As fall-out from the Gun Trace Task Force continues to unfold in Baltimore, top city officials are saying the officers were acting outside the scope of their employment and cannot be held liable for robbing and falsely arresting hundreds of residents
TAYA GRAHAM: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network.
Myself, along with my reporting partner, Stephen Janis, have continued to document not just how corrupt American policing is, but also how the corruption is fueled by systemic resistance to any sort of real civilian oversight or reform. Last week, we looked at this issue in the context of the death of Anton Black. Anton was a 19 year old high school track star who was chased by police, tasered, and then died during the arrest. Body cam footage shows Anton under physical duress, but the state medical examiner’s office ruled his death an accident. However, a medical expert we consulted said he died from positional asphyxiation. Still, prosecutors say the officers will not face charges, a fact that has left another Black family to mourn without justice.
ANTON BLACK, SR.: That’s their agenda. There’s something not right. They’re running at him like they’re going to tackle him or something. He dodges them and goes home. They chase him to his house and they kill him there. Come on, now. You can sugar coat it all you want, you can change the video all you want, you can change the camera all you want, you can narrate it, you can do whatever you want, but you choked him to death.
But this week, we’re going to focus on a case of deep rooted corruption and how the city of Baltimore is trying to shirk responsibility for it. It’s a case that raises even more questions about how above the law American police are. The scandal I’m talking about is the behavior of the Gun Trace Task Force. It’s a group of eight officers who robbed a residence, dealt drugs, and stole overtime. The members of this elite unit wreaked havoc on the city for years, all with the knowledge of their superiors and with the unquestioned support of city leaders. The fallout from the scandal has been devastating for city residents. Currently, prosecutors are reviewing over 300 cases that may be tainted by the GTTF. Hundreds of residents were robbed of rent money and their freedom.
But now, the city is saying it’s not responsible for the actions of the GTTF. That’s right, you heard it correctly. The city that gave them badges, guns, and a license to rob residents and terrorize should be held harmless, all because of an obscure legal theory officers were acting outside the scope of their official duties. It’s a shirking of responsibility that is difficult to fathom, and another damning piece of evidence of just how untouchable American police are.
The fallout from the scandal has been devastating for city residents. Currently, prosecutors are reviewing over 300 cases that may be tainted by the GTTF. Hundreds of residents were robbed of their rent money and their freedom. But now, the city is saying it’s not responsible for the actions of the GTTF. That’s right, you heard it correctly. The city that gave them badges, guns and a license to rob and terrorize residents should be held harmless, all because of an obscure legal theory that the officers were acting outside the scope of their official duties. It’s a shirking of responsibility that is difficult to fathom and another damning piece of evidence on just how untouchable American police are.
So Stephen, can you give us an example of how bad the GTTF scandal was, especially in relation to the troubled history of the Baltimore City Police Department?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, one thing that we have talked about a lot as we’ve reported about policing is a fact that people would tell me when I was a reporter ten years ago or twelve years ago, that police were taking money from them and robbing them, basically. And when I used to go to city officials and say, “I’ve got this story about a cop who took ten thousand dollars,” or really more, it was more like nine hundred, eight hundred, they would say “Oh, they’re just drug dealers.” But now we learn in this scandal that for years, and we’re talking about ten years, these police officers were robbing people, taking drugs, and selling drugs, which is another thing that the community had always said, that police were more involved in the drug game than drug dealers were. And it turns out they were right, because throughout the trials, we learned that these officers–I don’t know why we call them officers anymore–but these people, these criminals.
TAYA GRAHAM: These criminals, right.
STEPHEN JANIS: These criminals were taking drugs and selling them, pounds of marijuana, hundreds of pills. And even it was so bad that during the uprising in 2015, then Police Commissioner Anthony Batts had blamed the violence that happened after it on stolen pills, like OxyContin from pharmacies, that was turned in, dealt on the street. Well, it turns out that the officers in this group had actually taken that OxyContin, given it to a bail bondsman, and dealt it. So it sort of confirmed what people in the community had been saying. I think what makes it that much worse is it was ignored.
TAYA GRAHAM: Which brings us to our guest, who has firsthand experience with the Gun Trace Task Force and understands the impact of the city’s troubling legal position. His name is Ivan Potts, and he was arrested by three members of the GTTF several years ago. Potts says they planted a gun on him, and he was convicted based upon their testimony and a judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. But then, sitting in his jail cell in March of 2017, he saw something on TV that would change his life. And I’ll let him pick up the story from there. So Ivan, you were sitting in your prison cell with your cell mate watching TV, and you saw something amazing on the screen.
