutors are now investigating almost a decade’s worth of past crimes of the disbanded unit convicted of stealing overtime and robbing residents, among other crimes. The killing of Detective Sean Suiter, while he was on duty, last year remains unsolved.
But, some say the seemingly intractable corruption is rooted in past mistakes; specifically, several pivotal failures to demand accountability of the BPD that is now coming back to haunt City Hall.
Councilman Brandon Scott (D-2), has been one of the most vocal critics of City Hall’s inability to hold the department accountable. Chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, for years Scott, also a candidate for Lt. Gov., has been an advocate for more civilian oversight of police. But it was in 2012 he says, that a failure to act on allegations of mishandling of police overtime pay may have set the stage for later problems.
“That was the starting point for me,“ Scott said.
The allegations focused on two commanders of the controversial now defunct unit called VCID (Violent Impact Crimes Division), a plain clothes unit that was later the subject of multiple brutality lawsuits. Two supervisors, Deputy Majors Robert Quick and Ian Dombroski were accused of receiving overtime pay that their rank precluded them from earning.
The State’s Attorney Office opened an investigation and the offices of VCID were raided. But, then State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein promptly shut down the investigation and Janet Bledsoe, the prosecutor who led it was forced to resign.
It was a critical moment for Scott, who was outraged by Bernstein’s actions and called for intervention by the Council. However, nothing happened, the first in a series of lapses he thinks coddled a culture within the department that led to more intractable problems later.
“For me if we would have handled that case better, we may have been able to deal with the Gun Trace Task Force earlier,” Scott said.
Since then Scott has tried to push legislation in Annapolis that would, among other things, change the police department from a state agency to city control. It is a move that would allow the Council to actually shape policy through legislation, not just advocate for change.
But, each time he has tried to push bills aimed at police reform, including a relatively modest move to overhaul the antiquated system of nine police districts, Scott has been rebuffed.
“If a bill about police redistricting can’t even get a vote in the Senate, it tells you something is wrong and that there are other forces at play,” said Scott.
But, the problem of a police department operating with little or no oversight goes back further, activists say.
“I think the chickens have come home to roost,” former NAACP Baltimore Chapter President Marvin ‘Doc’ Cheatham told the AFRO.
Cheatham points to the aftermath of the settlement won by the ACLU and his organization after they sued the department over its mass arrest policy in 2006.
The lawsuit accused the department of illegally arresting tens of thousand of African-Americans under then Mayor Martin O’Malley. As part of the settlement, the department agreed to turn over arrest reports so that the plaintiffs could monitor compliance. But, Cheatham says from his perspective, the BPD failed to follow through.
“None of us would have thought they would not have complied,” Cheatham said.
“But they did not comply with 80 percent of what they agreed to.”
Ten years later Cheatham says he was not surprised when the Department of Justice (DOJ), found the department engaged in unconstitutional tactics aimed primarily at African-Americans. The findings were part of a scathing report that set the stage for the current consent decree between the DOJ and the city.
“Had we been a little more careful to make sure they complied, maybe we could have avoided some of the problems now,” Cheatham says.
“I think maybe we were too overjoyed we won the case.”
The implications of the failure of the BPD to make promised reforms is not limited to curtailing abuse, Cheatham says. Lax oversight has also caused problems with the troubled agency’s ability to fight crime.
“We have 14 open air drugs markets in the Matthew Henson Easterwood neighborhood. We told the police about it and nothing has happened.” Cheatham said.
“They blame the consent decree, but it was the same before they signed the agreement. Nothing has changed.”