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Former Baltimore Police Officer Unloads On The Department’s Gang Database

A onetime gang liaison for the Baltimore Police Department writes that its database is racist and error-ridden.

A Baltimore Police unit on the scene of a bust
Catharine Robertson/Flickr

Former Baltimore Police Officer Unloads On The Department’s Gang Database

A onetime gang liaison for the Baltimore Police Department writes that its database is racist and error-ridden.

In September 2012, Anthony Batts became Baltimore’s 37th police commissioner and made combating gangs an immediate priority in his violence-reduction strategy. His decision came as the number of murders in Baltimore climbed from 197 in 2011—the first time since 1977 that Baltimore had seen fewer than 200 murders—to 217 in 2012.  Batts said that gang activity, specifically the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF)—which began as a prison gang in the late-1960s at San Quentin and eventually spread across the country—was a major contributor to a rise in drug-related violence. He accused the BGF of using force and intimidation to take control of Baltimore drug corners.

“The Black Guerrilla Family is trying to take over gang, drug-related territories,” Batts said in a statement at the scene of a deadly shooting in November 2012, that was suspected to be gang-related. “In order to operate, you have to pay them, and the BGF and Bloods now have a feud that’s taking place.”  

Some of us thought Batts was exaggerating a turf war because he was the police chief in the gang-heavy California cities Oakland and Long Beach before coming to Baltimore. But there had been an increase in traditional gangs moving into Baltimore like Bloods and Crips, which were very different from the small, neighborhood drug crews we were used to, like the McCabe Avenue Boys or the Old York and Cator Avenue Boys.

In early 2013, I became the gang liaison officer for the Baltimore Police Department’s Northern District.  (I worked for BPD for 18 years and quit in July 2017.) Batts created the position so that districts could share intelligence about gang members. Each of the nine police districts had at least one gang liaison officer. Part of my job was to identify suspected gang members, validate them and then enter their names into the department’s gang database. I looked at supposed gang identifiers like tattoos, certain colors of clothing or accessories, hand signals, street associates, or if someone had ever been arrested with other validated gang members. Meeting all of the criteria wasn’t required for validation. Any two were all it took to be deemed a validated gang member in the database, and meeting just one of the criteria was enough to be entered as an associate, someone who isn’t necessarily an active participant in the gang’s daily activities.  

If someone admitted to being a gang member, that was enough to validate them in the database. Also, if a credible source like a confidential informant, provided information that someone was a gang member, that was also enough to validate.

The more I used the gang database, the more inaccuracies I found. People appeared in it multiple times, sometimes validated as belonging to different gangs. Some were entered initially as associates and then later as validated members, without the older records being deleted. Misspelled names and incorrect birth dates were common, the kind of sloppy and lazy police work that could result in the wrong person being labeled a gang member or an actual gang member slipping by undetected.  

I entered around 50 new people into the database, either as validated members or associates. There were obvious and enormous racial disparities. Almost everyone I entered into the database was African American, as was the majority of the existing database. The few exceptions were white males who had been validated as members of Dead Man Incorporated (DMI),  a white prison gang that began in Maryland as allies with the BGF. Ironically, while BGF dominated most of the headlines, DMI pretty much stood alone when it came to acts of violence, operating within the penal system as a for-hire group of hitmen.

Then, in April 2013, federal authorities announced a sweeping indictment of 13 guards and incarcerated BGF members at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC), on charges including bribery, extortion, money laundering, and drug smuggling.

The BCDC indictment was headline-grabbing news in Maryland. Rumors began to circulate throughout BPD that the city didn’t want to look like it couldn’t handle the growing BGF problem. We heard that Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein and Commissioner Batts wanted their own BGF investigation so the Maryland Gang Statute could be used to charge several alleged BGF members as part of a larger conspiracy. Under Maryland Criminal Law Code 9-801, a gang is defined as “a group or association of three or more persons,” with a command structure, who engage in criminal activity, either individually or collectively, and have the commission of a crime as one of their primary goals.