IVAN POTTS: Yep, seen the same pictures right here pop on the screen.
TAYA GRAHAM: And so, what was that newscast about? When you saw those pictures on the screen, what did you realize?
IVAN POTTS: First thing, I was actually like shock for real, seeing their face across the screen. They’d been indicted by the federal government and they’d been setting people up. So I just felt relief, my story was finally–I really didn’t have to tell my story now.
TAYA GRAHAM: So when you realized that those officers were actually criminals, that what you said was true, “Hey, they planted this gun on me and they’ve done it to other people,” what did you start doing? I mean, did you have a lawyer at that time or did you have to be your own lawyer?
IVAN POTTS: Yeah, I was my own lawyer at the time. I just I had a book. I went to a legal law library and I got a book on how to file lawsuits and how to basically file for what’s called habeas corpus, and filed a habeas corpus for immediate release. And I filed all my paperwork myself.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, part of the reason why we brought you here is because we want to talk about how difficult it is for people to get justice. Now, you have filed a lawsuit because of the actions of these Gun Trace Task Force officers. So how is this lawsuit going and what kind of obstacles are you facing?
IVAN POTTS: I mean, I’m facing great obstacles. It’s not like they just want to give me money, even though I did time. It’s like they don’t want to give me money. And it’s becoming a problem because it’s like OK, what did I do wrong? Am I in the wrong? What am I wrong for? They just admitted to their guilt and I told you this story already. So it’s like, who’s accountable, who’s going to be held accountable for this? And right now, it’s like they’re just ducking their responsibility. So it’s a battle.
TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly. Now, Stephen, we’ve done some reporting that shows that Ivan’s case actually isn’t the exception. And you spoke with lawyer A. Dwight Pettit, who, full disclosure, is actually a member of our board, and he’s talking about some of the obstacles he faces when he tries to get reparations for his clients.
STEPHEN JANIS: This seems to be a policy that has evolved quite recently in the city, to fight every type of lawsuit brought in terms of police brutality. A. Dwight Pettit has been litigating cases for years in which the city keeps appealing them on small technicalities, even though the facts aren’t disputed, and refuses to pay. And the new city solicitor, Andre Davis, who’s a former federal judge in the 4th Circuit, has said publicly that the city will not be held responsible for the actions of the officers of the Gun Trace Task Force, because they’re, like we said before, outside the scope of their duties, which is really kind of absurd. I mean, the city was paying their salary, the city gave them badges and guns.
As we learned in the trials of two the officers in that task force, the city officials like the top police officials knew what they were doing and were rewarding them. I mean, one of the things we learned in the trial was that the police commissioner said to Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, who was sort of leader of the whole squad, “What are you doing to keep people motivated?” He said, “Giving them overtime for getting a gun.”
TAYA GRAHAM: Slash time, slash days.
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, they’re called slash days, right, which basically is some sort of phenomenon invented by the Baltimore City Police Department where if you get a gun, you get a day off without pay. Not legal, but nevertheless they did it. And he was saying, “Yeah, we’re giving them slash days.” And Commissioner Davis, Kevin Davis at that point, said, “Good work.” So people knew what they were doing. Everybody knew. Everybody knew and everybody supported it. It was exactly the type of policing that the city has espoused for decades. It was sort of a reiteration of the sort of infamous VICD unit, which is the Violent Impacts Crime Division, which was the subject of a Baltimore Sun story about millions of dollars, five million dollars in settlements for police brutality. They were exceptionally brutal. And a lot of that policing was just transferred into the Gun Trace Task Force.
And so, the police, the city, not just embraced it, but celebrated it, and said, “This is how we’re going to solve crime.” So it’s really a bunch of legal B.S. that they would come to this sort of term or idea that they are not responsible.
IVAN POTTS: When a person tells me–that’s just like me. If I’m responsible for something, I’m responsible for it. That’s just what it is. That’s like the standards of America, accountability. So for Baltimore officials to say they’re not responsible, they’re basically going against everything America stands for. Because even prisoners, when you get convicted of a crime, it’s the justice system. If you’re found guilty, it’s the system you go through. You get found guilty, you receive your time, you go to prison. So what happens when government officials are wrong?
STEPHEN JANIS: Nothing.
IVAN POTTS: You know what I mean?
STEPHEN JANIS: Great question.
