A Real News investigation reveals how the political power structure of policing allows brutal cops to silence victims with public money
TAYA GRAHAM: Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. Remember, this show has a single goal: to hold one of the most powerful institutions in the country, policing, accountable. To do so, we go beyond just the individual actions of police and look at the systemic, imperative, and political alliances that give police, at times, troubling power over our lives. In fact, in one of our last shows when we were joined by former Washington, DC detective Trevor Hewick, my reporting partner Stephen Janis asked him this question that comes up often when the police seem incapable of policing themselves: Is systemic police corruption in Baltimore the result of a few bad apples, or the system which bolsters it? Let’s watch the exchange.
TREVOR HEWICK: I didn’t like that.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.
TREVOR HEWICK: I didn’t like that.
STEPHEN JANIS: But you are arguing that it’s the personal actor, not the system itself. Isn’t there something systemic that should be changed, too? Or, do you think it’s really just personal actors?
TREVOR HEWICK: No, it’s just personal actors.
TAYA GRAHAM: Stephen, I’m going to ask you to maybe explain why you asked him this question and why it’s so critical?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, as a reporter covering policing, and the intractable corruption in Baltimore and in seemingly other urban police departments, the bad apples theory has been a theory espoused by politicians as a way to explain away corruption— if only we had the right actors in the position. That was the assertion that Trevor made and I see no evidence of that because in Baltimore City, either the people who are hired by police are morally bankrupt, or there’s a system and culture that creates the environment where they feel that they can take advantage of the power that’s given to them because otherwise, you can’t explain it. Why does it keep happening? So is it that we keep hiring all these evil people, or do we have a system that is completely and thoroughly dysfunctional? And I think it’s the latter.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s an excellent question.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, and that question has to keep being asked because it’s always this bad apples. “This was just one person. The rest of the department’s fine.” And yet, every time we delve in and go deeper and deeper, there are more and more people who have participated in a lot of these corrupt practices. So that’s why I think we have to keep emphasizing this point on the show and keep pushing back when police officers, and police officials, and politicians say, “Oh, it’s just a bad apple.”
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s an excellent point, especially when we have people like our former Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, who’s currently in prison for cheating on his taxes. Didn’t we find out that this was actually advice that was being given to multiple police officers to defraud the government?
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. So one of our former police commissioners was indicted, and went to prison, and pled guilty to not filing his taxes. But what was we learned later was that he’d actually created fake deductions, fake mortgage interest deductions, fake businesses, and that there was a tax preparer that police officers went to, who they knew who would help them create these false tax returns, so there’s a perfect example and a good example of how it was systemic. Was Darryl De Sousa a serial tax cheater? Or, was it that, “Hey, you’re a cop?” You don’t have to pay taxes. You’re fighting the battle of good and evil,” which is where much of this comes from.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. So now let’s look at an example of how the so-called system works and doesn’t, and it prevents some pretty commonsense mechanisms that would help hold police to account. This story starts in Baltimore, where a controversial policy has been in the news lately. For decades, the city has forced plaintiffs who settled police misconduct lawsuits to sign what’s known as an NDA or Non-Disparagement Agreement. It’s sometimes also called a gag order. The agreement means the victim cannot speak publicly about their experience, either to the media or online. And this policy led to millions of dollars of suits being settled with plaintiffs who were not allowed to talk about what happened to them and their family members. So, Stephen, can you explain why a gag order is so bad and why people are saying this is actually infringing on peoples’ First Amendment rights?
STEPHEN JANIS: Very clearly, and without any sort of like editorial comment here, it is a taxpayer-purchased silence, right. You have lawsuits that are filed because of misbehavior by police, police brutality, police misconduct, government malfeasance. And what happens? When it is settled prior to going to court, the taxpayers purchase the silence of the victim. And so clearly, you’re using government funds to suppress peoples’ First Amendment rights.
Now we know that in many ways, lawsuits are the canary in the coalmine of police accountability and police corruption. For years before the Baltimore City Police Department was found by the Department of Justice of implementing unconstitutional and racist practices, there were tons of lawsuits filed alleging the same, but the problem was that the people who settled were not allowed to say anything to anyone about it. So it’s like the taxpayers are paying to keep people silent for things that really should come to light through the normal process of transparency. The whole point in transparency of government is to root this stuff out, and you can’t do it when you’re buying peoples’ silence with our money.
