A recent string of police scandals reveals how heavy-handed policing and monetized misery work in tandem to exacerbate the country’s entrenched social ills
TAYA GRAHAM: Hello. My name is Taya Graham. Welcome to the Police Accountability Report. Today I’m joined by my Real News reporting partner, Stephen Janis, and our guest, Ivan Potts.
I want to start this show with a story. It’s a story about our home city and it is a story of failure. That is, Baltimore’s inability to reduce crime has made the city fodder for TV shows like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the street. It has also placed the imprint of a deeper, more damning moral failure upon our community. But what’s intriguing about this narrative is who benefits from it. Logic would dictate intractable crime would be bad for everyone, but not in Baltimore, because the truth is, crime does indeed pay. And for the city’s sprawling law enforcement industrial complex, the continuum of violence has been a gusher of cash. The city spends twice as much on policing as education, and year after year, officers run up tens of millions of dollars in overtime spending with little oversight.
In fact, when the Justice Department concluded that the Baltimore Police Department had been engaging in racist and unconstitutional policing, the solution was more money to train officers and new technology. It’s a very telling relationship between failure and profit. The worse crime is the more dysfunctional the department, the more profitable the business of policing becomes. And it is the worst, perverse incentive brought in part by the core values of capitalism, profiting off human misery. And this perverse incentive may tell us quite a bit about the latest developments in a case that will be the thrust of our show, the continued misdeeds of the Gun Trace Task Force.
The GTTF was a group of eight officers who have either pled guilty or were convicted of robbing residents, dealing drugs, and stealing overtime. They operated in Baltimore with impunity for years, racking up huge salaries and getting overtime while on vacation. They also stole and dealt drugs, all under the supervision of the Baltimore Police Department command staff. But yesterday, federal prosecutors announced a new set of charges involving this notorious unit, and it’s what’s in that indictment that may provide some insight between aggressive policing and money.
So Stephen, can you tell us a little bit about what’s inside these charges.
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, yes. It’s about someone who was not part of the Gun Trace Task Force, but a veteran police sergeant who had been with the Department for 25, 30 years named Keith Gladstone. And he was indicted on federal charges for interfering with the civil rights of a young man in Baltimore City. The story is that he was at a restaurant, he gets a call from Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, who is identified in the indictment only as WJ, but everybody knows who it is, saying that he had just run over a suspect intentionally and was freaking out because really, there was no probable cause. So this officer, or sergeant, I think he was the sergeant in charge, departs the restaurant, drives to the crime scene, takes a BB gun out of the trunk of his car, and while everyone’s standing there, places the gun, or the BB gun, right next to the suspect’s legs so that the suspect is ultimately charged. Prosecutors dropped the charges, but yeah.
TAYA GRAHAM: So why would it benefit a police officer to plant a BB gun on a suspect?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, the point was that you can charge him with some sort of crime. And you could also say I saw a gun, I could chase him because I saw a gun. And as we discussed earlier, I believe that BB guns are a little bit easier to sort of move around that.
TAYA GRAHAM: A regular gun, you have to trace the serial number, you find out who the previous owner was.
STEPHEN JANIS: The serial number. There’s a big database, so it would be much more difficult than a BB gun. And in fact, in the trial, they talked about that. The officers who were convicted testified about having a big stock of BB guns. And so, basically what happened was this poor kid gets charged, fortunately the prosecutors dropped the charges, and then there was another charge against him for interfering with the investigation. So he’s facing some pretty serious federal charges.
TAYA GRAHAM: So let me get this straight. The Gun Trace Task Force officer, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, intentionally runs over a young man. When the young man is lying on the ground, and I’m assuming writhing in pain, a Baltimore police officer takes the time to plant a gun on him. Ivan, what are your thoughts on this?
IVAN POTTS: Facts. I just mean, they’ve been planting guns on everybody. Like you say, it generates money, it generates finance, and then it seals probable cause, because that’s the key thing. Without probable cause, the case gets thrown out. With probable cause, it justifies my actions of chasing you and doing what I had to do to you. So it’s just a strategy to justify probable cause, putting guns on people, because once you’ve got a gun is like you’re a criminal.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. That makes sense. Just a reminder to everyone watching, three members of the Gun Trace Task Force planted a gun on Ivan, which led to a wrongful conviction. And Stephen, this isn’t the first time a Gun Trace Task Force member has been accused of planting evidence, correct?