IVAN POTTS: It’s like, oh now you’re bending the rules now. Oh, it doesn’t apply to you, but it applies to them.
TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly. That’s a really good point. And I also wanted to ask you about what kind of impact that this has had on you.
IVAN POTTS: Not to cut you off, but even the officers, they’re in prison. I don’t have no problem with them. They have been forgiven. They’re doing their time. So where are their boss at, you know what I mean?
STEPHEN JANIS: That is a great question.
IVAN POTTS: And it’s like damn, so they was just pawns. Because now their family lives are fucked up.
STEPHEN JANIS: One thing is that policing is a political instrument and it rarely gets talked about. This is a great point. These were political decisions. I mean, if the mayor doesn’t want this to happen, if Mayor O’Malley, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake didn’t want this kind of policing, it wouldn’t happen. I’m just telling you right now, as a person who’s covered City Hall for over a decade, it wouldn’t happen. And so, Ivan makes a great point. Why aren’t they responsible, especially given the Justice Department report?
IVAN POTTS: And not only that, because I’ve got big respect for Marilyn Mosby because she’s apologized.
TAYA GRAHAM: She took ownership of it.
IVAN POTTS: She took ownership, that’s accountability in a sense. Well, where’s the mayor? I mean, she’s in the judicial system, Marilyn Mosby, but where’s the mayor? And then I be like, they’re always saying they’re trying to decease violence in the city, but you release people like me. But suppose I was insane, imagine the people they release in these conditions. They come out with rage, what if they don’t have no family? What if they don’t have no friends, nowhere to turn to? What else are they going to do?
TAYA GRAHAM: Right, especially if they don’t get any support.
IVAN POTTS: And they don’t even give you fifty dollars when you leave out, because you wasn’t convicted. I gave my time back. So once you get your time back, it’s like they just spit you back out the system, they don’t even give you no money.
TAYA GRAHAM: So you have no support, no resources, you’re completely on your own.
IVAN POTTS: You’re just on your own. So I hear what the mayor be saying, and it be like, that’s B.S. because I’m affected by your system that you’re representing right now. And I haven’t gotten an apology, a letter, like, “Hey, check out some jobs over here,” or “I got some resources to maybe help you.” Nothing.
TAYA GRAHAM: No one’s reached out to you.
IVAN POTTS: No. Marilyn Mosby. OK. I met her, she apologized, took a picture. It was smooth. But at the end of the day, Marilyn Mosby is not the mayor.
TAYA GRAHAM: There’s only so much she can do.
IVAN POTTS: And the mayor is the representative of the city.
TAYA GRAHAM: And she’s supposed to be able to make decisions about the police department, about the direction of it. I wanted to ask you a little bit about how that arrest and imprisonment impacted your life. When the GTTF disrupted your life like they did, basically, what, stole two and a half years of your life? How has that impacted you and how is that impacting you moving forward?
IVAN POTTS: I mean, it impacted me a lot. And now that I’m home, I see how it impacted me because of my relationships with people. Like I’m still in a constant battle to get my daughter, be in my daughter’s life. As far as my music, I lost hella songs because where I was living at once I got locked up, people came, moving my stuff around. I had to purchase a bunch of clothes and stuff. So it just set me back, it was a setback. It ain’t nothing I just dwell on, I don’t even think about it, like the things I lost, no more. Because if I keep continuing to think about it, I get frustrated. Now I just focus on work. I just want them to own up. That’s it. Own up. That’s it. Because if anything, I want to contribute to my city rather than destroy it. So I don’t understand why Baltimore don’t want to make their citizens wealthier, put you on the right track. Maybe I could better my community with the money I get, things like that. But the city is like, “No, we don’t want to give it to you. Just let him go out in America and he’s all right, you’re free.”
TAYA GRAHAM: So let’s be clear. We have a city that adopted very aggressive policing in poor communities of color, and they did this with so-called specialized units, military style cops, who Ivan has pointed out before, don’t even wear uniforms. And far from distancing themselves from the officers’ actions, Stephen, you have firsthand experience with how the city actually touted their achievement.
STEPHEN JANIS: What I was seeing after I talked to Ivan the first time when he just got out, one thing I was thinking about was that as reporters, we get media updates from the police department almost daily. And almost every couple of days I’d get an email that said police confiscated a gun. This was when the Gun Trace Task Force was actually in operation. And they don’t send out emails for making arrests for burglaries, they don’t send out emails for even making arrests for shootings. But they would send these emails out, “So-and-so confiscated a gun,” and it was the Gun Trace Task Force. And they would send it out as being the exemplar, the most important thing in their crime fighting strategy, “We’ve got a gun.” And those emails were constant. And so, it really shows that they felt like the Gun Trace Task Force was the best thing they had going. And that gets back to Ivan’s point. They embrace this.
