Baltimore Commissioner Suspended Following Federal Charges
By Brandon Soderberg and Lisa Snowden McCray
Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, who came into office on Jan. 19 and touted his integrity and devotion to transparency has been suspended following Thursday’s announcement that he had been charged “with three misdemeanor counts of failure to file a U.S. Individual Tax Return.”
Not long after Mayor Catherine Pugh announced his suspension, the Baltimore Sun reported that over the past few years, De Sousa has infrequently filed the mandatory financial disclosures with the city’s ethics board.
Deputy Commissioner Gary Tuggle will serve as acting commissioner.
The immediate responses to De Sousa’s charges yesterday made it seem as though it would be business as usual and the controversy whisked away. Officials were ready to forgive De Sousa before the full extent of the federal investigation was even revealed. Power protects power, always, and this was no exception with the mayor and councilmembers coming to the defense of the commissioner they’d put so much support behind just four months ago.
“I have full confidence in Darryl De Sousa in his capacity as Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department and trust that he will continue to focus on our number one priority of reducing violence,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said in a statement yesterday.
Councilperson Brandon Scott, the chair of the public safety committee and one of De Sousa’s most vocal supporters, did not respond to requests from the Real News for comment, but did tell the Baltimore Sun that he was disappointed but also had “faith in De Sousa.”
“He needs to own it, which he has, he needs to fix it and keep going with decreasing the numbers in our neighborhoods,” veteran City Councilperson Mary Pat Clarke said via a statement, presumably referring to De Sousa’s much touted ability to reduce crime.
And De Sousa himself, who could serve up to one year in jail and faces $25,000 fines for each of the years he did not file, released a statement of his own, where he admitted that he had not filed income taxes for those three years and apologized.
“While there is no excuse for my failure to fulfil my obligations as a citizen and public official, my only explanation is that I failed to sufficiently prioritize my personal affairs,” the statement read in part. “Naturally, this is a source of embarrassment for me and I deeply regret any embarrassment it has caused the Police Department and City of Baltimore.”
There was nothing in yesterday’s statement that mentioned the failure to disclose to the ethics board, revealed today. De Sousa, who has so far proven himself to be skilled at saying the right things and an artful dodger of tough questions, chalked the charges up as a personal matter, and Pugh, Scott, and Clarke essentially did the same.
But the investigation that resulted in charges that claim De Sousa did not file taxes in 2013, 2014, and 2015, was led in part by Leo Wise and Derek Hines, the two U.S. attorneys responsible for prosecuting and investigating The Gun Trace Task Force. Plenty of people who don’t file their taxes aren’t charged by the feds.
Despite hot-cold responses from the mayor, De Sousa’s charges was really the latest in a long list of hiccups and screws-ups that have dominated the BPD veteran’s four-month term.
De Sousa, Artful Dodger
It is one thing to not jump to conclusions when it comes to a federal charges, but it is another thing to absolve someone when the reason not all of the information is available is because the investigation is ongoing.
The Federal Court’s Motion To Seal, which is why the information surrounding De Sousa’s charges is still rather vague, mentions that De Sousa remains under federal investigation and that the investigation involves “the destruction of evidence and possible witness tampering.”
Those are serious crimes and none of the comments from city officials even acknowledged that part of the news about the commissioner. As Neill Franklin, former Baltimore Police Commander and currently, head of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) told the Real News hours after the news broke, “I am very very curious here and concerned because this is not typical of the average citizen. Usually there is extensive communication with the IRS before being charged criminally with failure to file your taxes.”
These allegations come four months into De Sousa’s tenure as commissioner and is the latest in a series of missteps, controversies, and mistakes since Pugh fired former commissioner Kevin Davis and designated De Sousa his replacement on Jan. 19. Back then, Scott called the appointment of De Sousa, “a great decision by the mayor,” and simply added, “look at his record,” referring to De Sousa’s crime reduction ability in the districts he commanded.
De Sousa, Trigger-Happy Cop
Baltimoreans looking in De Sousa’s record also discovered a shocking history of police violence. In 1990, De Sousa chased down a dirt biker he said then, because he recognized the man and knew there was a warrant out for him. The chase resulted in De Sousa claims, the dirt biker trying to run him down and a subsequent crowd of more than 100 gathered in protest resulting in what the Baltimore Sun then called, “a melee,” between residents and police.
