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Court rules Baltimore Police Dept. responsible for Gun Trace Task Force officers’ crimes

April 24, 2020

In an important victory for police accountability, the Court of Appeals of Maryland unanimously ruled that Baltimore City and the Baltimore City Police Department are liable for the misconduct of officers in the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), who harassed, assaulted, and wrongly arrested two Baltimore residents. The BPD tried to avoid paying $64,000 in settlement money to the men by arguing that the officers were not acting in their capacity as BPD employees when they committed their crimes. The Court disagreed. The Court’s decision reflects an amicus brief filed by the PJC and allies, which asserted that holding the BPD and the City government liable would be the best way to ensure that the police department takes responsibility for rooting out officer misconduct 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.

Similarly, GTTF members allegedly planted a gun on William James after they pulled him over without reason and got upset when he couldn’t name a person with drugs or a gun. They arrested him, and he spent seven months in detention awaiting trial before being released. Mr. James later passed away for unrelated reasons, and his family sued the police department and City for the officers’ misconduct.

In their lawsuits after the GTTF scandal came to light, Baltimore City attempted to deny financial responsibility for the actions of its corrupt cops. After Mr. Potts sued in 2018, 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 argued that the City was attempting to shirk responsibility for the BPD’s toxic culture of policing. The GTTF officers were not “bad apples” – the BPD’s 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. In fact, BPD did not hold officers who committed misconduct accountable – it promoted them.

The PJC’s brief argued 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 do the work of retraining officers, creating a culture of transparency and accountability, rooting out officer misconduct, and 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.

The Court’s opinion acknowledged the brief’s arguments, writing that “By holding that the officers acted within the scope of employment, we ensure not only that Potts and James’s estate have a remedy, but also that the ultimate responsibility for the officers’ misconduct rests solely with the governmental entities that employed and supervised them — namely, the City and the Department.” While the decision does not create a bright-line rule to govern all GTTF cases, it still sends a strong message that the police department should be held accountable for its officers’ actions. We hope that the decision will help spur the BPD and the City to begin policing their own and repairing the mistrust between Baltimoreans and the BPD.