STEPHEN JANIS: No, in fact, a very controversial case in the death of Detective Sean Suiter, who was a person who had worked with Jenkins and other members of the Gun Trace Task Force. When he either committed suicide or was murdered in a West Baltimore alley in 2017, a case emerged from 2010, when they had all sort of conspired–this is what was testified–all conspired to rob a man in 2010. They had tried to corner his car, he’d driven off and got into an accident and killed the father of a Baltimore city police officer. After the accident, another officer drove to the scene with drugs, put the drugs in the car, and again, planted them on the gentleman to justify what had happened and to cover it up. It’s like a really clear pattern here. Your case, this case, and now this case.
IVAN POTTS: You’ve got to remember, when they do things wrong, they’re violating the law. So it’s like I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do right quick to clean up this. So if you’re the law, then you know how to get away with breaking the law.
STEPHEN JANIS: And I remember your description, which is really kind of horrible, how they planted the gun on you, they took the gun and said hey it’s your gun. Or what happened?
IVAN POTTS: They tried to bump my fingers up on the gun to seal the fingerprints.
STEPHEN JANIS: So they actually took your hands and they tried to put the gun next to you?
IVAN POTTS: While I was in cuffs. In my hand.
STEPHEN JANIS: So they came up to you put the gun back there. What did they say to you?
IVAN POTTS: This your gun. You’re going to jail. Give us the information or you’re out of here. By the time I got to central bookings, I was so distraught, I was like what the fuck. And then when I stepped out of the paddy wagon, I had a gash in my leg. I was like damn. The bookings didn’t even accept me. I had to go straight to the hospital.
TAYA GRAHAM: You were that injured that they didn’t allow you in.
IVAN POTTS: Mhmm.
TAYA GRAHAM: Ivan, there was something I wanted to ask you about, something you said when you were with us last time. You said that the police, they need to “stir the pot to get the fish.” What did you mean by them having a stir the pot?
IVAN POTTS: Stir the water to catch the fish.
TAYA GRAHAM: Thank you.
IVAN POTTS: It’s like, just think of it. You’ve got a bowl of fish, right, it’s hard to catch fish if you just put your hand in there. You can’t catch them like that, right. But if I had just taken a big spoon and I stir it, all the force from the water going. I could just easily get one fish at a time out the water. So it’s like cause confusion, right.
STEPHEN JANIS: Or chaos.
IVAN POTTS: Or chaos, right. And during the chaos, we act like we’re the hero.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right, but you were causing the chaos. Exactly.
IVAN POTTS: Right, but I was the cause of the chaos.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s so interesting, because that’s one of the things they talked about, these door popper things they talked about during the trial, which means that they would see a group of African American young people, drive their car up, and jump out. And then whoever ran, they would chase, and that would give them probable cause. It was called door popping something like that.
IVAN POTTS: They used to intimidate… Some officers are cool and respectable, but then you’ve got your officers like “I’m going to bully you, like what’s up, what you doing out here.” And you’re not even from here, this is where I grew up at, this is where I was born and raised.
STEPHEN JANIS: It’s like a military presence.
IVAN POTTS: You’re not even from here and you’re telling me what am I doing here. How are you going to do that? How are you going to send to somebody that’s like me, I’m from Baltimore, if they sent me to Prince George’s County to police them. I’m not from there.
TAYA GRAHAM: You don’t really understand how their neighborhoods work.
IVAN POTTS: I’m talking to their children and the mother is and the fathers, “Go in the house.” But then if we buck, we get shot.
TAYA GRAHAM: You know, Marilyn Mosby is reviewing over 2100 cases that have been tainted by the Gun Trace Task Force. When you know that she’s doing that, do you think there’s any way to kind of undo the damage done by the Gun Trace Task Force? I mean, outside of her actively working to vacate these judgments.
IVAN POTTS: I mean, the only way to heal the city from this is just to liberate the city. Justice, give people their just due. That’s it. They print money. I mean, it’s just paper. If you think about it, if you help the people in Baltimore, then Baltimore would be more better economically. You just keep bringing people down, pushing people down, beating people down. How do you think they’re going to act?
TAYA GRAHAM: Yeah. I mean, the Gun Trace Task Force could get overtime when they were on vacation. They were making–those guys were making 150-160,000 dollars a year.
IVAN POTTS: Exactly. And then you got officials in Baltimore that need to step up more. Stop being bougie. Stop acting like you’re too good or a middle class citizen, I pay my taxes. Stop that. Because at the end of the day, that’s your children out there, that’s your blood. They’re the same color as you, they’re going through the same struggle as you. So why treat them different than you? You feel me?
TAYA GRAHAM: …the respectability politics.
STEPHEN JANIS: Exactly. We understand the environment is messed up, but it’s like people in these environments are now trying to work to get out of it instead of work to invest in it.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. That’s a good way to describe it.
