December 20, 2019: Who polices the police? This is the question facing the Maryland Court of Appeals as it considers who is responsible for the crimes of the Baltimore City Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. In a December amicus brief, the Public Justice Center and allies argued that holding BPD and the City government liable would be the best way to ensure that the police department takes responsibility for rooting out the misconduct of their officers and promoting the systemic changes necessary to correct the toxic culture of policing.
The GTTF was an elite plainclothes unit of the BPD whose members used their authority to conduct illegal searches, rob residents, sell drugs, plant BB guns as fake evidence when they shot unarmed people, and make false overtime claims. They targeted people they knew would be disbelieved, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars through their crimes. Ultimately, eight officers were indicted and convicted of racketeering in a federal investigation.
Ivan Potts was one of the GTTF’s victims. In 2015, three GTTF members arrested Mr. Potts. He alleged that GTTF officers slammed him to the ground and planted a gun on him to incriminate him. Despite his accusations, the court did not believe him and sentenced him to eight years in prison based on the GTTF members’ testimony. When Mr. Potts sued in 2018, Baltimore City attempted to deny financial responsibility for the actions of the corrupt cops. The City stated that the BPD and the City’s taxpayers should not be financially responsible for any verdict against GTTF officers because “[w]ith malice, pursing their own interests, they were not acting as police officers for Baltimore City.”
The Public Justice Center, ACLU of Maryland, Baltimore Action Legal Team, and the Youth, Education, and Justice Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law challenged the City’s assertion in a bold amicus brief. Authored by PJC Murnaghan Fellow Dena Robinson, the brief argues that the City is attempting to shirk responsibility for the BPD’s toxic culture of policing. The GTTF officers were not “bad apples” – the BPD system of policing functioned exactly as designed. Officers were trained to secure arrests by any means necessary. When officers reported misconduct internally, they faced retaliation. Often officers who committed misconduct against residents were not held accountable – they were promoted.
The PJC’s brief argues that Baltimore City and the BPD must be responsible for policing the police because applicable law and departmental culture prevent meaningful external oversight. Only BPD can hire and retrain its officers. Only BPD can create a culture of transparency and accountability instead of one of retaliation. Only BPD can effectively root out officer misconduct. Only BPD can do the hard work of repairing community-police relations. Holding the City and police department liable for the GTTF’s actions is the best way to incentivize the systemic changes that are needed and create an effective system of policing that the public can trust.