By Baynard Woods
This story is part of Collateral Damage, a Real News and Democracy in Crisis investigative series that looks at the damage corrupt police inflict on people, often in law enforcement, who are not their intended targets.
Internal Affairs Detective Larry Smith was sitting on a couch in the waiting area outside of a hearing room, set to testify against notorious cop Fabien Laronde at a internal BPD trial board, when Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, later of the Gun Trace Task Force, plopped down next to him.
“The guy literally almost sat in my lap, that’s how close he sat,” Smith recalls about the January 2016 encounter. “He put his arm on the back of the couch like … I felt like we were on a date. He kept bumping my knee with his knee. He was asking me how I could feel good investigating real cops like Laronde and trying to guilt me, like telling me Laronde has kids and he’s got bills to pay and that I’m playing with his career.”
Internal Affairs Division (IAD) is a part of the force where the blue line breaks down on both sides. To be in IAD, you have to have a healthy distance from other officers, who often don’t see you as a real cop, while maintaining an even fiercer commitment to serve the public, which does still see you as a cop.
Two other people familiar with Laronde’s trial board have confirmed that Jenkins, who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in the Gun Trace Task Force case in early 2018, tried to serve as a character witness for Laronde.
“Jenkins took a really special interest in Laronde’s trial board and his future in the department,” Smith says, though he wouldn’t discuss the details of the particular investigation.
Internal Affairs complaints came in at regular intervals against Laronde. He had, not long before this Jan. 2016 hearing, been involved in two highly questionable shootings, stripped a man, and virtually kidnapped a court employee. He had been investigated by the FBI—but they had not ultimately been able to make a case.
Nothing seemed to stick. This time, it was pretty simple—he’d left a gun too close to a suspect. And between the charge and the trial board, he had illegally photographed a witness and a reporter in the courthouse. Still, Laronde had gotten away with so much for so long that he might be able to walk away with little more than a slap on the wrist.
“‘He’s a real cop and you’re a pussy behind a desk,’” Smith recalls Jenkins saying to him that day. “How do you feel about that?”
Jenkins and Laronde had a lot in common—they both seemed simultaneously protected and out of control. They brought in big busts, big complaints, a big paychecks chock full of overtime.
Jenkins was a man used to getting what he wanted.
“He’s a sergeant and he outranks me, so I’m uncomfortable because anything I say, I sort of feel like he’s trying to bait me into saying something that’s insubordinate or that could get me in trouble,” Smith recalls of the encounter with Jenkins at the trial board.
When Smith got up and walked to the vending machines in the hall, he passed by two members of Laronde’s squad, sitting there in chairs.
“When I walked by them, they started laughing, and they stood up,” he says. “They followed me to the vending machines. And they didn’t say anything, but it was just super uncomfortable.”
Sources say that on the second day of the hearing, Jenkins said something intimidating to one of the lawyers involved in the case and she later filed a complaint. Smith was not there when that happened and largely forgot about the incident with Jenkins—he was used to people sticking up for Laronde. A year earlier, during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, Smith, who was working in IAD, was driving a supply van with water and equipment. When they stopped to deliver fire extinguishers, Laronde’s lieutenant approached him for information about his case against Laronde.
“And this was in the middle of a riot,” Smith says.
So a couple months after the trial board, he was surprised when someone called out to him as was walking through the parking lot to his car after work.
“I turn around, and it’s Wayne Jenkins,” Smith said. “He’s in plain clothes, no police stuff at all, no vest, no badge out. I mean, I know who he is, but he’s not wearing anything, uniform-wise,”
He recalls Jenkins getting in his face.
“Hey, you remember what happened in the trial boardroom?” Jenkins said, referring to that second day when the confrontation with the attorney occurred.
The lawyer had since made a complaint and Jenkins demanded Smith write an administrative report, called a 95, refuting her claim.
“You’re going to write a 95 and say that shit didn’t happen like that. I didn’t do anything, I didn’t say anything to her,” Jenkins ordered.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I wasn’t even there when you had your interaction with her,’” Smith recalls.
“‘No, yeah, you were,’” he recalls Jenkins saying. “’And you’re going to write it up and say that this shit didn’t happen.’”
Again, Smith was in a dangerous dilemma.