IVAN POTTS: They’re working to get to the next class.
STEPHEN JANIS: At The Real News we would call it a class conflict.
IVAN POTTS: Yeah, it’s a big class conflict. And that’s why a lot of things in America is like that, because you’ve got all these classes. Below the poverty line, lower class, middle class, upper middle class, upper class. And everybody, it’s like once you leave from this class and you get to this class, I’m better than this class. Then when you get to this class, I’m better than that class. Then you’re sitting up there with them, and it’s like we run the world.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, Stephen, this is not the only recent case that strung national attention for officers planting evidence on people, right?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, let’s show a video, a case that actually, again, made Baltimore City Police nationally famous, was a case of an officer who on his own body cam footage showed himself staging the discovery of drugs.
IVAN POTTS: Yeah, I watched that.
STEPHEN JANIS: It was stunning, because at that point, the officers didn’t realize that there was a 30 second rollback.
TAYA GRAHAM: They didn’t realize that when they stopped it, it records the thirty seconds previous.
STEPHEN JANIS: Well no, when you activate it–the cameras are always recording, so when you activate it, it takes back 30 seconds before you start recording to prevent this kind of stuff. And so, you can see the officers turning the camera on and laughing, and then he goes back into an alley and he goes, “Oh, I found it,” after he put it there, because a camera gets him putting it there. So it caused a lot of controversy. Believe it or not, the police commissioner defended it, but another person went to jail. Another person went to jail. I mean, look, how many cases do we have to have until we realize this is an almost criminal organization in the way it’s run?
TAYA GRAHAM: How common is it for someone who lives in your neighborhood or is part of your community, how often do you hear someone say, “I have had Baltimore City Police plant drugs on me or misrepresent my case” in some way?
IVAN POTTS: That’s normal.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s just everyday business.
IVAN POTTS: Yeah, everyday business. Don’t get me wrong, and I’m not speaking bad, it’s not all bad police. Usually, uniformed police, they be chilling. But the knockers, they the knockers. They’ve just got their reputation.
STEPHEN JANIS: Explain what knockers are? I mean, what are knockers?
IVAN POTTS: They knock shit up. I mean, that’s what they do, though. They come, and when the police are around.
STEPHEN JANIS: The plain clothes.
IVAN POTTS: The plain clothes. It’s like, “Yo, the police is out.”
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
IVAN POTTS: The knockers, it’s like, “Yo, the knockers out.”
TAYA GRAHAM: They come up in that van, and four of them jump out, and then your door gets kicked down.
IVAN POTTS: Yeah. It’s like a fear, it’s like the boogeyman coming, like the wolf, the big bad wolf. “The knockers coming, everybody…” People scared to walk to the store because you don’t know if they’re going to jump out. You don’t know.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s what happened to you, because you were walking to the store and the Gun Trace Task Force just came down an alley.
IVAN POTTS: The knockers came right up the one way and jumped out on me. “Hey, where are you going at?”
TAYA GRAHAM: The store.
IVAN POTTS: Yeah.
STEPHEN JANIS: I mean what kind of community–who’s going to want to live in a community where you can’t walk to the store because you’re afraid of the police?
IVAN POTTS: The wolves out. They make you feel like that. It’s no different from the prison. No difference.
TAYA GRAHAM: One of the overarching themes that emerged with the Gun Trace Task Force, which is also a general issue with American policing, is aggressive military style tactics that is turning law enforcement into quasi-military operations that have little connection to the community. The GTTF were known for harsh, unconstitutional tactics, but quasi-military policing is not just limited to Baltimore. Let’s watch this clip. It was testimony from a resident of a small town on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore called Ridgely. Residents there were demanding the council suspend its police chief. Their reason, his role in the death of Anton Black. Anton was a 19 year old high school track star who was chased and tasered by police last year after a white woman called the police and alleged that he kidnapped his own 12 year old cousin.
Police tasered then forced Anton to the ground, and it is the man seen here, on top of Anton, that caused the controversial testimony. The State Medical Examiner said Black died from an underlying heart condition, but an outside expert we consulted said it was due to positional asphyxiation. But what we wanted to focus on today were the comments about military-style policing. This is a theme that has pervaded the case, that both Greensboro Maryland where Anton died, and now the small town of Ridgely, whose chief participated in his arrest, have both turned to “get tough” law enforcement. Let’s listen to one of the residents.
Stephen, does it surprise you that this type of policing is being applied to towns like Greensboro?
STEPHEN JANIS: It’s incredibly surprising, because we spent time in Greensboro. We spent time in Ridgely, mostly Greensboro, and there’s nothing there. It’s a small, quiet town.