IVAN POTTS: It’s like they’re promoting violence, because without violence, they can’t get their fame. We’re not doing nothing. So it like stirring the water to catch the fish. So you let me out of jail, you tell me, “I’m not responsible for what happened to you.” They tell you, “We did it.” I mean, they cowed out. They admitted their guilt, doing their time. So now it’s just like you just leave me in grief and in pain.
STEPHEN JANIS: And you suffered a lot of economic damage too.
IVAN POTTS: Right, economically depressed and oppressed. I’m cool though, because I’m in good spirits. I’m a firm believer in God, I’m good. But I want everybody to see how they look.
STEPHEN JANIS: There were people that, when you got arrested by the Gun Trace Task Force, they said the same thing that you did. I remember you talking about that, who said they had a gun planted on them, right?
IVAN POTTS: Right. There’s a million stories. You could write a book about this. And some people are sitting like, “Damn, I remember they got me.”
TAYA GRAHAM: One point that should be made, that despite years of this aggressive military-style policing, crime has continued to rise in Baltimore to historic levels. Ivan, as someone who’s witnessed this kind of policing firsthand, why do you think crime continues to increase, even though we have this really aggressive police department?
IVAN POTTS: Because there’s no resources. For one, like if you ride through the city of Baltimore, there’s vacant houses everywhere, like so many vacant houses and the neighborhoods just look ran down, the streets potholes everywhere. I mean, you go downtown, it’s cool, but that’s just for tourist attractions. Every city is like that. But within the inner city, West and East Baltimore, it’s just broken.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s where the most aggressive policing is, right?
IVAN POTTS: Yeah, and that’s where the most aggressive policing is. That’s where they target. So it’s like, OK, why is it like this? Because most of the people who live in these communities are low income, beneficiaries of the government, and it’s drug infested. And the main thing, no businesses is owned by citizens of Baltimore.
TAYA GRAHAM: By the people who actually live in the communities.
IVAN POTTS: Who live in the community. That’s the main problem right now. Because if you had people in the community going into stores that was owned by people within their community, they the money could certainly within that community a little better. No shade on any other race, but you’ve got the Chinese, the Arabs, even the Africans. And they’re my kind, but they don’t treat us like we’re them. It’s like, I’m a foreigner and you’re American. That’s where a lot of problems stem from.
TAYA GRAHAM: Stephen, let me ask you the same question. Why do you think crime continues to rise, even though we have this military style police department?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, one thing that Ivan is saying, look at Ivan’s case. He was a person who is moving forward with his life and his life was disrupted. And how can you measure that? He’s just one of hundreds, if not thousands, that the Justice Department report documented. So if you have an already very fragile economic system and you bring in this kind of policing that sort of monetizes the destruction that it reaps on these communities, you’re going to make the conditions worse, like poverty, that tend to foment crime. That’s exactly the what the problem is. Instead of bringing resources in to build communities, you’re actually destroying it. And I think that’s what policing has done.
IVAN POTTS: Poverty, ignorance, and oppression. They go hand in hand. And me, I’m just like that ball that popped out of the lottery machine. You see all the balls in the machine, one pops out, then you hear this story and you’re like, “Oh, yeah.” But no, in that machine, it’s a million balls that are just like me, they’ve been through the same stuff I’ve been through. I was just reluctantly to pop out, and I’ve been telling you all what was going on. So it’s like, “Oh, he did say this. He said this before they even said something about this.” That’s why I take pride in speaking for the people. Because at the end of the day, there’s a lot of people out here in a worse situation than me.
TAYA GRAHAM: One recent development that is another example of the political power of policing is that our State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, is facing obstacles in vacating convictions based on the GTTF testimony. Recently, she has asked for the state legislature to pass a law that would make it easier for her to do so. But it’s what’s stopping her that’s even more intriguing, the city judges. So Stephen, could you elaborate a little bit on what’s happening with the city judges and why it’s so important?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, in cases like Ivan, what happened is the state’s attorney reviewed the case and went to a judge and said, “Can we get a new trial?” And the judge will grant a new trial, because he had already been convicted based upon the testimony of these criminals. And so, then when the judge creates a new trial, then the prosecutor can drop the case. Because a prosecutor can only drop a case before it becomes adjudicated. When it’s adjudicated, it’s too late. They have to either appeal it up the reverse system and reverse it, or get the judge to grant a new trial. And so, just recently, Marilyn Mosby went public and said, “Look, there are cases we want to vacate, however, the judge doesn’t want to grant us a new trial or for whatever reason.” So she’s asked for a change of the law so that she can fix that. But if the judge did not grant Ivan new trial, he might still be in jail.