Batts and Bernstein decided to concentrate on a “bubble” or “regime” of the BGF that had been active in the Greenmount West section of Baltimore dating back to 2005. The goal was to connect several prior and recent acts of violence to the group and charge them as a group for everything from dealing drugs, to robbery, to murder. A joint task force composed of BPD gang officers, homicide and shooting detectives, and ATF agents was created in June 2013. Leading the investigation was the state’s attorney office’s Major Investigations Unit, which at that time was headed by Thiru Vignarajah, who recently ran an unsuccessful campaign for Baltimore state’s attorney. Vignarajah is perhaps best known outside Baltimore for defending the conviction of Adnan Syed, subject of the “Serial” podcast’s first season, on behalf of the Maryland attorney general’s office. Syed’s case is still in limbo, but Vignarajah, now employed with the law firm DLA Piper, continues to controversially lead the state’s appeal efforts.

While the homicide and shooting detectives investigated specific acts of violence, I was part of a small team of officers assigned to listen to wiretapped phone conversations and prerecorded jail calls between suspected BGF members. I rotated between listening to prerecorded jail calls of members already in jail and listening to live calls via wiretap. The lead detective identified who he believed were the BGF’s top commanders and got a warrant for their phones, using numbers that were obtained either through arrest records or confidential informants.

Most of the calls I listened to were mundane and not of a criminal nature. The alleged leader of the bubble, Gerald “Geezy” Johnson, didn’t have a cell phone, so we convinced a judge to sign a warrant for his girlfriend’s phone. Many of the calls and texts I monitored on her line were people trying to make appointments to have their hair done. Occasionally other people would call and ask her “Where Fat Boy at?” an affectionate nickname that friends gave Johnson, who is listed in court records at 290 pounds. If they were together, she would hand the phone to Johnson. Conversations often focused on getting high together or planning a time to meet on the street. Another phone line I monitored was shut off because the target didn’t pay his bill, which considering that he was supposedly a high-ranking member of a gang, felt odd to me. The lead detective in the investigation then contacted the phone company and convinced them to reactivate the line for the duration of our investigation. That backfired because when the target realized his account had been reactivated without paying the bill, he dumped the phone.

I was also assigned to enter and validate our primary targets and their associates in the gang database. Using dummy social media accounts,  I monitored suspected gang members on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, with instructions to look for photos of members together, the use of hand signs or visible tattoos that could connect them to the BGF.  Some of the photos I used to validate members were months or even years old. When I came across one of our already validated targets in a photo with a group of people, I was often instructed to enter them into the database as associates. The connections between some of the guys were tenuous at best. We used old gang validation forms from the Maryland Department of Corrections, which used a different verification system, as a “reliable source” for validating people in our investigation. Some of these forms were years old—and being a gang member on the inside didn’t necessarily mean the person remained in the gang after being released.  

While preparing the BGF case for indictment in early October 2013, I noticed that another investigator had been printing out validation forms directly from the gang database and included them in the case file. I had been warned by a higher-ranking gang officer who trained me to use the database that that was a big no-no, because if those forms had been turned over during the discovery process, it would open the entire database, and all of its flaws and inaccuracies, to defense attorneys. I was initially the primary person validating the targets of the investigation, and I felt pressured to validate as many people as I could before the warrant expired and the case had to be presented to a grand jury.  Having a substantial list of validated gang members was vital to successfully indicting them them all as one entity.

On November 7, 2013,  Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake,  Batts, Bernstein, Vignarajah and other police officials held a press conference in Mund Park on Greenmount Avenue, the supposed central meeting spot for the BGF, to announce the indictment of 48 people. Thirty-eight were charged with conspiracy under Maryland’s seldom used gang statute.  The press conference felt like a pep rally.