“It’s going to be his word against mine, and I already know that he’s protected: people look out for the guy. He’s got friends, he’s got friends up the command,” Smith says. “I know whatever is going to happen, I’m going to be the one that’s going to pay for it.”
He says it was like Jenkins, who was an MMA fighter and a burglar on the side, was trying to bait him into a fight.
“He was so close to me. At one point, I thought he was going to take a swing at me. And again, I can’t do that, because that destroys my credibility,” Smith said.
Smith had no idea if Jenkins was there for legitimate business or if he was just waiting for him, wanting to deliver this message.
“All right, well, I’m not doing that. I’m not writing anything,” Smith recalls saying.
Smith drove away, watching Jenkins walk off around the corner.
“As soon as I left, I called the office and I spoke to my lieutenant, “ he says. “I told them what happened, I went home, and I was really anxious over it, stressed out.”
Sources familiar with Smith’s call and the underlying complaint have confirmed these details.
The next day, a commander told him they had asked Lt. Sean Miller, Jenkins’ superior officer, to “put a leash on Wayne Jenkins.”
Nothing ever seemed to happen to Jenkins, Smith says.
“Every day I’m leaving work looking over my shoulder. I’m waiting for him or the rest of his squad,” Smith said. “I was like, are they going to jump me? Are they going to pull me over? Are they going to try to set me up? I mean, I knew they were dirty. I couldn’t prove it, but I just knew they were. I didn’t know they were dirty to the extent that came out at the GTTF trial.”
The encounter with Jenkins was only one of the things swirling around in Smith’s head, pushing him toward the edge.
On April 25, 2016, Smith stepped into his shower with his service weapon. He put the barrel in his mouth.
When I first met Smith at a diner, we had been corresponding via Twitter direct messages and then texts for several weeks. I expected someone older, a thin man, perhaps, with gray hair. Instead I found a guy who looked like the alt-country singer Steve Earle (who also had a bit part as Waylon, Bubbles’ NA sponsor, on “The Wire.”). His hair was long and his eyes weary. But there was a wry humor and the hint of a smile between his cheeks and his gray-flecked beard.
He later sent me a picture of himself in uniform sitting in a patrol car. He had a buzzcut and a square jaw. He looked mean and angry, the kind of cop people hate. It was, he said, the last day he ever wore his uniform, when he’d been put on patrol in the Western because of staff shortages sometime around his encounter with Jenkins in March 2016.
The man in front of me at the diner did not look like the same person as the one scowling behind the wheel of a squad car. Perhaps, he hoped, he was a different man than he had been then. He did not like the man he had been as a cop and it had been a long and nearly fatal journey, an epic battle with himself that almost ended, twice, in his demise.
Still, even in the beginning, when he joined the force in June 1999, Smith was never a particularly good fit for the job.
“I was definitely considered a weirdo,” he says. “I didn’t drink, I read.”
Smith grew up in Kensington in Montgomery County, largely raised by a single father.
“My mom rolled out on me and my pops when I was like three years old. My dad owned a printing company for a long time and after that he drove a taxi cab,” he says.
Smith played football for a couple years in high school, but wasn’t particularly into it. He liked playing Nintendo and watching movies. It was while working in a video store in 1994 that he met a woman, Audrey, who would later become his wife. Then he started working at Barnes and Noble bookstores. First, he worked in the store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C. and then helped open the stores in Bethesda and Rockville.
“This is when they were opening stores every months. I would go help open the new stores. Set up the inventory and stuff,” he says.
He loved reading but he was looking for more.
“I wanted something interesting and a unique life experience. I wasn’t an office type of person,” he says.
He hadn’t been to college and didn’t have the money to go, and he felt like his options were limited.
“I had considered the military when I was graduating high school as a way to get out of Maryland. And so then as I started getting older and I just started applying for police jobs because for the most part it was a job you could get without a college degree.”
Audrey, an artist, was finishing her degree when he began to apply for a police job and so she didn’t think too much about it. She was a couple years older than him and didn’t know if they’d be together too long anyway.
“When we met, he was 18, 19, and I was 22,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d be dating him that long. Then as we had been together longer and he was pursuing that as a career, I said ‘Alright, we’ll see what happens.’ I had no idea what was involved in that line of work.”
