The police department responsible for the suspicious death of Freddie Gray in 2015 is in the midst of a startling corruption case.
It began in 2011, when a 19-year-old woman overdosed in Harford County, Maryland and authorities traced the drugs back to a Northeast Baltimore drug crew. During their investigation, authorities found that a Baltimore police officer was actively involved with this crew. This led to the group of officers at the center of the scandal: Baltimore’s elite Gun Trace Task Force. Created in 2007, the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) was established to fight crime and combat the city’s rising murder rate. Early on, city leaders celebrated the task force and the high amounts of firearms and drugs it reported to confiscate.
Former Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, who was promoted to supervisor of the GTTF in 2016, is the subject of many startling accusations. Jenkins, who joined the Baltimore police department in 2003, has a history of questionable and even criminal behavior as an officer preceding his role as task force supervisor.
In 2008, Jenkins was the subject of a civil settlement in which the city paid $75,000 to a man who accused Jenkins of striking him while standing outside of a bar in 2005.
In 2010, Jenkins planted heroin in a suspect’s car and duped Det. Sean Suiter into finding them. The suspect in question was sentenced to 15 years on a drug charge, serving seven of them before being released upon the revelation that the evidence had been planted by Jenkins. Just one day before Suiter was scheduled to testify before a grand jury regarding the GTTF, he was killed. While no arrests have been made regarding Suiter’s death, the timing of his death is certainly suspicious.
In a 2014 incident, a second officer chased a suspect on foot while Jenkins followed the suspect in a police car. Jenkins would go on to run down the suspect with his car, claiming to have seen the suspect carrying a gun. The man was not carrying an actual gun but in fact a BB gun. The suspect sustained minor injuries and was released from a hospital after a few hours. All of the charges from this incident were later dropped.
Remember, all of this occurred before Jenkins was chosen to head the GTTF. This calls into question the motivations of higher-ups in Baltimore’s police department. Jenkins clearly should not have continued to be called as a witness by prosecutors or allowed to work on Baltimore’s streets, much less selected to lead an elite task force.
The new testimony regarding the day-to-day behaviors of the GTTF is almost hard to believe. The stories include everything from racketeering to extortion to fraud, highlighting the seriousness of the corruption present within the Baltimore police force.
First, there is the overtime fraud. The officers of the GTTF earned hours and hours worth of overtime pay that they did not work. Collectively, they swindled the city of Baltimore out of almost $400,000 dollars with some officers effectively doubling their yearly salary.
In 2016, Jenkins, who had an annual salary of $85,406, was awarded $83,345 in overtime pay. Detective Daniel Hersl, another member of the task force, had an annual salary of $77,591 but earned $66,602 in overtime pay. These are just two examples. Every officer on the task force earned tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay. Officers have now testified that they were at casinos, on vacation or even taking a month off to redo their home, all while charging for overtime.
This practice of billing for unearned overtime was not, however, restrained to the GTTF. In court testimony, Lt. Theodore Friehl reported that the practice of awarding officers unearned overtime pay was commonplace as far back as 2008. Friehl, who works in human resources, revealed that officers would be given a “gun day,” or eight hours of overtime pay, for confiscating a handgun off the streets.
Not only was this widespread, but Det. Evodio Hendrix, a member of the task force, testified that former police commissioner Kevin Davis was aware of the practice, going as far as to encourage it. In court, Hendrix confirmed that when “Jenkins told Davis he was giving overtime for guns,” Davis’ response was, “Good job. Keep up the good work.”
Still, none of this begins to touch the abusive and discriminatory behaviors practiced by the GTTF under Jenkins’ reign.
Among Jenkins’ favorite practices were stopping “dope boy cars” and men over the age of 18 who happened to be carrying a bookbag. Det. Maurice Ward, another task force member, testified that Jenkins would profile cars, pulling them over on falsified circumstances.
Another technique Jenkins employed with alarming frequency? Driving fast towards groups of men then slamming on the brakes, just to see who would run. The officers would then chase down anyone who ran, detaining and searching people for no reason other than the fact that they had run from a car speeding towards them. Ward testified that on slow nights, officers would do this anywhere from 10 to 20 times. On fast nights, they did this as many as 50 times.
More troubling still are the reports of the GTTF robbing drug dealers and innocent citizens alike.
In one case, officers took a man’s keys, looked up his address and broke into his home without a warrant. Inside the home, they found drugs and a safe containing $200,000. They proceeded to remove half of the money from the safe, then close it. Using a cell phone, they staged opening the safe “for the first time,” finding only $100,000. Later at an officer’s house, Jenkins gave $20,000 each to other officers involved in the robbery.
Furthermore, Jenkins listened in on the calls the man they had robbed made from jail. The man knew the officers had taken his money and was arranging to hire legal counsel with his wife. Wanting to cut his wife out, Ward testifies that the men “wrote a note purporting to be from another woman, saying the man had gotten her pregnant” and left it at the home for the wife to find. Jenkins later contacted Ward and Hersl about robbing the same man again and the three men met at an apartment to plan the robbery.
This was far from the only case in which Jenkins, along with other officers, robbed citizens. In another case, Jenkins admits stealing 50 pounds of marijuana to resell. In yet another instance, Jenkins heard that other officers searched a car and found $35,000 but let the driver go because nothing illegal was found. Jenkins placed an illegal GPS tracker in the car, then later had someone return to the car to steal the money.
As the supervisor of the task force, Jenkins instructed officers to carry toy guns “in case [they] accidentally hit somebody or got in a shootout, so [they] could plant them,” Ward says.
Perhaps the most disturbing detail to be revealed regards Jenkins and his leadership of the task force. As the supervisor of the task force, Jenkins instructed officers to carry toy guns “in case [they] accidentally hit somebody or got in a shootout, so [they] could plant them,” Ward says.
Remember the 2014 incident involving Jenkins in which he hit a man with his car who was reportedly carrying a gun, later determined to be a BB gun? And his instruction to the GTTF to carry a gun “in case [they] hit someone”? It seems entirely possible that Jenkins was speaking from experience rather than out of caution.
The Baltimore Police Department has shown its deeply corrupt behavior both within and outside of this “elite” task force, dating back years. The questions that remain are perhaps more worrying. We are left to wonder who else knew about or enabled the abusive actions of these officers.
Because of officer testimony, we now know that Davis (who was police commissioner at the time) was aware of the fraudulent overtime practices, but did he know about the planting of evidence or everyday falsifying of probable cause? Looking back at the records of the officers selected for the GTTF, one might question if the police department wanted this task force to be at least somewhat rogue. In addition to Jenkins’ suspect record, Det. Jamell Rayam, another member of the GTTF, had been on suspension for two years. He was also involved in three police shootings within a span of 20 months, behavior unusual enough for the NAACP to call for independent investigation into the cases.
Jenkins and the Gun Trace Task Force were able to act as a gang, backed by badges and their “legal” use of force. This case serves to remind us that, in the words of Bree Newsome, “You don’t have to be white to actively participate in maintaining white supremacist systems.” It also perfectly encapsulates how police brutality and wrongdoing is not “a few bad apples” in an otherwise good system. Baltimore paints the ugly picture of police departments across the country, from the Oklahoma sheriff’s office that hired the officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man just a year before, to the New York Police Department, where the cop who choked Eric Garner to death continues to work today.