Police Rising

November 30, 2017
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By Baynard Woods

In a scene from the HBO documentary “Baltimore Rising,” Detective Dawnyell Taylor, who led the investigation into Freddie Gray’s in-custody death in 2015, stands in the elevator and stares nervously at her phone.  

“I been trying to pull it up on my phone, I can’t get, the thing is not coming up,” she says, her voice higher and less in control than it has been throughout the rest of the film, which chronicles protesters and police during the trials of the six officers following Gray’s death.

When the doors open and she walks out, another woman in an office screams with joy.

“Oh God, I’mma miss it,” Taylor says, running through the halls of the Baltimore Police Department headquarters, the cameras trailing. She tries to go in one door but can’t get in.

“Damn it,” she says.

“Not guilty on all,” someone says as Taylor bursts into a Homicide office. Everyone is smiling. She stands in front of a TV. When a newscaster says “Caesar Goodson was just acquitted on seven charges,” she pumps her fist and says, “Yes!”

Then, she smiles, says “thank God,” and bows her head.

It is an astounding moment. “Baltimore Rising” director Sonja Sohn, who played Detective Kima Greggs on “The Wire,” lets us into Taylor’s inner life, as she tells the camera about growing up in a drug house and going to sleep around guns and drugs. It is a moving story.

“I used to play with the guns. I’d pick it up and look at it,” and think about suicide, she said. “I was 15 years old.”

So when we see her again, in her house, getting dressed to go testify and telling her son not to worry about what anyone says, the case appears like a personal, not a professional matter. The cameras follow her as she walks to the courthouse door. She waves at the camera and walks in.

In open court that day, in what was the most important moment of any of the trials, the prosecution alleged that Taylor sabotaged the entire investigation—an allegation that casts her cheering of the verdict in a different light and is not mentioned in “Baltimore Rising.”  

“You’re aware you were removed from the investigation at my request when I accused you of sabotaging the investigation?” Schatzow said in court.

“I’m aware you made the request, but you don’t have the authority to remove me,” Taylor answered.

The questioning revealed a serious rift between Taylor and Janice Bledsoe, one of the other chief prosecutors.

“My problems with Ms. Bledsoe were about her integrity,” Taylor said.

“She made some allegations about your integrity,” Schatzow rejoined.

This short exchange could be the window into an entirely different movie—a thriller that is an anti-”Law & Order” where the “two separate but equally important” agencies are racing against one another in competing investigations, as the city teetered on the edge of a full-blown revolution.

It was gobsmacking, bombshell testimony, but because of the way court proceedings go, it never became entirely clear what prosecutors thought she did to throw the case. But in a series of notes and text messages, leaked first to the Baltimore Sun and then other outlets, it becomes evident that Taylor actively kept prosecutors from obtaining a search warrant for the private phones of the officers.

Taylor deployed her police powers to help suspects in a way that would never have happened had they not been fellow officers and union members—Taylor, remember, belongs to the same union that paid for the defense of the officers.

“I clearly stated my position and or opposition to getting any such warrants,” she wrote in her notes. “I explained to her that the officers lived in the county and we could not use a circuit court judge to serve a warrant in the county. She stated that I could have brought them into IA [Internal Affairs], but again I explained to her that they are suspended and could not be ordered anywhere.”

It would be remarkable if an ordinary defendant saw such deference. Private citizens cannot be ordered anywhere either—but that doesn’t stop police officers from employing subterfuge in order to obtain evidence.

According to the notes, it was the next day, June 5, when Schatzow requested that she be removed from the case.

In the next entry, dated June 8, Taylor tried to get into the phones of Freddie Gray and Donta Allen, the other man in the back of the van that day. On June 25, she prepared a warrant for Freddie Gray’s cell phone.

Clearly, there would be nothing in Gray’s phone relating to what the police had allegedly done to him. And yet she was interested in his phone and not the phones of the officers, as if she were looking for a way to exonerate the officers and cast blame on Gray himself.  

We don’t see any of this in “Baltimore Rising.” But with this knowledge, Taylor’s celebratory fist pump seems almost a confession that she did sabotage the case—or at least clear evidence that she was strongly in favor of the defendants.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 tweeted a meme of Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Great Gatsby” toasting along with the words, "Here's to the Baltimore 6 Defense Team, The FOP and Detective Taylor."

As the verdict was announced, Persistent Surveillance, a private company working with the police department, flew a small plane over the city. Its high-tech surveillance technology allowed the department to record 30 square miles of the city. This footage was saved and could be rewinded and fast-forwarded in order to track the movements of individuals or vehicles, even though it did not have enough resolution to reveal the identifying features of individuals.

Neither the mayor’s office nor City Council knew of the program until a Bloomberg Businessweek story broke the news.  But one of the two cases they touted to show how it worked involved Taylor, who was assaulted after she ran over one of the city’s many illegal dirt bike riders. The department said the strike was “inadvertent” but riders have long complained that police try to make them crash.

A number of riders assaulted Taylor. The plane followed the rider who was hit for over an hour, coordinating its surveillance with the on-the-ground CCTV cameras that could show faces and identifying features. Police arrested him. They never released any footage to show how the accident occurred and Taylor was not charged for striking the bike. Early the next year, however, she was arrested for domestic violence and temporarily relieved of police powers.

The dirt-bike incident follows the same narrative that Sohn allows Taylor to present in “Baltimore Rising”: The police are the real victims.

“It’s discouraging when you watch people put races against each other, the community against the police,” Taylor says early in the film as she drives a squad car through the city. It is clear that by “people” she doesn’t mean Lt. Brian Rice, who called in the foot chase on Freddie Gray, or officers Edward Nero or Garrett Miller who threw him down, leg-locked him, and arrested him. The cellphone footage is clear: the community was already against the police as Gray was arrested, because the police were already against the community.

“When you got young black men like this who are just walking around the street aimlessly, they are doing one of two things, they are up to no good or they are selling drugs,” Taylor says a moment later.

Whatever else she may have done during the investigation, in this moment Taylor clearly displays the attitude that ultimately led to the death of Freddie Gray.