Neither did Smith. “The only knowledge I had of police work was watching cops on television. I had the preconceived notion that I would help people in their time of need but I had no conception of what actual poverty or violence was,” Smith says.
First he applied for the Maryland State Police, and when he went to take the agility test, someone mentioned that the Baltimore Police Department was “hiring and hiring fast.’
Within three months he had a job and went into the academy.
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At first, when he was on patrol, he felt that he was helping people. But that feeling faded pretty quickly.
“It became apparent to me pretty quickly that there was very little I could do,” to actually help people, he says. “It’s systemic.”
Then he realized the only way to have the supervisors leave him alone was to bring in numbers: arrests, tickets, car stops.
“When they sort of dangle a carrot in front of you for a specific stat, me personally, I just started to see everything as a number,” he says. “I would go out some nights and try to find two quick car stops, headlight out, taillight out, then there are two car stops out of the way and the rest of the night I could do whatever I wanted.”
That got worse when he joined a special enforcement team—a plain clothes unit similar to the Gun Trace Task Force—in 2008.
“We were like a little gang of bullies going out. That whole mentality and atmosphere made me a really angry person,” he says.
The city he was supposed to serve had become the enemy.
“As cops, we lose sight of—we just don’t see people as people. We see people as stats, or the enemy, or the bad guy,” he says.
The focus on statistics didn’t just take away the humanity from the people it was policing, it began to take it away from those doing the policing.
“I had no idea how much it would invade your life,” Audrey says surrounded by macabre artwork, much of it hers, on the walls of their county apartment. “We stopped celebrating holidays because he had to work and it was hard to get together with family for Christmas or Thanksgiving.”
This separation from family can drive police closer together as a way to cope with their trauma and stress. There is a vigil during Police Week on the National Mall in Washington D.C. every year where cops from all over come to remember those who were killed over the previous year as their names are added to the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Surrounding the vigil, there is comradery and plenty of drinking.
Smith didn’t attend Police Week or actively engage in off-duty police culture. But Audrey noticed him becoming a different man. And she questioned what it meant to be married to a cop.
“There have been periods of time where I have been conflicted with his job,” she says. “What if I’m with a person who is abusive to people? What does that make me? Am I complicit if I’m with a person who is possibly doing the stuff that you read about on the news? I had those kinds of conflicts. I never felt like he’s that person truly. But I questioned. I questioned what that job makes people do. The mentality it makes you have towards other people.”
Despite his growing anger, she stuck with him. His disillusionment and ultimate disintegration was a long and slow process.
“Around 2008, after I’d gone through the specialized unit thing, I was burned out and jaded over how the whole drug war was totally fruitless, and patrol was fine because on patrol I felt like I was helping people and stuff,” he says. “But when I got to IAD in 2013 and saw the inner workings of the department, I got turned off to the whole policing culture in general.”
He was immediately assigned to investigate an officer he had only recently worked with
“So I told my sergeant, I don’t know if I can do this and be fair toward the process. He was like, ‘Welcome to Internal Affairs. Sometimes you’re going to investigate someone you know,’” Smith says.
IAD detectives were also put onto patrol in special circumstances—the Preakness, Artscape, protests—and they would find themselves on the streets with the very people they were investigating. That practice was recently discontinued.
“You’d be down on the street working crime suppression detail or detailed to patrol with people who may have complaints or definitely know you’re in Internal Affairs,” he says.
It was starting to feel like too much, but Smith didn’t know what to do: “I’d been there close to ten years. I wasn’t going to quit. I felt trapped in that regard,” he says.
He thought about suicide often and started talking about it, threatening it. He didn’t know how to seek help.
“At that point I didn’t want to be classified as a nut or labeled as a psych case. I was afraid it would hurt my career,” he says. “They didn’t give us the tools on how to reach out and how to ask for help.”
So finally, unsure what else to do, he got his service weapon and got in the shower. He was unable to pull the trigger. Instead, he had a friend take him to the hospital.
The sentencing of Thomas Allers, a former sergeant who pleaded guilty to robbery in the Gun Trace Task Force case, highlighted the mental health struggles of police officers. Allers described PTSD and depression as a “black hole eating me from the inside out.” His defense attorney, Gary Proctor, read from what he described as a suicide letter discovered after Allers’ arrest.