TAYA GRAHAM: But how can a judge trust anything from the Gun Trace Task Force?
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s what Marilyn Mosby is trying to point out. The cases are tainted. They’re liars, they’re criminals, they’re thieves. But it shows you the power of law enforcement in a city like Baltimore. These guys, there are probably judges who are just like, “Well, I don’t care.” That must be what it is. I mean, I can’t read their minds and judges don’t speak publicly. But that must be what it is, they don’t care if these guys are liars, thieves, or whatever, or criminals. They just want to keep people in jail.
IVAN POTTS: Supreme power.
TAYA GRAHAM: And it’s important to note that recently, Mosby said she will not prosecute marijuana cases. Mosby be said that the law is applied disproportionately to African Americans. But no surprise here, the Baltimore Police Commissioner said he will continue to make arrests. And I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to Black people, America’s criminal justice system is quick to judge, but slow to forgive. So first, let me ask you, Stephen, how have you seen this play out, the idea that the people are quick to judge Black people but very slow to forgive them?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, you look at zero tolerance, where we arrested one hundred thousand people a year, ninety percent African American. Never has there been any sort of reconciliation with this idea. I saw with the case of Gerard Mungo, a seven year old kid arrested. And when I wrote this story, I would get hate mail from people saying he’s just a criminal in the making. It is within the psyche of this country to criminalize African Americans as quickly as possible.
TAYA GRAHAM: And to not presume their innocence at all.
IVAN POTTS: And that’s why it’s so important that African American males legitimize their self. And that’s where it starts with economic literacy. Because like I said, in our communities, it’s jobs right here. We create jobs. We can create jobs, car wash. I mean, we watch it every day. A dude starts with a car wash, he set up his shop, starts doing a little cars along the way, the next thing you know everybody’s coming to him and getting their car washed.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s an entrepreneur right there.
IVAN POTTS: That’s an entrepreneur. So if we could promote entrepreneurship in Baltimore instead of, “Oh, I need to go get a job.”
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. I think that’s a great idea, Ivan. I really do.
IVAN POTTS: That’s the problem. We are too dependent instead of independent.
TAYA GRAHAM: And you know, it would really help if the city government actually gave some seed money to some of the entrepreneurs that have shown that they have this business spirit.
IVAN POTTS: Yeah, instead of trying to harass Black businesses. Because one of my mentors, he owned a business. And the police come past, say, “Open the door.” They say, “Who is it?” “It’s Tom.” “Tom who?” He walked off. It’s late at night, “Hey man, it’s a fire hazard in there.” He opened the door, guess who it is? Baltimore City police, two something in the morning, trying to get in this man’s store. He owns it, there’s nothing in inside. Where’s the 4th amendment rights? Once again, you’re violating a citizen’s federal rights, once again without proof. How do you know that it’s a fire hazard, two something in the morning.
TAYA GRAHAM: And that’s one of the things that we discovered with the consent decree, and people in Baltimore have always known, is that the police department had not been policing constitutionally. But when you talked about entrepreneurship, I wanted to ask you, because in a way, you’re starting your own business. One of the ways I think that you’re kind of processing the pain that you experienced with your false imprisonment is through music. And I feel like that’s sort of your therapy and your business. Maybe you could talk a little bit about your music career.
IVAN POTTS: Certified Society Entertainment. I basically–like all the pain and stuff I’ve been doing my life is why I say I’m “certified.” Like when I tell you about something, either I’ve been through it or my home boy has been through it, we’ve seen it. I might not have been through it firsthand, but I might have witnessed it. So it’s just a representation of me and where I come from, the society I grew up in. Like you said, I channeled a lot of my anger and frustration and pain into my music.
TAYA GRAHAM: So as we sign off, we’re going to continue to listen to Ivan’s work. Ivan, I want to thank you so much for joining us. And of course, my reporting partner, Stephen Janis. We are going to continue to do reporting to hold police accountable. I’m your host, Taya Graham, and I want to thank you for joining me on The Real News Network.