Years After Freddie Gray’s Death, Baltimore Police Misconduct Persists
A new report de-anonymizes hundreds of officers in the city and shows more than 1,800 cops have had complaints filed about them.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland published a report today detailing continued officer misconduct in the Baltimore Police Department, despite promises of reform following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
According to the report, complaints were submitted about more than 1,800 officers between 2015 and 2019, a period that coincided with a Department of Justice investigation and the implementation of a federal consent decree. More than 400 officers have been “the subject of at least one complaint of physical violence against a member of the public.”
A complaint is any allegation of misconduct submitted by a resident or internally by the department. The report notes that a complaint “does not imply that the officer has committed a crime, or that the officer committed the offense for which the complaint was submitted if it is not listed as sustained.” The report only lists officers with 15 or more complaints.
According to the police department’s data, available through the law enforcement transparency tool Project Comport, officers who had complaints had an average of 6.5 complaints each between 2015 and 2019. In the past 12 months, about 20 percent of officers have received complaints, according to the data. The department has about 2,600 officers.
The report also documents use-of-force incidents among officers, or each time an officer used force, which could mean anything from restraining someone to discharging one’s weapon. Over 90 percent of officers’ use of force between 2015 and 2019 was targeted toward Baltimore’s Black residents, who account for more than 60 percent of the city’s population.
“Although a few officers will undoubtedly continue to be arrested and charged with criminal behavior,” the report reads, “countless others will escape responsibility, and be known as a danger only to those in the neighborhoods they patrol.”
The report, written by ACLU of Maryland public policy counsel Joe Spielberger, makes officers already notorious in Baltimore’s overpoliced yet underserved communities known to the world. In Maryland, where even basic information about an officer’s internal affairs file is shielded by the state’s Public Information Act, the report is a rare accounting of misconduct.
Using anonymous complaints and use-of-force incidents that Baltimore police uploaded to Project Comport, Spielberger was able to identify and name specific officers with misconduct complaints by cross-referencing the data with news articles, court databases, and other publicly available information.
“Although Project Comport was only able to release a fraction of BPD’s internal affairs data, I was still able to comb through and analyze more than 13,000 misconduct complaints, and more than 22,000 use-of-force incidents,” Spielberger said. “And I found that by sorting by an officer’s identifying number, their unit, personal characteristics, and circumstances around a specific incident, I could identify them by cross-referencing with other sources.”
The Appeal has reviewed the report and detailed some of the allegations against a number of officers named in the report.
Steven Mahan is among the officers with the most complaints—86 over the five-year period Spielberger looked into.
Mahan was implicated in a 2016 arrest that made headlines the following year, after body-worn camera footage of the arrest was released to the media. Defense attorney Joshua Insley identified Mahan in the video, which shows officers including Mahan searching a car for drugs, finding none, and turning their cameras off. Thirty minutes later, their cameras are turned back on after and an officer is then seen finding drugs in the car. Mahan still works for the Baltimore Police Department.
“It’s cyclical: BPD has aggressive cops who get caught and they pretend to go into reform mode and soon people forget about it and they do it again,” Insley said.
Another officer involved in that arrest was Charles Baugher, who according to the ACLU report, has had 48 complaints, including seven excessive force allegations. A 2017 federal lawsuit filed by Baltimore resident Charles Feagin alleged that in 2015, officers including Mahan and Baugher punched, tackled, and slammed Feagin to the ground during an arrest. Baltimore settled the lawsuit, paying out $15,000 in January 2019.
This month, on Jan. 8, Baugher was indicted on two counts—for second-degree assault and misconduct in office—as a result of a 2019 incident in which he allegedly grabbed a 17-year-old by the neck and pushed him against the wall and slammed him to the ground. The teenager was recording an arrest. Baugher is currently suspended with pay.
According to Open Justice Baltimore, a nonprofit group focused on using data analysis to increase police accountability, Mahan and Baugher have worked on 402 cases together.
Like Mahan and Baugher, former Baltimore police officer Joseph Donato is well-known to residents who have encountered him and to the defense attorneys who represent them. Between 2015 and 2019, Donato has had 66 complaints—11 of them involving excessive force—according to the report.
In 2017, public defender Deborah Katz Levi obtained Donato’s Internal Affairs file and cross-examined him during a pretrial hearing in which many complaints against him were made public for the first time. Among them was a case in 2009 where Donato allegedly entered a man’s home without a warrant and, according to the man, beat him with a walkie-talkie. Photos taken after the incident and presented to Donato in court show the man with his chest and jeans drenched in blood.
