Feds: Criminal officers stole from the innocent in Baltimore

U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein speaks at a news conference in Baltimore, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, to announce that seven Baltimore police officers who worked on a firearms crime task force are facing charges of stealing money, property and narcotics from people over two years. Standing alongside Rosenstein are Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Kevin Davis, back left, and Special Agent in Charge Gordon B. Johnson of the FBI's Baltimore Field Office, right. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

BALTIMORE (AP) – Seven Baltimore officers were so unfazed by U.S. Justice Department scrutiny of abusive policing that they kept falsely detaining people, stealing their money and property and faking reports to cover it up, according to a damning federal indictment released Wednesday.

Federal prosecutors announced charges against seven officers in Baltimore, where a consent decree approved in the final days of the Obama administration obligates police to stop abusive tactics and discriminatory practices, including unlawful stops of drivers and pedestrians.

U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said the investigation began about a year ago, and that his office has “quietly dropped” five federal cases brought by one or more of the officers. In a statement, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said the charges will have “pervasive implications on numerous active investigations and pending cases.”

The announcement comes just one day after newly minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated that intense federal scrutiny of police might hinder their crime-fighting ability. Sessions suggested that his Justice Department might “pull back” from civil rights investigations involving police departments.

Rosenstein has been nominated for deputy attorney general.

“I know the attorney general is committed to prosecuting criminals, whether they’re in police organizations or anyplace else, so I’m confident we have his support,” Rosenstein said.

The indictment describes a criminal enterprise that began in 2015, when the city was rocked by civil unrest following the death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody that April. Weeks later, the Justice Department began a “pattern and practice” investigation of the city’s police force. Intense reform efforts followed, including the expanded use of cameras to record police interactions.

In August 2016, Justice Department’s released a scathing report detailing systemic failures, including excessive use of force, illegal stops, inadequate oversight and a dearth of training.

By then, federal agents had spent months following officers assigned to the Gun Trace Task Force, a squad formed to reduce violent crime by tracking and removing illegal guns from the streets.

The officers charged with racketeering are detectives Momodu Gondo, Evodio Hendrix, Daniel Hersl, Wayne Jenkins, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor and Maurice Ward. Gondo also is charged with participating in a drug conspiracy. All were arrested, suspended without pay, and jailed overnight pending detention hearings on Thursday.

These officers “arrogantly” ignored clear directives, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said.

In September 2016, Gondo was recorded telling Rayam he had switched off his body camera before hitting a cellphone out of a woman’s hand.

“I turned the camera off,” Gondo said.

“Oh yeah, f*** that s***,” Rayam said. “So, basically it’s like you were never here.”

The explosive indictment reads more like a Hollywood movie script than a routine charging document, as the feds followed what they described as a squad of renegade officers committing brazen robberies and staging cover-ups to avoid detection by their supervisors.

“These officers are 1930s-style gangers,” said Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. “They betrayed the trust we’re trying to build with our community at a very sensitive time in our history.”

Those scenes included:

– Three of the officers stopped a man on the street, searched his car without a warrant, took him home and stole $1,500 he had earned working as a maintenance supervisor at a nursing home. Rayam then allegedly wrote a false incident report, not mentioning the stolen money, and Jenkins approved it.

– Five of the officers stopped a man leaving a storage facility, lied that they had a search warrant, and then stole $2,000 from a sock containing $4,800. Federal authorities were listening: inside an electronically surveilled police car, Rayam was recorded telling Gondo he’d only “taxed” the man “a little bit.”

– Four of the officers arrested a man during a traffic stop and confiscated drugs and $21,500, but turned only $15,000 over as evidence. Then they went to the man’s home and stole $200,000 and a $4,000 wristwatch from a safe deposit box.

The officers also routinely filed for overtime pay for hours they didn’t work, the documents allege. Jenkins filed for five days when he was on vacation with his family, and other officers discussed going to a casino or a bar on days when they filed for overtime pay.

Rosenstein also announced a second indictment charging a drug conspiracy. In it, Gondo is accused of dealing drugs and protecting his operation by tipping off drug dealers about law-enforcement tactics.

“This is not about aggressive policing, it is about criminal conspiracy,” Rosenstein said.

Davis acknowledged that much work must be done to right wrongs inside the department.

“We wouldn’t be under a consent decree if we didn’t have issues,” he said. “We have issues.”

Davis said other officers weren’t surprised when they learned who was indicted, since several of them have been the subject of numerous misconduct complaints and civil lawsuits alleging abuse.

Gene Ryan, Baltimore’s police union president, issued a statement saying he’s “disturbed” by the charges. He declined to make other comments.

DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist from Baltimore, said the charges are disturbing, but also encouraging.

“It is promising to see the beginning of accountability being applied to the Baltimore Police Department,” Mckesson said. “The indictments confirm what activists and community members have been saying for decades.”

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