Authors Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg wrote “I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall Of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad,” a Baltimore story that is a warning to the nation.
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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us. I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad is the title of a book about a violent, corrupt, criminal band of Baltimore City police officers by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg. The book comes at a propitious moment, as we witness the increasing calls for police abolition and defunding police departments across the country because of the brutality and violence against black people, people of color, and in poor communities. This is an important book, written like a gripping novel you can’t put down. It looks at one of the most violent, blatantly corrupt police departments in the country, the Baltimore City police with a tale that is literally a lesson for why police reform is not enough and why things must radically change. Not just in Baltimore, but around the country.
Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg both live in Baltimore, they work together on the Baltimore City Paper when it was alive. They covered the uprising after Freddie Gray died in police custody. Baynard Woods covered criminal justice and protests for The Guardian. His work has appeared in the New York Times and many other national papers. Brandon Soderberg is a former contributing writer for Spin Magazine, writing about the intersection of hip hop and politics. His work has been in Vice and in many numerous journals as well. They both wrote an incredible op-ed piece for the Washington Post, which we’ll talk about in the context of this book that just came out. For full disclosure, we are colleagues and friends. Disclosure is important. Welcome guys, good to have you with us.
Baynard Woods: Great to be here.
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Marc Steiner: Who wants to begin this? I want to get, just for the viewer, who are unfamiliar with Baltimore City and unfamiliar with this, but may not be unfamiliar with the corruption of police, how this [inaudible 00:01:43] began for the two of you. Baynard, why don’t you jump off?
Baynard Woods: Yeah. I mean, we were both working at Baltimore City Paper in 2014 when one of the officers who was charged in this case, Daniel Hersl, was prosecuting or going after and hassling a rapper named Young Moose. He used a rap video to get probable cause to raid Moose’s house. A judge signed off on that, a probation officer had locked him back up for it so that he would miss a show he was supposed to perform at, the Baltimore Arena with Boosie. So, it was going to be a big thing in Moose’s career. Hersl was trying to take it down.
We were both arch reporters mainly at the time, and we were coming into it, looking at the way that a work of art was being used as evidence in a criminal case and that that seemed like a huge First Amendment violation to us. Since then, we started to realize the massive Fourth Amendment violations that the Baltimore Police Department engages in all the time. But that was really our … Dee Watkins first sort of … a writer here in Baltimore kind of tipped us to that story and we really started digging into that.
Over the years, Moose and his family communicated with us and would say, “Hey, they just broke into our safe. They just came and arrested us.” So, we were able to keep track of the story. Then, on March 1st of 2017, we see that there was an indictment was one of seven cops who were indicted that day. He was one of the least bad of them. So, that was really a shocker.
Marc Steiner: The least bad.
Baynard Woods: One of the least bad at least-
Marc Steiner: One of the least bad. So, Brandon, pick up there and then just … as this thing unfolded and this guy who was the major protagonist, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins comes to light, I’m curious about how that came to light for you and what began to unfold.
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah, as Baynard said, we were really focused on Hersl because he was who we knew and who we had heard a lot about. We kept hearing more things about him. So, for us the story started as a dirty cop story that we felt ready to write about and report out, but when the indictment happened on March 1st, 2017, we realized that it was not a dirty cop story, it was a sort of criminal gang of cops story, which Hersl was one of seven. The leader of this criminal gang, the unit was called the Gun Trace Taskforce, kind of a gun seizing unit, plain clothes police unit. The leader of that unit was Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, who was sort of … all of our stories of police corruption and dirty cops rolled into one person and then some.
So, what was revealed in the indictment was that Jenkins, with this squad, was frequently robbing people, stealing money, stealing drugs, dealing drugs, and just violating people’s rights constantly, all the while, also stealing a ton of overtime from the city. So, stealing from the tax payers as well. This is what the federal indictment showed. It was a criminal conspiracy within the police department. That’s where it really started and then, as we dug deeper into it, you started to see these really, really just heinous anecdotes of police corruption, police robberies. Like, where there wasn’t even the pretense of policing sometimes.
The most extreme example of that is they kidnapped a couple who they got a tip that the man of the couple had a gun. They kidnapped this couple, took them to their house and then robbed them for a lot of money. Then, didn’t even charge them with anything. That’s kind of the kind of details you start to learn through the indictment. We started to just dig into that. Then, in January 2018, two of the cops including Hersl, and as well as Marcus Taylor were the only two that didn’t plead guilty of the initial seven. There was a trial for them, a federal trial. At that trial, it was sort of just a … every day was another crazy story of corruption and drug dealing and malfeasance within the department. You sort of start to see how big it was because so many other officers were named. There’s kind of a running list we all had of other cops that were implicated directly or indirectly. That’s when we started to realize this was a bigger story and it was a book.