“The records that were admitted in court at least demonstrated a pattern of abusive conduct, a pattern of bias, a pattern of violence, and instances of failing to report misconduct,” Levi told The Appeal. “That’s what the records showed and what was not regularly disclosed.”
Donato was subpoenaed more than a dozen times after failing to appear in court for subsequent hearings and left the police department soon after the hearing. Misconduct complaints against Donato continued to be submitted after his departure.
Another former officer Levi frequently confronted in court is Fabien Laronde, who between 2015 and 2019, had 52 complaints, according to the ACLU report. Thirty-five of those complaints were sustained, three of them for assault and three for theft.
Laronde was fired in 2016 after information pertaining to his records was exposed—and after attempting to record someone inside the courthouse who was testifying against him.
“Once we got to the records, they finally terminated Laronde after that,” Levi said. “It just goes to the point that exposing this misconduct is what’s going to help eliminate it.”
Valentine Nagovich, who according to the ACLU MD report had 21 complaints with eight sustained between 2015 and 2019, often worked with Laronde: Open Justice calculates Nagovich and Laronde had 92 cases together. In 2006, Nagovich was suspended for “improper handling of property” when suspected drugs were found in his police jacket. In 2013, Nagovich was sued along with Donato over a warrantless search. A federal judge described Nagovich and Donato’s actions as “unacceptable behavior by members of the Baltimore Police Department.” Nagovich remains on the force.
According to Open Justice, Nagovich and Donato had 272 cases together.
It's cyclical: BPD has aggressive cops who get caught and they pretend to go into reform mode and soon people forget about it and they do it again.Joshua Insley, defense attorney
The report cites a 2019 study conducted in Chicago that found “officers who are partnered or in units with officers who have high numbers of excessive force complaints are more likely to receive such complaints themselves in the future.”
Indeed, seven of the eight members of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force now serving federal prison sentences are named in the report for their high number of complaints. Members of the task force were federally indicted in 2017 for robbing citizens, stealing drugs, and dealing drugs. Wayne Jenkins, the task force’s sargeant who is currently serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison, is listed as having 227 complaints with 36 of them sustained, including six for false imprisonment and four for theft.
“You look at this report and there are these officers that everybody’s known about for years,” defense attorney Ivan Bates, who ran for state’s attorney in 2018, told The Appeal. “And the thing that’s always gotten me with BPD and the state’s attorney’s office: You know about these officers, do something.”
The report also names police officers whom activists have been trying to expose. In 2018, in the aftermath of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, the police abolitionist group Baltimore Bloc released a list of officers that it believes should also be investigated. That list included Jorge Omar Bernardez-Ruiz and Edward Creed, both of whom are also in the ACLU of Maryland’s report.
Bernardez-Ruiz, who had 18 complaints between 2015 and 2019, was involved in the high-profile death in police custody of Tyrone West in 2013 and just weeks before West’s death, the beating of Abdul Salaam. Last year, a 2016 video of Bernardez-Ruiz surfaced showing him kneeling on a man’s neck and removing his gun from his holster as a crowd of people gathered. In July, the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office said it would review the video and the police department said it would investigate Bernardez-Ruiz, who was promoted to sergeant in 2020.
According to the report, Creed had 56 complaints. In October 2017, Baltimore City’s Civilian Review Board investigated a complaint based on a video that “revealed sever[e] misconduct,” according to the board’s meeting minutes. Additional Project Comport data, provided to The Appeal and de-anonymized by Spielberger, appears to show the complaint was against Creed for false arrest and planting evidence. A person familiar with Creed’s cases also verified the complaint was about him. Internal Affairs investigated and found these accusations “unfounded” but the review board noted “that the officer had a negative reputation in the community,” and recommended Creed be terminated. In 2018, Internal Affairs investigated Creed for abusive/discriminatory language and excessive force, but found the complaint unsustained. The board, however, recommended termination again. He was not fired and remains with the police department.