“We’ve got to cut the heart out of these gangs, and we can’t do it with small arrests,” Batts stated. “We’re going to start taking the vicious, most violent people down one at a time. That’s where you’ll see the [crime] numbers start coming down.”

Despite Batts’s bluster, the city’s case against the BGF failed to be the catalyst for the crime reduction he promised: Homicides remained over 200 in 2013 and 2014, then soared to 342 in 2015. Over the course of the next few years, many of those cases were dropped or resulted in acquittals. One defense attorney representing an accused BGF member said that the state’s case against his client “was a disaster from start to finish. … They never established he had any real rank in the gang, never established that he had ordered anything to happen, never established that he participated in any murders. The jury acquitted him for a reason.” Even Johnson, the gang’s alleged leader, was found not guilty of murder, robbery, and drug charges in the State Circuit Court in October 2015.  

But a year later, Johnson wasn’t so lucky. In November 2016, Johnson and eight other men, who were the primary targets of our city investigation, were charged federally, for many of the same crimes. But this time, all were convicted or plead guilty. In April, a federal judge sentenced Johnson to life in prison on charges including murder and racketeering.

Many of the Baltimore officials who probably hoped to make the BGF case a résumé highlight are now long gone. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Commissioner Anthony Batts in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death and the Baltimore uprising, and then decided not to seek a second term. State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein lost his re-election bid to Marilyn Mosby in 2014, a young, private insurance attorney with just five years’ experience as a prosecutor. And Assistant State’s Attorney Thiru Vignarajah moved on to the attorney general’s office.

As for me, I left the BGF Task Force investigation in October 2013, when I transferred into Baltimore Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division. The  member and associate validations were completed by someone from the main Gang Unit, and I was never called to testify at any of the trials or court proceedings.  I never followed up with any of the people I entered into the gang database to see if they had become former members. I also never followed up on any of the people already in the database to see if their statuses needed to be updated. I wasn’t instructed to, it was never discussed, and to the best of my knowledge, no one in the department did either  – the veracity of the gang database didn’t seem to be of concern to anyone at the police department. This isn’t unique to Baltimore; questions have been raised about the accuracy of gang databases in New York and Chicago. In the eyes of these police departments, it seems, once you’re in a gang (database), a gang member is all you’ll ever be.

Expert: Crime registries turn people into pariahs with 'very little to lose'

New types of registries are being created around the country, despite research showing they don’t work.

A sign posted in Wapello, Iowa, in response to Megan's Law
Bill Whittaker/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Expert: Crime registries turn people into pariahs with 'very little to lose'

New types of registries are being created around the country, despite research showing they don’t work.

On November 19, 2009, Brittany Passalacqua and her mother, Helen Buchel, were found brutally murdered, slashed multiple times with a boxcutter, in their Geneva, New York, home. Prosecutors charged John Brown, Buchel’s boyfriend at the time, with the two murders and won the case.

Buchel’s family members say they were unaware of Brown’s criminal history, which included a conviction for injuring his baby daughter in 2003. After their daughter’s murder, Buchel’s family began to organize for a new registry for New York State, one that would track people convicted of domestic violence-related felonies. Since 2011, the New York State Legislature has considered the proposal—called Brittany’s Law—and every year, including this one, it has failed to pass. Yet, Buchel’s family is undeterred.

While public sex offender registries are now required by federal law, other registries for people who have committed certain types of crimes—such as domestic violence or drug-related crimes—are on the rise. They are seen by some victims’ rights advocates as a way to protect the community. But, criminal justice advocates argue that the registries are just another way to assert control over people who have already served their time. With registries, the collateral consequences of incarceration can extend indefinitely.

The sex offender registry as we now know it was born of a law that required states to keep lists of people convicted of sex crimes against children. At the time, it was seen as a necessary tool for law enforcement and was part of a crime package signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Megan’s Law, which expanded the 1994 law to require registries open to the public, was signed in 1996. And 10 years later, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which codified and strengthened the registry requirement. (Adam Walsh’s father hosted “America’s Most Wanted.”)