Marc Steiner: It was a book, and it is a book. Baynard, neither you nor Brandon are naïve men. So, I’m curious, tell a bit of the story about how this … what unfolded for you in terms of the depth of corruption; what these men were really capable of doing and how shocked or not shocked you were by it.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. As you mentioned, I’d been covering Baltimore police specifically for The Guardian during the time that the book is set, during 2016, and covered all of the trials on the Freddie Gray, at the time of the trial was covering police for The Real News. So, I’d been looking into police misconduct. There’s plenty of examples here. There’s so many examples going back decades, and you helped us talk about some of those, some of the older cases and stuff. When we were sitting in the trial, the kinds of things that we heard just were more and more shocking. You know, from the smaller details of like, little heists that they would do, to big details like faking body camera footage, or faking phone footage to rob someone’s safe. They stole $100,000 from someone. They broke the safe, took it out, re closed the safe, filmed them opening it again, and then arrested the guy.
Especially, it was powerful hearing directly from the victims who had been robbed, had been illegally detained, had been … in one case, they took a guy’s phone, they were sort of texting back with his girlfriend trying to get information. When she wouldn’t give information, trying to get nude pics, acting like they were him. Just doing these petty and horrible things to like, mastermind, massive things. It was constant. So yeah, while we had no illusions about police before this started, I don’t think either of us had any sense of the … especially Wayne Jenkins. It’s a strange thing to write about because on the one hand, these people are the outgrowth of policing in a natural way. Wayne Jenkins really is an extraordinary criminal also. The others get swept up in that in different ways. The deviousness with the double crosses of his own squad, and the triple crosses was astounding. Now, I don’t know how I could ever believe something like a statement of probable cause even in [inaudible 00:08:56] outlining it.
Marc Steiner: So, one of the things also that struck me … a couple of things, is that in the book, was the sheer callousness they had towards other human beings in the cities and the numbers of people that went to prison through their illegal activities because what they did illegally to people, whether or not they were involved in a drug trade or whatever that was is a question to the side. The question is, what they did in a corrupt, violent way, is send people to prison illegally and the massive numbers of people should be mind boggling to people who read this book and get a sense of just how deep it is and how high the corruption goes. That’s the thing that really struck me, I think more than anything else Brandon, it was just like … I wasn’t shocked by it either having known cops like this my entire life, but there was something about what you exposed and how you exposed it and what it did to people’s lives, I think is just astounding.
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah. I mean, and one example of it, we’d speak to victims and the stories would be, “Where were you when you heard that these cops had ruined your life had been indicted?” We talked to enough people that you started to realize there was multiple people in multiple jails that all had the same experience on that day, that they looked up at the TV in the rec room and saw these cops on the screen and were like, “Those guys did it to me.” So, that gives you a sense of it, of just like, state and federal prisons were filled with people that had been affected by these guys and had their lives ruined. As you said, some of these people were charged with drugs and things like that, which is kind of irrelevant to the unconstitutionality of the arrests and the abuses.
But what you see in that, I think, and Baynard kind of said this is this logical extension of policing, but then it’s also this other story, is that they were specifically looking at the kind of people that are not believed. So, people that are dealing drugs, or formerly dealt drugs, or alleged to deal drugs, people who had criminal records. So, they really took advantage of that to understand these people wouldn’t be believed or would have very little motivation to say anything about it. Then, on top of that though, I think, you can sort of look at it as that these were extensions of policing which was to bust people like this by any means necessary.
That dehumanizing quality, I think, especially for some of the police officers … I mean, specifically Jenkins and then, Momodu Gando, another cop within the unit who were dealing drugs sort of really deep in that world, I think that they maybe perhaps came into the department to deal drugs and to commit crimes. But certainly, other officers were moved in that direction by being led by Jenkins. But also, being indoctrinated into Baltimore City style policing, which these people are kind of beneath you, aren’t really people, people you just sort of callously dismiss, set up, harass, do whatever you need to bust them. Then, for them, the bust coincided with the ability to rob them. Yeah, and just the number of people is really astounding. Quite a few have gotten out, but there’s still many, many people in jail because of these guys that are still sitting there.