“I fucked up,” he wrote. “I’m just tired of everything…I wish I could take you with me but that would be selfish…I’m the most stupid person in the world…I was wrong and I didn’t know what to do….I’m tired of not sleeping.”
In a summary of materials presented to the court on Allers’ behalf, Proctor described Allers’ second day on the job: he shot a man, who had stabbed two women and who was holding a knife, in the head.
Proctor wrote that more than 20 years later, the events still haunt him, adding numerous other incidents that took a toll on his mental health: “He struggled to deal with suicides, decayed bodies, fathers shooting daughters in the head, pedestrians mown down in traffic, their bodies strewn over a wide area.”
Smith has little sympathy for Allers’ defense.
“Guess I should have robbed people to cope,” he wrote in a text after Allers’ sentencing. He understands the danger in allowing people like Allers’ to go untreated but he also knows that the culture of policing makes it difficult to address the very real struggles that come from experiencing such extreme situations on a regular basis.
“The biggest thing is the way it’s stigmatized, there’s this tough guy mentality that a lot of cops are flat out embarrassed to ask for help,” he says. “And also we go to a homicide scene, it’s not like anyone checks in with you at the end of a call or the end of a shift to say, ‘Hey, are you all right?’”
One of the ways cops deal with the stress was through gallows humor, laughing about the outrageous circumstances of someone’s death or about some grim but absurd detail.
“If you don’t joke about stuff, if you can find a way to laugh at something even if it’s truly horrible, we see it every day—if we don’t find a way to take the reality of it out of your life, you’re going to crack up,” he said.
This kind of grim humor as coping mechanism is perhaps most apparent in Jay Landsman, the legendary homicide detective who is one of the main characters of David Simon’s “Homicide,” which opens with Landsman laughing about how a dead man bleeding out has a slow leak. His humor, which is often at the expense of citizens, is one of the driving forces of that book and his character, which, when it morphed into John Munch (played by Richard Belzer) on television, became one of the most popular fictional detectives since Sherlock Holmes. The city just paid out $9 million settlement in a wrongful conviction suit brought against Landsman and the department, the largest in the city’s history.
Drinking is the other way of dealing with the stress and trauma of the job—and building the tight bond between officers. Allers’ attorney repeatedly referred to his alcoholism.
“Definitely guys who drink their sorrows away,” Smith says. “I have a history of alcoholism in my family, I consciously avoided it. I knew I was fucked up enough. I was at least strong enough to know I couldn’t add alcohol to the mix.”
Smith was put on medical leave after his visit to the hospital but he felt abandoned by the department.
“No one from the department was in contact with me. I had to make all the effort to get the fitness for duty evaluation,” he said. The evaluation determined he was not fit for duty in any capacity.
A second evaluation allowed him to return to work in an administrative capacity. He started working again. Soon he was transferred, with no real notice, to Human Resources. In January 2017, he took another fitness for duty evaluation.
“I had pretty much went in there and bullshitted the psychologist so she could clear me to go to the range so she could clear me for duty,” he says. “Then I started thinking if I get my gun back I am probably going to use it on myself.”
He purposely self-sabotaged friendships and relationships.
“There was a woman who I cared a great deal about,” he says. “I had gone off my meds cold turkey and my behavior had become really erratic and I said some really vile things to her through text messages and really hurt her feelings. I would lash out for no reason and be venomous for no good reason.”
He describes his life at that time as “super-erratic and off-the-rails.”
“I would be really confrontational at work with other cops,” he says. “I would go through phases where I would totally stop talking to people. Completely ignore them. I would pick arguments with my wife constantly.”
His sergeant noticed and sent him for another evaluation.
“It was kindness because we genuinely liked each other,” Smith says, but he also noted that his sergeant was obliged to do something. “We see something that is a problem, he was obligated to do it. He could have been a dick, he was really nice about it. He was understanding and genuinely concerned.”
On June 26, Smith gathered all of his medication, got in a car, and “ran away from home.” He drove west on I-70, looking for a motel to die in. Audrey got him on the phone. His lieutenant in HR was also a hostage negotiator and came over and began to help trying to talk him down.
