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Notoriously Brutal, Racist Plainclothes Policing Makes A Return In Baltimore

After the Gun Trace Task Force scandal rocked the police department, plainclothes policing was spurned. But a recently resigned commissioner championed plainclothes units, a decision the department seems to be sticking with.

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, April 26, 2018.Baltimore Police Department

“The number one thing you will see,” Baltimore’s new police commissioner Darryl De Sousa promised at his introductory press conference earlier this year, “is more police officers on the streets in the community in uniform. They are going to do proactive, constitutional policing.”

De Sousa’s announcement about an increased uniformed police presence came in the wake of former commissioner Kevin Davis’s decision in 2017 to disband the department’s plainclothes units because of the arrests of seven members of an elite squad of Baltimore Police Department officers known as the Gun Trace Task Force, or GTTF, on federal charges of robbery, theft, extortion, and drug sales. The GTTF was one of the many “proactive” specialized units tasked with targeting gun offenders and violent crime generally. Without the task force on the street, gun arrests in the BPD’s Operational Intelligence Division (OID) plummeted by nearly 70 percent from the unit’s indictment in March 2017 through November.  

The indicted GTTF officers either entered guilty pleas or were convicted at trial. The loss of these elite officers as well as the purported decline of their style of proactive policing has been lamented by cops and criminologists alike as a driver for the increase in the murder rate in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore. In 2016, Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told Time magazine, “There was less proactive policing, criminals were not being confronted by police routinely, and violence and murders went up.” A recent USA Today article, which also quoted Moskos, pointed to the decrease in officer initiated actions between the years 2014-17 as a sign police were being less proactive in Baltimore City.

Such stats—and a rise in violent crime—led Mayor Catherine Pugh to fire Davis and replace him with De Sousa, a champion of proactive policing, in January. So in addition to considering a return to plainclothes policing, De Sousa created the Mobile Metro Unit, also referred to as the “10th district.” (Baltimore has nine permanent patrol districts.)  The officers in the Mobile Metro Unit wear full uniform and drive marked police vehicles, but they don’t operate as normal patrol officers who perform tasks like answering radio calls and taking reports. Instead they are deployed to “hot spot” areas known for violence and drug dealing, and they respond to shootings or homicides. This is the same function plainclothes units served prior to being disbanded.

Then, in April, De Sousa created a new plainclothes unit called the Anti-Crime Section, which comprises  two sergeants and 12 officers divided between the east and west sides of Baltimore. The public learned about the Anti-Crime Section only last month, after one of the unit’s sergeants, Larry Worsley, was arrested for a DUI-related accident in an unmarked departmental vehicle while he was off duty. (In May, De Sousa resigned after being hit with federal charges for failing to file tax returns; the department is now headed by Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle). 

Plainclothes cops like the Anti-Crime Section or the GTTF before them are known as “knockers” and “jump out boys.” They wear street clothes and tactical vests emblazoned with POLICE on the back and they patrol hot spots. Jump out boys are exactly what the name implies: a group of plainclothes cops who will pull up to a corner full of people, jump out of their vehicle and search them. Their tactics and style of policing have a notorious history in Baltimore. One of the GTTF’s favorite tactics, for example, was the “door pop,” which meant driving an unmarked vehicle quickly toward a group of people, slamming on the brakes, popping open the doors and then chasing anyone who ran. When GTTF members Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor went to trial in federal court in January on charges including racketeering and robbery, one detective testified that the unit would conduct door pops up to 50 times a night.

