Baltimore Police Kept Toy Guns to Plant Evidence on Unarmed People

On Monday, a federal jury convicted Baltimore Police Officers Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor on counts of racketeering, conspiracy, and robbery. Hersl and Taylor were two members of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force, a group tasked with getting illegal guns off the streets of their city. Six other officers in the squad pleaded guilty to the charges, and four of them testified during the trial.

The Gun Trace Task Force has been accused by prosecutors of robbing suspects of their drugs and money, selling confiscated drugs and guns back onto the streets, and raiding homes without warrants to steal from suspects. The officers stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in both cash and goods, claimed massive amounts of overtime while they were out drinking or on international vacations, and invented reasons for chasing suspects or entering their homes without warrants. Perhaps most sensationally, the court heard testimony from Maurice Ward, one of the officers who pled guilty, who claimed that the officers kept realistic looking toy guns or BB guns in their patrol cars to plant on suspects in case they shot or killed them accidentally.

Corrupting Cases From the Past

This accusation in particular takes on an especially sinister implication in cases such as the death of 12 year old Tamir Rice on a Cleveland playground in 2014, or the 2016 shooting of a 13 year old in Baltimore, both of whom were in possession of toy guns. In just 2015 and 2016 alone, police in the US shot and killed 86 people after mistaking toy guns for real weapons. While these specific cases are not currently being called into question, prosecutors estimate that the actions of the Gun Trace Task Force have affected hundreds, if not thousands, of other criminal cases in Baltimore, many of which are now being brought forward.  

Baltimore’s Police Department is no stranger to scandal – the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 rocked the entire nation when he died of spinal injuries after being in police custody – but corruption on this scale is simply jaw dropping. Darryl DeSousa, the acting Police Commissioner for the Baltimore Police, said in a statement that these were “some of the most egregious and despicable acts ever perpetrated in law enforcement,” and has called reform within the police department a top priority.

Rebuilding Trust with the Baltimore Community

Talk of reform could not be more welcome in Baltimore, where the citizen relationship with the police has become precarious at best. There are at least twelve other officers currently under investigation in the Baltimore Police Department, who have been accused of committing crimes or covering them up, and many of these officers are still employed with the BPD. One of them was Detective Sean Suiter, a homicide detective who was mysteriously shot and killed with his own gun just one day before he was to testify in the Gun Trace Task Force trial. His killer has still not been found.

Since the initial arrest of the officers, Commissioner DeSousa has created a new Corruption Unit to investigate the workings of the Baltimore Police Department. They will conduct random polygraph tests, investigate any names of police personnel which came up during the trial, and enact much closer scrutiny on criminal cases involving seized guns. There will also be more extensive training in the areas of police integrity and the ways that officers use force and interact with citizens. Ed Jackson, recently appointed to the new position of Inspector General of the Baltimore Police Department, said he plans to get started in enacting the “good constitutional-based policing that our citizens expect.”

The investigations are far from over. Besides the twelve other officers currently under investigation, the police department may find itself tracing its steps, back through years of old cases which have been implicated through the crimes of its own officers. It’s a process that will take years, and may never be complete, but the Baltimore Police Department seems determined to do whatever it takes to gain back the trust of the citizens it is supposed to protect.

“The citizens deserve better,” said the police department in a statement. “We are working diligently to investigate and hold those who tarnished the badge and violated public trust accountable for their actions.”  

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