In 1995 alone, De Sousa was involved in the fatal police shootings of three men. De Sousa, as part of a mounted unit, shot and killed 26 year-old Garrett “Scooter” Jackson in February 1995, firing 13 times and hitting Jackson 10 times. At the time, the shooting was fairly high profile and organizers challenged De Sousa and the police’s version of events which claimed Jackson aimed a gun at police.
Then in December 1995, De Sousa, working plainclothes as part of the Violent Crimes Task Force, was involved in the pursuit of George Thomas Jr., who was shot and killed by De Sousa and two other officers, they said then, after he fired at them. The 50 or so shots fired by De Sousa and the other officers, Willis Richardson and Kevin Ruth, also struck bystander Melvin James, their bullets ricocheting off a wall and hitting James, who was 18 years old, in the head. James’ family later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against De Sousa and the other officers.
De Sousa, Inherits A Mess, Makes It Messier
There were other immediate concerns about De Sousa. Within days of becoming commissioner designate, there were a number of appointments announced then rescinded. Sgt. Alicia White, one of the cops charged with the death of Freddie Gray had supposedly been moved to Internal Affairs but when that information leaked to the public, police said that it was a rumor and never was the case. Thomas Cassella, a retired cop who had been in charge of security at the Horseshoe Casino however, was announced as a new Deputy Commissioner, but a leaked memo about his Internal Affairs file called that into question. The BPD claimed parts of the leaked memo were incorrect—though which part were never made clear—but it was announced Cassella would not be up for the position any longer.
Around the same time as the Cassella controversy, Special Agent Erika Jensen of the FBI testified in the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) trial, which began just days after De Sousa became commissioner, that the FBI did not pull records from the Horseshoe Casino because they feared that police inside—then lead by Cassella—would leak information about the investigation the GTTF. As Pugh, Scott, and others offered up De Sousa as a skilled 30 year veteran who knew the city and could clean up the department after the corruption of GTTF, activists wondered how a knowledgeable veteran could not have known about GTTF while it was going on. Either he knew and said nothing, which was a problem, or he was blissfully unaware, which is perhaps an even bigger problem.
In the days leading up to De Sousa’s City Council Hearing, calls for his Internal Affairs Department file to be released publicly hit a fever pitch after rumors of accusations of sexual misconduct spread. Pugh said she viewed his file and saw nothing that concerned her though many, demanded De Sousa live up to his transparency platitudes and release it.
He did not release because he did not have to release it.
De Sousa, Rushed Into Office
All of this dominated the Feb. 21 City Council hearing, where council members got to question De Sousa and there was ample public comment. The overwhelming sense from the public was that city officials should take their time selecting the next head of the Baltimore City Police Department and not rush to judgement. After all, the previous commissioner, Kevin Davis, remained the interim commissioner from July 2015 to Oct. 2015. And many, including Scott, had pointed out the revolving door nature of commissioners in Baltimore—De Sousa is the eighth since 2000. Previous commissioner, Davis, arrived with an illegal and unconstitutional detainment on his record stemming from a 1999 case in which he essentially kidnapped, Brian Romjue, a man who was seeing the niece of another police officer. Ultimately, Romjue was paid out a $90,000 settlement. The Commissioner before Davis, Anthony Batts, arrived with the mishandling of the notorious rioting after the death of Oscar Grant in Oakland and domestic violence accusations from his time in Long Beach.
Among those who urged council not to rush to judgement in approving De Sousa was Brendan Walsh, who runs the soup kitchen Viva House. Back in 1995, a frequent face at Viva House was Scooter Jackson, the man De Sousa shot and killed.
“I have the autopsy report and it says that the cause of death was homicide,” Walsh said, with De Sousa just a few feet away from him. “Those 13 bullets? Three of them were in the back.”
Before he ended his testimony, Walsh told the chambers, “It seems like we’re rushing this thing too fast.”
ShaiVaughn Crawley, an activist who spoke out against De Sousa at the February hearing was not surprised by the De Sousa charges and sees it as part of an ongoing pattern of Baltimore officials dismissing activists warnings.
“It’s always been the same kind of scenario over and over again,” Crawley said. “People say something and of course their voices don’t get heard or they get heard only for a moment and then it gets ignored again.”