Marc Steiner: Look, and Baynard, I know you covered the uprising after Freddie Gray was killed while in police custody and you were out in the streets a lot. One of the most interesting things here that popped out of that, of course, was the fact that Jenkins and this guy, Donnie Step, who was a bail bondsman, when they said drugs were flooding the streets because they had ransacked a CVS and now they were selling drugs everywhere. It wasn’t the folks on the streets who were selling them. It was them. It was like a total mindfuck.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. I mean, it’s almost like the … when Step testified about that in the trial, and then we talked to him about it later, it really almost flipped Baltimore on its head, the story that everyone had been living with for the couple of years before that. You know, Commissioner Batts at the time, blamed the murder spike on these looted drugs, and it’s not so much that Jenkins was the only person who … I’m sure other people stole and sold drugs, and Jenkins stole them from … at least what he told Step, he stole them from people who had already stolen them from the pharmacies. But he shows up at Step’s house the night that everyone remembers when things were on fire, things were still burning, and he shows up at Step’s house with two big trash bags full of drugs.
As Step said though, there wasn’t even that much dope in it. One of the real tragedies that we also [inaudible 00:13:39] is these were West Baltimore pharmacies where there are a lot of elderly people who needed their prescriptions that don’t get you high and that aren’t worth anything unless you have the condition that its prescribed for. So, most of the things they were able to sell out of that were Viagra and Cialis to Step’s coke customers. Whereas, Batts said it would keep the city high for a year, it ultimately kept the county hard for a couple of weeks.
Marc Steiner: That was a great line in the book. Before we move on into what this larger story tells us all, which I want to get to here as we close, give the viewer a sense of the depth of this, of what exactly happened over these years. I mean, it’s just incredible how much money they made, how much dope they sold in the streets, how many lives they screwed over. I mean, give us a sense of the depth. Baynard, why don’t you start and then, jump to Brandon. Then, we’ll move into how this looks at the nation.
Baynard Woods: Sure. I mean, we’ve got senses to try to put a start on it as hard. We know from Step, he said that Jenkins never was an honest cop. So, as Brandon said, there’s a sense that maybe he came into the department with the intention of committing crimes, and have been getting new information about some stuff going all the way back to 2005 right now. What we know in 2010, which is the earliest thing for which he’s indicted, that they were trying to rob a guy named Umar Burley. In that case, they jump out with masks on, with guns, lock him in. He tries to flee from them and they jump in the car and chase him and that causes a crash that kills a man named Albert Davis, who was the father of a cop.
So, it turns out that Burley had nothing on him. So, call up a Sergeant who has an ounce of heroin in his trunk and comes and they plant an ounce of heroin on this guy. So, he was one who was still in jail almost eight years later when the indictments come out. That’s one case that he pleaded guilty to that goes all the way back to 2010 and it didn’t stop until the day that, in 2017, when they were arrested. The Public Defender’s office here in Maryland, thinks that 10,000 cases were compromised. Those were just the cases where arrests were made. There were other times where using government surveillance equipment, government surveillance and materials, federal investigations, they would go and just break into people’s houses and rob and steal thousands and thousands of dollars from dealers that no one would ever know because they’d break in, in the middle of the night and they’d have a tracker on the car.
Gando and another cop named Ram worked with Gando’s drug dealing crew in 2015. This is one of the things that helped to bring them down. They thought a guy had $100,000 and some heroin. They were either going to just kill him and take his money, or do a fake raid. They decided instead to put a tracker on his car, wait til he was gone, and go in his house and steal all of the money and the dope. Turns out his girlfriend who’s a law student was asleep in the bed. They pointed a gun at her saying, “Where’s the money? I’m going to kill you.” They end up taking, I think something close to a kilo of heroin and a lot less money than they thought. They go off and immediately sell the heroin in an old folk’s home. Then, go back and split up the money.
So, these are just small amounts, very little of the money that they stole was recovered by the federal government. We have some suspicions of where we think some of that might be. But it’s crazy that the drug dealers that they ultimately … that Gando was working with that Brandon mentioned earlier, that they were tapping their phones, which is what led them to the GTTF, that those guys have as much time for their heroin conspiracy as Jenkins and all of the GTTF defendants had. 25 years is what Jenkins got and what [inaudible 00:17:52] Jenkins sold massive amounts of more heroin, broke into people’s houses, held people hostage, sent people to prison on false charges. He ran over a person that they were chasing, fabricated the charges, and had another sergeant come and put a BB gun under the car so they could do that. The different levels of crime from massive heists to massive drug dealing to just like, running people over and stuff. It was one of the reasons it was so hard to get it into a narrative is because it’s so big.