Now, everyone could know who had been convicted of sex crimes, which includes not just sexual assaults, but sex with underage youth and viewing child pornography. People on the registries face a variety of restrictions: They must register regularly and cannot live in certain areas (usually within a certain distance of a school, playground, or daycare), and they cannot take certain jobs. Their pictures and addresses are available for anyone to find on the internet. Many on the registry can’t find housing and become homeless. Some have also been the victims of vigilantism.

Yet, several states seem intent on expanding registries to people found guilty of other crimes. At least five states (Montana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois and Indiana) have violent offender registries; Ohio is contemplating one. Some states have them for meth (Tennessee and Kansas), others for drunken driving (Ohio’s has over 5,000 people on it). Florida has a “career offender” registry for people convicted of three violent crimes or who have been designated a “habitual violent felony offender” by a state court. Some jurisdictions require registration for narrower categories of offenses like violent crimes against children or animals.

Most of these registries don’t have the same types of restrictions as sex offender registries—they rarely limit where one lives or works, for instance—but they still hold consequences. For example, some require that registrants, even those convicted as teens, update their addresses every year and pay a fee or risk having their probation revoked. And, as with sex offender registries, those listed have their names, addresses, places of employment, and sometimes pictures posted online.

Like the registry proposed under Brittany’s Law, nearly all registries are inspired by horrific crimes. In Oklahoma, for example, the violent offender registry was born out of a man’s gruesome murder of his elderly neighbor; the victim’s children argued that they should have been able to find out that their mother lived next door to someone convicted of manslaughter.

But do these registries work? It’s not clear how many people altogether are in these databases, nor how regularly they are maintained and updated. Although there has been little analysis of these new registries, specifically, a growing body of research reveals that there’s little to no proof that sex offender registries protect people as envisioned. J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School who has studied sex offender registries, told The Appeal that, even though there is a modicum of evidence that public registries may have some deterrent effect on potential offenders, any benefit is more than offset by the increased recidivism risk from those who are publicly listed. Public registration exacerbates known criminogenic risk factors (like poor housing, unemployment, social isolation and poverty), and larger public registries appear to result in more rather than fewer sex crimes.

“Knowing whom an offender is or where an offender lives might give a few people a leg up at protecting themselves,” Prescott said. “But almost everyone on a public registry is transformed into a pariah and has very little to lose, and so is at higher risk of reoffending.”

Even Patty Wetterling, the mother of Jacob Wetterling, whose efforts after the 1989 abduction and death of her son helped lead to the sex offender registry, now says that she thinks the list is counterproductive. She told APM Reports, “Locking them up forever, labeling them, and not allowing them community support doesn’t work. I’ve turned 180 (degrees) from where I was.”

One group opposing Brittany’s Law was the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which surprised some of the bill’s proponents. The coalition issued a statement arguing that domestic violence registries offer a “false sense of security” and that such registries “are reactionary rather than preventative” because they ignore the complex psychology behind domestic abuse. Prescott agrees, pointing out that in most cases, domestic violence victims don’t need more information about abusers, but rather help escaping dangerous situations.

But, perhaps the most significant strike against registries is the damage they do to the people on them, who have done their prison time and are trying to reintegrate into society. Vincent Brumley was put on a registry after being released in 2015 from an Illinois prison where he served time for his participation in a kidnapping and homicide.“That’s all they see me as,” he said in a 2016 interview. “They don’t know what I was convicted of, or if I was guilty. I did my time. Why hold me back?”

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Pretrial Detainees Are Being Billed For Their Stay in Jail

In jurisdictions across the country, people incarcerated before they've ever been convicted of a crime are charged a daily fee just for sitting in jail—and several courts have ruled that the practice is legal.