De Sousa’s responses to councilmembers at the hearing also provided a glimpse into his political savvy reflected in his statement about his tax charges. When Scott asked if De Sousa supported the idea of making the Baltimore Police Department a city-run institution instead of a state-run one (as it currently is), De Sousa avoided the question and said, “If that law does change, I’ll support it.”
The De Sousa hearing was the first major test for some of the council’s younger members, who had been celebrated following their 2016 victories and heretofore avoided some of the baggage that older members carry, and who tend to be more savvy when speaking about progressive ideals. Despite tough questioning from Scott, and Zeke Cohen, only Ryan Dorsey ultimately voted “no” to approve De Sousa the next week, Feb. 26.
“In the wake of Commissioner De Sousa’s confirmation, I talked to the press about my reservations over the brisk nature of it, and what I characterized as non-answers to certain questions,” Dorsey said in a statement following the De Sousa charges. “I feel the most productive discussion we can have in the meantime is one that focuses on the importance of thorough vetting and thoughtful confirmation procedures for such important public positions.”
De Sousa, A Disappointment
Since his confirmation, De Sousa’s crime-stopping reputation has also mostly seem like city official-created hot air. While he has touted a shift in policing which marked a reduction in crimes during the month of February, that has not remained. And in April there were 33 homicides in the city, more than one a day. On May 9, the day before De Sousa was charged, Baltimore endured its 100th homicide of the year—the second fastest Baltimore has arrived at the number in a year.
In that especially deadly month of April, De Sousa made a ridiculous appearance at an Eric B. and Rakim show in Baltimore with Pugh where he apologized for policing.
“I want to take the time to apologize for what police had did,” De Sousa said and then promised change to the department. Jeers and boos and some applause followed.
That same month, De Sousa recently had to testify in the trial of Malik Thompson, a man De Sousa said possessed a loaded handgun when he pulled him over in 2014. During the trial, Thompson’s lawyer criticized De Sousa’s “sloppy” police work that day, and a jury ultimately acquitted Thompson, unable to locate enough evidence to convict and failing to find De Sousa’s testimony entirely convincing.
Baltimore’s current commissioner could not seal the deal on a case involving his own police work.
De Sousa, Protected By Pugh
On the day Baltimore hit 100 homicides, Mayor Pugh spoke to the Baltimore Sun, commenting on the victim, a 16 year-old. She didn’t mourn the slain teen, she stressed that he had a criminal record and said that he was, “not just somebody playing basketball on the basketball court.”
One day later, Pugh was defending her commissioner, who shot and killed three people on duty many years ago, who had just been hit with three misdemeanors and still under federal investigation making it clear that those adjacent in power receive very different than the treatment that other people in much less high-profile positions charged with crimes.
A day after that, Pugh announced De Sousa’s suspension, following outcry from The Fraternal Order Of Police for Baltimore have demanded De Sousa take a leave of absence. When a Baltimore Police Officer is charged with a misdemeanor, they are suspended with pay and their duties as an officer restricted until the case go to trial—and usually it’s the commissioner that demands the suspension. What to do when the suspended is the commissioner, FOP President Gene Ryan argued, should not be any different.
“The Commissioner is well aware of Departmental policies as they relate to any criminal conduct committed by our members and we have every right to expect that he be treated the same as the men and women who serve him,” the statement from Ryan reads in part. “While Mayor Pugh has determined that it is not in the interest of the city to ask for his resignation, we feel very strongly that it is in the interest of the Baltimore Police Department to ask that Commissioner De Sousa relieve himself of his duties.”
Around the same time that Pugh announced De Sousa’s suspension, Lorren Hayman of the community group Stand Up Baltimore expressed support for De Sousa on behalf of herself and other community groups and an upcoming “Praise Rally” for the now-suspended commish.
“I work directly for Stand Up and whenever we call him for any youth event, he’s there. We decided to do this praise rally because he’s been involved in three of the praise rallies that have been held by Keys Development for the youth and going back to school, so we thought it only appropriate to pay it forward,” Hayman said.
Hayman believes De Sousa, who has admitted to not filing his taxes, is being targeted because of his attempts to clean up BPD—she calls it “a witch hunt.”
“This is a personal matter that should be handled as such. It doesn’t speak to his 30 years of service,” she said. “Why aren’t we bringing up the fact that for how many years he had paid his taxes?”