TAYA GRAHAM: It’s a very small, quiet town. What, 2300 people in it? It’s very small.
STEPHEN JANIS: 2000 people, barely any traffic. And I was just kind of stunned. Because of course I’ve seen it in Baltimore, we’ve lived with it here for decades. But to hear that the police departments went to this, there’s just no justification that we can see from our reporting.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, to be fair, we asked the mayor of Greensboro about the concerns of residents, and he had a different strategy. He pretty much disagreed with what the residents had to say.
STEPHEN JANIS: We just wanted to be fair and show that we talked to him.
TAYA GRAHAM: We want to give him a chance to be heard, so let’s roll the clip of the mayor of Greensboro.
So how does aggressive policing affect the community? Black males accounted for 22 percent of all people shot and killed in 2017, and yet they are 6 percent of the total population. White males accounted for 44 percent of all fatal police shootings, and Hispanic males accounted for 18 percent. We want to make the point to emphasize that interacting with militarized law enforcement industrial complex impacts poor whites and low income folks of all colors, not just African Americans. An example of this would be the January 2016 case of the unarmed man, Dan Schaber.
So Ivan, what do you think, this process of police officers wreaking havoc in communities and then getting paid to fix that same havoc? Doesn’t this seem like a strange cycle to you? What do you see happening here? How much does money have an influence here?
IVAN POTTS: Oh, I think money is the whole purpose. The motive of things is capitalism. They got to make a profit off of the lives that they’re incarcerating. So I think it’s like you said, it’s like they create the problem, and then “we’ve got the solution to the problem too, because we’re getting money for it anyway.” So it’s like, “We create it, and then we collect our money off of it.”
TAYA GRAHAM: You have money both ways, coming and going.
IVAN POTTS: Even with drug epidemics, where are all these new drugs coming from? They’re not natural.
STEPHEN JANIS: Anyone who comes to Baltimore, we have a prison industrial complex that’s huge, it’s bigger than any factory or any sort of employer.
IVAN POTTS: Look how many prisons in Maryland alone.
STEPHEN JANIS: The city has like eight different institutions right in the middle, right up the street from us right here. It shows what we put our money into, including a new youth jail.
IVAN POTTS: And they’re building jails for the babies. They’re building jails of baby bookings like. Look how they’ve got our kids growing up mentally, already.
STEPHEN JANIS: Preparing.
IVAN POTTS: You got the projects right here inside the prison yard. You understand what I’m saying? Your kids is growing literally outside the projects, playing, and the prison yard is right next door. What community in the United States have you ever seen that in?
TAYA GRAHAM: And it’s very often shown that if you have a family member who’s incarcerated, it increases the likelihood that you’re going to be incarcerated as a young person.
IVAN POTTS: And what perception are you giving the kids, that you grow up next to a prison?
TAYA GRAHAM: And Ivan, we should note that the city has yet to take responsibility for the trauma inflicted upon you. Where are you right now in getting some kind of reparations or justice?
IVAN POTTS: Fighting. Baltimore City is just a stubborn city. I don’t think they respect me as a citizen. I got mad love for the people in my city that don’t have nothing to do with this, but the people that do have something to do for me, there ain’t no love. I still get mugged by the police, they’re still aggressive with me every day.
STEPHEN JANIS: So it’s still happening?
IVAN POTTS: Yeah, ain’t nothing changed. Nothing.
TAYA GRAHAM: I’m so sorry to hear that, not that I’m surprised to hear it.
IVAN POTTS: I don’t have no type of immunity, I’m still a regular, ordinary black man on the street.
TAYA GRAHAM: Are you on any kind of probation or parole?
IVAN POTTS: I’m a free man.
TAYA GRAHAM: I’m glad to hear that. So they can’t violate you in any way. I’m so glad to hear that.
IVAN POTTS: No, but it’s just like the headache. Who wants to live their life every day like that?
TAYA GRAHAM: Looking over their shoulder, wondering. Absolutely.
IVAN POTTS: It’s sad. And in Baltimore, it’s like all right, we see the drug problem, but this is where the opiate epidemic is it at. Now it’s not even heroin. I mean, that’s an opiate that grows out of the earth. I mean, not to parade it, but that’s something God created. Now it’s something that scientists created. Where the hell is this shit coming from?
TAYA GRAHAM: We will continue to follow this and other stories as we work to hold police accountable here in Baltimore and across the country.
I’m your host, Taya Graham. These are my guests, Stephen Janis and Ivan Potts. And I want to thank you for joining me at The Real News Network. If stories like these are important to you, please subscribe.