He eventually checked himself into a mental facility, Sheppard Pratt. He says that representatives from the department kept saying that they just wanted him to get well and to come back. His wife told them that would kill him.
In a city like Baltimore, where a large number of citizens are suffering from severe and repeated trauma, often at levels higher than people returning from combat, the difficulties of dealing with an officer’s mental health issues creates a deadly combination. Traumatized officers are sent out to deal with traumatized citizens and often both sides are armed. In his book “The End of Policing,” sociology professor Alex Vitale shows that 25% of the people shot by police are suffering from mental illness.
This combination makes dealing with the mental health of officers a public health issue. The Baltimore Police Department, whose leadership is in shambles after the new commissioner was slapped with criminal charges and resigned, has not been the best at addressing mental health concerns, but when I wrote them to ask about these issues, the department was eager to put me on the phone with Vernon Herron, the director of performance improvement, who for the past eight months has run the Officer Safety and Wellness Unit.
“We’ve partnered with a mental health professional that could provide immediate access to our officers,” he says. “It has been our policy for the last several months that when an officer is involved in a critical incident, either myself or one of my colleagues will respond to the scene with a mental health professional. The officer will get a debriefing before he or she will go home, especially if they are involved in a shooting.”
Herron says that mental health treatment and alcohol treatment is free and confidential and paid for by the Baltimore Police Department. He acknowledges that they still need a change in culture.
“The paradigm has shifted. When I was an officer in the Maryland State Police I can tell you that there was a stigma in going to see a mental health professional,” Herron said. “I myself after being involved in a shooting secretly traveled 45 miles from my home to see a mental health professional but I think today we are removing a stigma with my officers.”
Herron says that things are different now.
“Officer safety and wellness is the sixth pillar of 21st Century Policing,” he said, referring to the 2015 guidelines created by a task force under Obama.
For Smith, it wasn’t just that there wasn’t appropriate care for officer mental health, and it wasn’t just dealing with aggressive behavior from people like Jenkins. It was the very nature of policing itself.
It helps “just being away from the politics and the atmosphere of the police department,” Smith said, sitting in his apartment, his deep-set eyes framed by heavy eyebrows. He’d gotten a haircut since we first met, but it was still a little long, standing up in the front, streaked with gray.
After talking at length in the diner on two occasions and then on the phone, I went to the Smiths’ apartment, whose walls are covered with other-worldly often religiously-tinged art, much of it depicting symbols of death. There is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, but also bats, and jellyfish and fossils, and strange-faced babies. There is a series of skulls of mammals, in descending order of size. Despite being near 695, Smith’s house is quiet and peaceful and almost separated from the modern world. Inspired by cabinets of curiosities, the apartment felt other-worldly.
I asked Audrey if she noticed a change in Larry when he started at BPD and now again that he has left.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” she said without hesitation.
Birds chirped in trees outside as cars sped by on the interstate outside their window.
Larry wouldn’t say it as directly, but Audrey said that it seemed like he had been discarded or abandoned when he began to struggle with mental illness. And though leaving was unquestionably good for him, he was now a middle-aged man looking to start over.
“When you are in a career for that long and it is just kind of taken away from you the way it was—you’re never prepared for that,” Audrey said. “It was like having the rug pulled out from under you.”
As he crafts a new post-police life for himself, he doesn’t know exactly what he wants to be. There was the positive part of helping people in distress when he worked on patrol—but he knows he could never go back to that. He can see using the skills he developed in order to help people with wrongful convictions. But what kind of job is there doing that? He’d love to manage a bookstore and write.
As he prepares to move to Brooklyn, he spends much of his time reading—he is especially drawn to Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” and “Big Sur,” James Baldwin’s novels, and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Jean Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” was important when he first left the department.
As he sits on the couch gently stroking a cat, it’s hard to imagine him as a cop. But he knows his 18 years on the force have shaped a large part of who he is. And if it is hard to see exactly which way to go forward, Wayne Jenkins, who intimidated him back in 2016, and Thomas Allers, who was just sentenced to 15 years, have provided a clear cautionary tale about how not to be.
Smith laughs and runs his hand through his hair. On the wall above him is a poster of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein.
“It seems to suck the human out of every interaction,” Smith says of the system of policing in America from which he is trying to recover. “There’s just no humanity in it.”