De Sousa’s plainclothes Anti-Crime Section proves that proactive policing hasn’t disappeared even after De Sousa’s resignation in May when he was charged federally for failing to file tax returns (the department is now headed by Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle.) Indeed, after “disbanding” plainclothes units after the GTTF scandal, Davis created new uniformed specialized units called District Action Teams (DAT). There are DATs assigned to each of Baltimore’s nine police districts. Baltimore’s police districts and their focus remains on gun arrests, so the units were new in name only. Before they were referred to as DAT, the district units were known as “flex squads.” Flex squads, which operated in plainclothes, were a source of serious misconduct allegations for over a decade. In June 2009, Detective Jemell Rayam, later one of the indicted GTTF officers, was assigned to the Northern District flex squad when he was accused, along with two other officers, of stealing $11,000 in cash during a car stop.  In July 2013, Abdul Salaam accused two members of the Northeast flex squad, Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Omar Bernardez-Ruiz, of beating him up after a traffic stop. Seventeen days later, Chapman and Bernardez-Ruiz were present when Tyrone West died during a struggle with police who attempted to arrest him after a traffic stop. The officers didn’t face criminal charges for either incident and were cleared by internal investigators of any policy violations. So simply placing officers like Chapman back into uniform didn’t change their tactics. The problem is the officer wearing the uniform, and perhaps the institution of policing itself, not the uniform (or lack thereof).

When I was a police officer in Baltimore, I worked in a proactive specialized unit called the Special Enforcement Team (SET) from 2006-08. The unit was made up of two uniformed and two plainclothes squads. We were encouraged to make as many arrests as possible during our shifts. The ultimate goal was a gun arrest, but a high quantity of any arrests would do. One summer night I arrested 10 men at once for trespassing on the steps of two vacant rowhomes, city-owned properties marked “No Loitering/No Trespassing.” Police officers have wide discretion in dealing with many crimes, especially minor ones,  so I could have issued these men citations, or done nothing at all. But when I worked with SET, I felt pressured to make as many arrests as possible. We stopped just about every adult we saw on the street to check their names for open warrants. We conducted car stops with the intended goal of searching the vehicles. Most of our car stops were done at night, since that’s primarily when we worked, so we would look for minor infractions like broken headlights or tail lights. The most common reason we used to search a vehicle was the “freshly burned scent of marijuana.”  Later in my career, from 2013-16, I was an Internal Affairs detective and I investigated officers in these specialized units for misconduct allegations like the planting of evidence, lying in search warrants, excessive force, and theft. Shortly before leaving Internal Affairs, I handled a case against an officer who would later be arrested as part of the GTTF. In March 2016, the GTTF’s Wayne Jenkins confronted me in the parking lot of the Internal Affairs office over another officer I was investigating. That officer was later terminated.

Like the GTTF, earlier iterations of units like De Sousa’s Anti-Crime Section were involved in troubling incidents. In 2013, Detective Kendall Richburg of the Violent Crime and Impact Section (VCIS), another plainclothes unit, was indicted on federal gun and drug charges. On a wiretapped phone call, Richburg discussed planting evidence and setting up people to be robbed—a precursor to the GTTF scandal. Just before Richburg’s arrest the unit was renamed the Special Enforcement Section (SES), but retained many of the same officers. VCIS had come to the attention of the city council because of their tactics and volume of complaints.  One of those officers was Fabien Laronde, who had a well-documented history of alleged misconduct including a questionable shooting, stealing, and witness intimidation. He was the subject of civil lawsuits alleging illegal strip searches, assault, and even illegally detaining a man inside a courthouse. BPD terminated  Laronde in 2016. Before his firing, Laronde said of the complaints against him that “it goes along with the type of proactive work I do.” And before his assignment in the Anti-Crime Unit and his recent arrest, Larry Worsley was a District Action Team supervisor; he also worked with Wayne Jenkins of the GTTF and Laronde in the SES. On July 25, the police department announced the arrest of Officer Spencer Moore, once a colleague of Richburg’s in VCIS, on drug trafficking charges.

These units operate the same way: Small groups of handpicked officers, who are expected to be aggressive and proactive, target high-crime areas of Baltimore and produce a large amount of stops, arrests, and gun seizures. This is “proactive” policing, and no matter what acronym the BPD comes up with, the tactics don’t change. Unfortunately for the community, neither do many of the officers.