Creed has frequently worked with Sharod Watson, who according to the report has had 40 complaints between 2015 and 2019. Watson is also one of the few cops named whose record is explored further in the report. The report notes that in 2017 Watson “lied on the witness stand by falsely claiming to have seen a defendant ‘on a daily basis’ and witnessing him selling drugs, even though the defendant was already in jail at the time.” Watson admitted under oath that what he said was “factually impossible.” Internal Affairs investigated the perjury complaint and ruled it was not sustained. Watson is still with the department.
According to Open Justice, Creed and Watson have worked 401 cases together.
The report also challenges claims that the “bad apples” are on their way out and rookie training is different and more effective.
Arthur Williams received 24 complaints in just one year and three months with the force. In the summer of 2018, Williams was recorded beating a man in East Baltimore. He resigned after the video gained national attention and was later found guilty of second-degree assault and official misconduct.
Another officer listed, Luke Shelley, joined Baltimore police in February 2016, less than a year after he was deployed to the city as a member of the National Guard during protests over Freddie Gray’s death. Shelley was profiled by Baltimore’s ABC affiliate and held up as an ideal new recruit for a department marred by poor morale, corruption, and low enrollment.
“I want to be where the challenge is and where the need is for good police,” Shelley told the station.
According to the report, Shelley has had 28 complaints as well as 67 use-of-force incidents over three years and eight months.
“It is only the names that change,” the report says. “The cycle continues, uninterrupted.”
Following the release of the report, the Baltimore Police Department provided a statement to The Appeal challenging the report. BPD spokesperson Lindsey Eldridge told The Appeal that the report “misidentified” allegations by referring to them as complaints. She also noted that the report included complaints, regardless of whether the department found them unfounded, not sustained, or exonerated.
Eldridge also said that the department “cannot confirm” the report’s methodology but would be “reviewing all of its contents.” The department will not be releasing information about any of the officers named, she said, citing the Maryland Public Information Act.
“While it is certainly important to identify officers who should not be on the force,” Spielberger said of his report, “the larger goal must be to transform the whole system of policing to prevent further harm.”
Toward that goal, the report says, “contact-tracing research would help identify newer officers who are more at risk of causing harm because of working alongside seasoned officers with high complaint totals.” It also recommends improvements to the police department’s early intervention system, or EIS.
EIS is supposed to flag cops who accrue misconduct complaints in order to curb bad behavior, but the report says the system remains “inadequate at intervening with problematic officers.” One example the report gives is Akeem Nelson who “had a sustained DWI complaint in 2015, and remained on the force after subsequent complaints for excessive force, sexual misconduct, and theft before he was arrested for a hit-and-run in March, 2020.” Nelson remains a Baltimore police officer.
Officers who should have been flagged by the EIS generated more than a fifth of allegations submitted between mid-2018 and the end of 2019, the report says. BPD did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment about EIS and why officers named in the report remain on the force.
The release of the report is timed to coincide with Maryland’s legislative session, which began Wednesday. Spielberger encourages legislators to “reform the Public Information Act” and “repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights,” or LEOBR, controversial legislation that allows police officers unprecedented workplace protections.
This session, Delegate Gabriel Acevero is sponsoring bills that would change the Maryland Public Information Act and repeal LEOBR.
“LEOBR deals with protecting officers. [The Public Information Act] reform deals with how police agencies do their jobs, what kind of info is accessible to the public,” Acevero said. “Access to police misconduct records would not only provide the public and communities with relevant and important info about those policing their streets but would allow for the rooting out of the problem officers.”
Both Spielberger and Acevero cited as a model New York’s 2020 repeal of the section of the Civil Rights Law that shielded police misconduct records. An October poll by Goucher College showed that 87 percent of Marylanders “support creating a record of police misconduct cases that would be available to the public.”
Levi has long argued that much of what is considered “personnel records” should be public.
“People refer to these as ‘confidential personnel records’ and they don’t really know what’s in them and what’s in them is patterns of abuse, patterns of deceitful conduct,” Levi said. “These are not records that in anyone’s imagination we would want to protect from the general public.”
The information contained in the ACLU of Maryland’s report could be easily available if police were compelled to release it. For now, it only exists because of Spielberger’s months of data-crunching and database cross-referencing.
“I hope that this report helps reinforce and validate the experiences of Black residents and communities in Baltimore City who have known the names of BPD officers and what they’ve done,” Spielberger said. “Even though internal departmental policies and practices have not held them accountable.”
Update: This article was updated to include the number of police officers employed by Baltimore Police Department and to include BPD’s response to The Appeal’s requests for comment.