TAYA GRAHAM: Stephen, you’ve run up against this roadblock more than once, and I think a good example of this is Tawanda Jones, who has been protesting for years, the death of her brother Tyrone West in police custody. And she is speaking out about it because she refused to take the money from the city that would have gagged her. Can you talk about her case? And then also, we can talk about roadblocks that you’ve seen?
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, well, let’s run a clip where she, there was a press conference. Let’s just run a clip and see what she had to say about why she didn’t take the money.
TAWANDA JONES: It is very important that people not be gagged because forced-silence condones police violence on every level. And not only that, it makes families suffer in silence.
STEPHEN JANIS: One of the most interesting things about this so-called gag order, is it’s a one-way gag order. Meaning, city officials are allowed to say whatever they want. And in fact, the Overbey lawsuit, the lawsuit that actually was filed that we’ll talk about later, was a result of someone trying to defend themselves because the city disparaged her in public. So as a reporter, I could talk to a city official and they could say, “Oh, the person who suffered this police brutality, it wasn’t that bad.” And they could go into the media and basically assuage the public and say, “These things weren’t the bad,” but the other person who was experiencing the brutality was not allowed to talk.
TAYA GRAHAM: Their voice isn’t heard at all.
STEPHEN JANIS: I mean, that’s basically totalitarianism, right. “We can talk about you. You can’t talk about us.” It’s just unacceptable and it didn’t work. I think this has been going on much longer than way before Freddie Gray, way before the consent decree, and so what happened? Did it foster a good system of transparency? No, not at all.
TAYA GRAHAM: Recently, the ACLU along with the local news website The Baltimore Brew, won a ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that deemed this policy unconstitutional. The ruling prompted the city council to introduce legislation banning the practice altogether. But that’s not where the story ends because Stephen and I attended a press conference at City Hall to ask the mayor if he supports the bill. And the answer we received from a member of the city’s legal department came as a surprise to us and the rest of the media who attended. And we have some of that video interaction.
BALTIMORE CITY LEGAL DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: There was language in the earlier agreement that said that a litigant could not discuss their case. The new agreements say you’re free to discuss your case. You can say whatever you want about your case. You are not inhibited in any way in discussing the facts of your case.
TAYA GRAHAM: So Stephen, can you explain what happened here?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, it was really weird because we felt like we had to ask the mayor to get – because the mayor of the city, we have a very powerful mayorly, and if the mayor doesn’t approve the bill, it probably won’t pass. We wanted to ask the mayor, and then suddenly a member of the city’s legal department steps up and says, “Well, this policy hasn’t been in effect since 2017,” which was news to all of us because we had been experiencing roadblocks and had no idea. And that sort of created a big controversy.
And then number two, when we asked the mayor directly, and this is very, very important. We have the major of a major US city, who is presiding over one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional police departments. We have one of the highest crime rates. We spend more money than any other jurisdiction in the state on policing. And he was asked, “Do you support this gag order ban?” And he said, “I will defer to the legal department.” Let’s hear what he had to say.
REPORTER: [crosstalk] … Are you going to sign that legislation for the council to pass?
MAYOR JACK YOUNG, BALTIMORE CITY: I’m going to abide by whatever the city solicitor tells me.
TAYA GRAHAM: So let me get this straight. The city’s legal department has been saying that they haven’t been doing this since September of 2017—
STEPHEN JANIS: Yes.
TAYA GRAHAM: But at the same time, they’re going to fight the Circuit Court ruling.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right.
TAYA GRAHAM: Isn’t that a little bit confusing and contradictory there?
STEPHEN JANIS: It makes no sense. I mean, they kind of said they had a modified NDA, which didn’t make any sense because basically, they still precluded the victims from talking about their personal experience, how it affected them, which is very relevant and I think has more impact. And then meanwhile, we have this ruling which we’ll show up on the screen or this filing by the city law department, which was fighting, asking for a secondary ruling where they asked the entire Fourth Circuit panel of 15 judges to reconsider the ruling that the gag orders were unconstitutional. So while they’re saying, “Oh, we don’t do it,” they’re actually fighting against it, which they said was for constitutional grounds because somehow, this was going to be some big—
TAYA GRAHAM: They were very concerned about the language becoming precedent on some level. At least that’s what they said.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, but you can’t use taxpayer dollars to buy public silence.