Marc Steiner: It’s huge. Brandon, do you want to add to that at all before we move on?
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah. I would just say that the sort of macro of it, which Baynard started to dig into after these really important sort of isolated incidents that are just terrifying is there’s the nightly raids they’re kind of doing, they’re pulling up on people in Baltimore and they had a thing called a door pop, which is basically pull your car up to someone, hit the brakes and pop the door. As soon as a bunch of black men sitting at a bus stop hear a car pull up, and also these are unmarked police cars, they don’t have sirens, they hear that door pop, they run. Once people run, it’s a justification in their eyes to chase these people and tackle them. They’re doing those every night up to 50 times a night. That was what was testified.
So, they’re pulling drugs and cash out of people’s pockets and guns nightly. That’s the kind of smaller examples that really, really build that you can’t possibly calculate. You don’t know how many of those people were actually charged with a crime. You don’t know how many of those people had those drugs stolen and then had to go back and tell their plug, they’re like, “Hey, these guys ran up and tackled us and took our drugs.” You don’t know what happens to someone who’s down or the count’s wrong, the drugs are gone, those kinds of thing. That kind of violence, you can’t really calculate. There’s no Johns Hopkins study that can calculate that stuff. So, that’s really important.
Then, as Baynard sort of said, at the same time, you have the massive stuff that by 2016, which is the focus of our book, three of these officers all have a connection to a drug dealer. So, there’s three different kind of drug rings running out of these seven cops, including one that went up to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. So, that’s just impossible to comprehend in a way. We can tell the anecdotes, we can put it together in order, but the actually hard data on how that effected crime is just inexplicable.
Marc Steiner: I want to kind of get into something almost emblematic of what we’re facing right now in this country with this question of police abolish, defunding the police; you all wrote a really good op-ed in the Washington Post recently called Baltimore Tried Reforming the Police, They Fought Every Change. In the book, you have everything from Debra Levy, who is a public defender who comes out as kind of a real hero in the book in terms of her work and what she does, taking on corrupt police. But she talks about showing corruption between the Baltimore police department, the state’s attorney’s office. I think about the moment we’re in and how these things are tied together in terms of how high up the level of corruption actually goes inside the police department, even though most of the people at the top were not indicted with these guys. But clearly, you show a possibility of connections but we don’t know them.
There’s a line in your book here and a line from the piece I want to throw out here and let’s talk about this for a minute. One the lines in the book is, “They are out there right now. They might be busted, but there are more people out there. This is not over.” Then, in your Washington Post piece, you close with saying, “Police don’t believe in reform. Baltimore shows that we shouldn’t either.” So, let’s pick up on what this book is kind of really telling us about this moment we’re in about the depth of corruption and why in the police departments, and what the hell do we do about it from all the work you’ve done. Who starts? Brandon, we’ll start with you and we’ll end up with Baynard.
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah. Thanks for kind of close reading that stuff in the book and in the op-ed. The book is called I Got a Monster because it’s something that Sergeant Jenkins said when he had a big drug dealer he wanted to rob. He called them monsters. We sort of explored this monster imagery, especially because it’s the kind of imagery that goes back to the super predator myth of the 90s about black criminals, or stories like that; police shooting victims are just these sort of super strong people that like, bullets couldn’t take down. It was said about Mike Brown. It was one of the many ways we were trying to flip this around and use it towards police.
So, the monster thing is something that’s sort of a theme through the book. But it’s also an argument that these guys are true villains, true people to be feared and be stopped. So, what you really see in the op-ed and in the book is the way that police are going after people and have the power of the state behind them and at the same time, are sort of trying to stop reform. They’re fighting any changes to the department, and that’s another thing that can’t be stopped by, I don’t know, simple adding more laws or having another panel about, “What do we do about policing?” There’s really this concerted aggressive effort to stop reform, sabotage reform, or exploit reform, as Baynard kind of said, by finding ways to use body cameras and other kind of versions of surveillance to do more of what they wanted to do. They’re really devious.
