In theory, the Baltimore Police Department's now-defunct Gun Trace Task Force was an elite unit dedicated to finding illegal guns. In practice, prosecutors say, it was an armed robbery and extortion conspiracy carried out under color of law. Its members allegedly used their police powers to detain people, take their money, and keep it.
Two of those members are currently on trial. Another six have pled guilty and agreed to testify for the prosecution.
Some of the allegations against the officers are exceptionally egregious. Discovering $200,000 in the safe of a house they entered without a warrant, they stole half, then staged a videotaped "search" in which they "found" and "seized" the rest. They carried BB guns to plant on anyone they might shoot, and they toted around a robbery kit that included ski masks, crowbars, and a grappling hook.
But listening to the cooperating officers' testimony, what's striking is how closely many of the activities offered as evidence of a criminal conspiracy resemble tactics commonly used by police in cities nationwide.
For example, former detective Maurice Ward testified on Tuesday that Task Force officers would routinely run or drive police vehicles at high speed toward groups of people standing on the street. If they ran away, that would serve as an excuse to search them for cash. Officers would also target vehicles and pedestrians based on age and sex, or the type of car being driven, then invent false pretenses for stopping them, such as unfastened seatbelts or tinted windows.
The fact that the officers were looking for money and drugs to keep for themselves is unusual. But many of the methods they used are not. So-called "pretext stops" and aggressive attempts to scare people into running from the police are common police tactics. It is also both legal and common for cops to take cash from people they stop, whether or not those people are ever charged with any crime. That's how civil asset forfeiture often works: Cops take cash off from people they stop in traffic or on the street, and those people have to sue to get it back. The police often end up spending the money on their own departments.
In other words, the chief difference between this criminal conspiracy to commit armed robbery and the kind of questionable law enforcement that goes largely unremarked-on every day in America was who ultimately got to keep the money. This has not gone unnoticed by lawyers defending the two officers, who told the jury that their clients are guilty only of stealing cash from the police department. Everything else they did, including "seizing" cash off the people they jumped, was ordinary, legal police practice.
The sad thing is, they might just be right.