TAYA GRAHAM: But as we learned, not everyone agreed with the claims made by our city. And this is where our point about systemic issues that fuel bad policing are critical. Shortly after the press conference, we were contacted by the ACLU of Maryland, who said in fact, the city’s legal department was not telling the truth. Let’s listen to David Rocah of the ACLU explain why.
DAVID ROCAH, ACLU OF MARYLAND: The assertion that they don’t impose non-disparagement agreements in settlements of police misconduct cases, and the assertion the plaintiffs are free to say whatever they want after settling with the city is untrue. What is true, is that at some point after Mr. Davis became City Solicitor, they modified the standard non-disclosure agreement that they demand, that’s still an NDA and that’s still problematic because it still has a coercive and chilling effect on plaintiffs’ ability to speak freely.
TAYA GRAHAM: So Stephen, the city tells us one thing to the press corps, the ACLU directly contradicts this, essentially saying that the city’s lying. Who are we supposed to believe?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, we’re supposed to believe the imperative power of policing because basically when you have a mayor and a legal department creating some sort of irreconcilable argument about the status of a policy, which is essential to holding police accountable, then you know who has the real power, and that’s policing. They defer to policing. They are supposed to represent us— the taxpayers— not a small group of armed officers who really just don’t even live in the city. But instead, they’re obfuscating to the media and making stuff up and wasting our money, filing a lawsuit to fight a Fourth Circuit—Let’s remember something. We had did an investigation where we showed how much money was spent— up to $7 million— fighting brutality lawsuits paid to outside law firms.
This litigation will probably be undertaken by an outside law firm, and money will be spent. In fact, we’re going to ask them about that. So there they are, not only are they spending taxpayer money to buy peoples’ silence, but they’re spending more money to fight this idea that they can buy silence. Meanwhile, Taya, we’ve done stories about how rec centers are dilapidated.
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.
STEPHEN JANIS: We’ve done stories about how public schools don’t have air conditioning or heat. Where is the priority here? Why spend so much money? Why expend so much capital on protecting police, who have demonstrably done a bad job? And this is where the core of this show is because if that’s what’s operational, then you have to say the power of policing is completely disproportionate to their role in our civic lives and in any way that is healthy to a productive democracy.
TAYA GRAHAM: And so this while not a viral video or a direct example of brutality, illustrates in intimate detail how the process of politics informs the practice of policing – how the city government so wedded to its most well-funded institution, obfuscates about how it spends taxpayer money to silence critics.
STEPHEN JANIS: And so I think it shows it’s futile in some ways, or that some deeper political change has to come in this city and in this country.
TAYA GRAHAM: So are you telling me that our mayor could stop this today?
STEPHEN JANIS: Absolutely, in one second with one phone call. He has that power. It wouldn’t go any further and that would be the end of it.
TAYA GRAHAM: To summarize, an elected official presiding over a police department under Federal Consent Decree, notorious for scandal and brutality, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, for example, an agency that has presided over the highest crime rate in the country year in and year out, is being protected from scrutiny with taxpayer dollars.
In journalism, we have a rule of thumb: Show; don’t tell. And in this case, the conflict over the gag orders shows more about policing in this country than anything we could say directly. It is a prime example of how even the simplest act of accountability can hit an impenetrable roadblock even when all of the political figures have pledged to fight for reform. Stephen, most of the people that we were interviewing, that we were speaking to, that were at the press conference, have promised to be progressive, have promised to try to help reform the police department. Is that what you’re seeing?
STEPHEN JANIS: No. No, I’m seeing the police department wielding its same power. Let’s look at the money. They have increased the budget of the police department. They have turned to the police department to solve crime. It’s the same pattern and this gag order is exemplar of that. That when there was an opportunity to really push for change and do something different, they just reverted to form. It is a bad sign for this city, but it is also a sign of the preeminent power of policing. It’s something that I think has to be changed if we want to have healthy civic life and democracy in cities like Baltimore.
TAYA GRAHAM: I want to thank my fellow reporter Stephen Janis for joining me to talk about how a police state infringes on our right to free speech. My name is Taya Graham and I want to thank you for joining me at The Real News Network. Thank you.