Shelby County Justice Center in Memphis
Raymond Boyd/Getty

Pretrial Detainees Are Being Billed For Their Stay in Jail

In jurisdictions across the country, people incarcerated before they've ever been convicted of a crime are charged a daily fee just for sitting in jail—and several courts have ruled that the practice is legal.

On any given night, it is estimated that nearly half a million people who haven’t been convicted of a crime are sleeping in local jails. The vast majority remain behind bars because they can’t afford to pay bail.

But in many parts of the country, pretrial detainees are also charged a daily fee. In these jurisdictions, being too poor to get out of jail doesn’t just mean weeks or months of incarceration before their case is adjudicated—it can also mean hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees ostensibly meant to defray their detention costs. Of the criminal justice system’s many fees, pretrial jail fees are among the most pernicious because they are overwhelmingly billed to poor defendants, creating a cycle of debt that can lead to more jail time.

Policies regarding jail fees—sometimes referred to as “pay to stay”—vary from state to state and even across counties. Some fees are instituted by state law. In Virginia, local authorities are allowed to charge detainees up to $3 per day; in North Carolina, fees are set at $10 per day; in Kentucky, people can be charged up to $50.

In other jurisdictions, local governments decide how to charge pretrial detainees. In Shelby County, Tennessee’s largest and most populous county that includes Memphis, people are charged $38 per day while they await trial.

Such fees are often waived or refunded if a defendant’s charges are dismissed or if they are acquitted at trial. Judges can also waive the fees if they determine that a defendant will be unable to pay them. Still, pretrial jail fees are assessed by the millions every year.

Nashville recently eliminated its $44-per-day fee, a move led led by Metro Council Member Freddie O’Connell who called it a “non-sentenced form of financial punishment.” The city’s pretrial fees were both punitive and hardly worth the trouble in financial terms. During a three-year period ending in 2017, Nashville collected just $533,873.42 of the $11,411,448.55 in pretrial jail fees billed to defendants. So, the city simply saddled thousands of low-income residents with debt while collecting little in the way of revenue. And the fees led to extraordinarily damaging consequences for pretrial detainees, such as the suspension or revocation of their driver’s licenses. (That won’t happen anymore in Tennessee. On July 2,  a federal judge ruled that the state’s law revoking driver’s licenses from people who can’t pay court costs is unconstitutional.)

Worse, in many states, pay-to-stay fees are taken out of a prisoner’s commissary account—or the fees are so significant that upon release detainees are left with a large bill.

Pretrial jail fees have been challenged on the basis that they punish those who have been charged but not convicted of a crime, although several courts have upheld them as constitutional. In 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Virginia’s pay-to-stay fee, ruling that it didn’t constitute punishment violating a pretrial detainee’s due process rights. Similarly, in 2013, a U.S. District Court judge in Wisconsin ruled that Brown County’s $20-per-day fee did not violate the due process rights of a man who racked up $9,160 in fees between his initial booking until his transfer to the state prison system.

“We have had an expanded criminal justice system over the last 25 years and governments have funded mostly police and prosecutors,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, “[but] they they have not funded in equal amounts jails, courts or public defenders. So we now have a situation in which the criminal justice system as a whole is crumbling under the pressure of volume without resources. The only silver-lining in that is that because there aren’t really additional resources, the only option is to shrink the system.”

Burdeen adds that pretrial jail fees are just one part of a constellation of fines and fees faced by people ensnared in the criminal justice system. Criminal defendants, she says, can be charged for booking, their stay in jail, medical care, even the cost of a public defender. “If you’re trying to fund the local criminal justice system on the backs of the people who are using it, they’re not voluntary users,” she says. “These are people coerced into the system through tickets or traffic stops or, yes, arrests. But we also know that we’re not arresting people in gated communities at the same rate we’re arresting people in poor neighborhoods. So you’re trying to fund the criminal justice system on the backs of the people who are least likely to be able to afford it.”

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