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Former Baltimore Police Officer Criticizes 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 bustCatharine Robertson/Flickr

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.