Again, you also have this chase kind of set up in the book where because they were cops, it’s not a cops chasing criminals, it’s defense attorneys chasing cops who are dirty. But that idea that there’s a real chase going on, you have to stop these guys before. The book and the op-ed kind of stress that the removal of even these seven, additionally about eight or so others have been connected to this have been federally charge. It doesn’t seem to be over. So, the idea is there’s that, but then there’s just all of the strategy and the tactics that these officers learned and used that other officers are using right now on the streets. The last thing I’ll say is I think that the plain clothes policing element is really important. That’s maybe something I was most shocked about or just embarrassingly naïve about the darkness of plain clothes policing. That it’s kind of a shadow police force, a shadow army stalking black neighborhoods that white people don’t really think about, ready to jump out and throw you against the wall, and grab a gun from you, and drugs, or plant a gun on you or plant drugs-
Marc Steiner: Or plant a gun, right. Baynard, I was thinking about how the title … as soon as I saw the title, I Got a Monster, I thought of the double entendre. Part of it is, the monster is in fact the pervasiveness of corruption and protection that happens inside those departments, which is why you basically say … both of you are saying, “Reform is not enough.”
Baynard Woods: Yeah. I specifically heard the title, I loved thinking about Oedipus, you know? When he says, “I’m going to find the man who killed the king,” and he has no idea that it’s him. When Jenkins calls Step in the beginning of the book and says, “I got a monster,” it’s like, yeah, you do and don’t know how many ways you do. But yeah, it’s crazy. We’re seeing this happening in Portland now with these federal police agents there unmarked, snatching people up and stuff. One of the crazy things that really shocked me and what we discovered with this is that Jenkins and his crew would lie about who they were when they pick up the guy Ronald Hamilton that Brandon mentioned earlier and don’t even charge him. Take him to his house out of the county, get him at a Home Depot, take him out to the county, never end up charging him and take all his money. Jenkins told him he was a US attorney. He told the guy in the case that the book starts with that he was the DEA.
You wouldn’t know what agency these people were either. They’re in unmarked cars, they’re picking you up, and you don’t know who they are. I think they were specifically acting as a counter insurgency in the way that coming in a post-uprising city. They were furious about the uprising. They were furious about the talks of reform. Jenkins called … even before the uprising, the reforms that commissioner Batts was trying to bring in gay training, using a slur to try to disparage them while also being homophobic.
This is what we should expect to see around the country now as people are calling for defunding police departments, abolishing police departments. Police see this as an existential threat and crime causes us to say, “We need cops.” You could see that happen in the period of the book. So, we start this with a prologue with the uprising after the death of Freddie Gray, but by the time it really starts in March 2016, everyone has given up on most of that and we’re saying, “We need to get the homicides down. We need to stop the murders. Do whatever it takes.” Eric [inaudible 00:26:51] who was a spokesperson for the old administration when commissioner Davis, who’s the commissioner throughout most of the book comes in, he gets them in the room and says, “The riot is over. Do what it takes to get the city under control.” The politicians were doing the same. We had an op-ed in the New York Times a year ago that was in many ways pre [inaudible 00:27:10] Brett Stevens’ stupid argument this last week about the Baltimore model; how we’re going to cause crime by trying to reform police.
The police, as Brandon mentioned earlier, all of these things they were doing caused crime in so many ways. They took $10,000 from a guy and arrested him. When he was coming from his court date, someone else who he owed money to murdered him. How do we calculate the effect of that on the kinds of crime that’s happening in cities right now? These officers see themselves, thee detectives in plain clothes especially as at war with the city. We need to take their own words seriously. When they talk about a war on drugs, when they talk about a war on guns, when they start a war room to gather intelligence, they mean that literally. We need to start taking it literally too, that they’re at war on us. It’s the plain clothed squads that see that as their job and that we give the power to do that as their jobs. They are still out there right now prowling around in unmarked cars, looking for citizens who they think are, as the US attorney said, “Beneath the law,” and that no one will listen to.
Marc Steiner: Well, they’re above the law. Folks, I got to say, I really highly recommend this book. I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. It’s an amazing piece of work. Really well-written. Grips and holds you in. It’s also important as we face the future of policing and our country and the rise of fascism under Trump; putting federal police in unmarked cars, all these things get connected. When you read Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg’s book, I Got a Monster, it comes all falling into place as well. Check it out. Baynard and Brandon, again, disclosure, we are friends, but the book is really, really good. So, I want to thank you both for writing this book and for joining us here on The Real News today. It’s an important piece of work.
Baynard Woods: Thanks so much for having us, brother.
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Marc Steiner: Always good to see you, even at a distance. I’m Marc Steiner, here for The Real News network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think and take care.