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Ben Jealous Calls For Special Prosecutor For Police Corruption and Misconduct

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The progressive Democratic candidate for governor makes wide-ranging calls for reform amid the corruption crisis in the Baltimore Police Department

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BAYNARD WOODS: For The Real News, I’m Baynard Woods.

After this week’s filing deadline, Maryland’s gubernatorial race is fully underway, in the middle of an existential crisis in policing, caused by the revelations of sweeping corruption in the Gun Trace Task Force trials, which ended earlier this month with two officers convicted of racketeering and robbery charges, and six others pleading guilty. Former head of the NAACP, prominent Bernie Sanders surrogate, and Princeton University Professor Ben Jealous is one of eight candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Today, he released his plan for police reform. He’s here with us to talk about the plan.

Thanks for being with us, Ben.

BEN JEALOUS: Thank you, Baynard.

BAYNARD WOODS: So, your plan’s impressive, and I wanna go into it in depth.

BEN JEALOUS: Sure.

BAYNARD WOODS: But, I wanna start with a question that many here in Baltimore are asking. They’re saying that the Baltimore Police Department should be disbanded altogether. That it’s un-reformable. What makes you think that it can be reformed?

BEN JEALOUS: The only responsible action is to make big changes. And that’s absolutely true. I’ve studied this department for years. I was out there during the Freddie Gray uprisings, literally in a church multipurpose room training young people on nonviolence and civil disobedience at the request of the local pastor. And, listening to folks being involved in the struggles in the city has led me to the conclusion that we have to do everything we can to restore trust. And that starts with having a special prosecutor in the governor’s office who oversees all cases of police misconduct in the state. That includes corruption, that includes the killings of unarmed civilians. It’s something that’s been done in the past in states like New York, when there’s been crises moments like this one. It’s worked very well.

You have to go further. You have to make sure that the truth can actually get out there. We’ve had these nondisclosure agreements. The police beat you up. You’re paid a settlement, and then you’re not supposed to talk to anybody about it. We need to stop that practice. We need to make sure that we end the corruption in overtime. Literally, our policing budget competes with our budget for education. And there’s no way that an officer should be able to file a fictitious report, be paid for hours they did not work, and steal money from the city. And we’ll make sure that that happens.

My family’s rooted on the Westside. We’ve been on the Westside since 1941. You talk to cousins … community’s like Upton on the Westside, where my mom grew up … they just want the police to work for them. People call a neighborhood a “high-crime neighborhood,” but what that really means is it’s a high-rate-of-victimization neighborhood. And it’s where folks really need the police to be on their side. In order to do that, we’re gonna have to change the way policing is done. And we’re gonna even need to change who we recruit. A lot of what we talk about in this report is about what it will take to actually create a deeper pipeline of officers coming from the city, and frankly officers who start off with the right type of personality. Not predisposed to bias or to violence.

BAYNARD WOODS: So, you’re talking about high-crime neighborhoods and areas, and after the death of Sean Suiter, the detective in Harlem Park, the neighborhood was locked down for nearly week. We still haven’t gotten any answers about that. And this idea of a special prosecutor is really interesting, so maybe this case could help us see like what could a special prosecutor do to help us figure out what actually happened there, both to the detective and in the aftermath of that. How would that work?

BEN JEALOUS: Well, if you look at the Gun Trace Task Force case, which you covered closely, one of the very disturbing things was that these bad officers who were really bad were involved in drug trafficking and terrorizing a community, appeared to have informants inside of the Internal Affairs Division. Inside of the State’s Attorney’s Office. The relationship is too cozy when the police are policing the police. And so, you’ve gotta have a special prosecutor. Somebody who’s outside of that framework. Somebody who’s not, you know, they or their boss isn’t running for office and dollars for the FOP. Who can take control of the situation and get to the bottom of it.

What was most disturbing about Detective Suiter, of course, was he was killed the day before he was supposed to testify.

BAYNARD WOODS: Right.

BEN JEALOUS: And it appears like another officer may have been involved, or somebody working with a dirty officer who he was gonna testify against. And, that added insult to injury after the community was sort of treated like everybody was suspect, to learn that it may have been somebody in law enforcement. That’s the type of deep violation of trust that we’re seeking to address.

BAYNARD WOODS: Right, so your plan address, it brings in civilian oversight in a number of ways, on trial boards, and of the department as a whole and uses models like Seattle’s Consent Decree, Cleveland’s Consent Decree as improvements over the one that Baltimore entered into with the Department of Justice. Is there any way that you would allow there to be … and I wanna go into some of those details but, that you would allow there to be civilians who are hiring and firing the commissioner? We just got a new commissioner sworn in this morning. How does the police department get controlled under your plan?

BEN JEALOUS: Well yeah, I mean, the commissioner should be fully accountable to the mayor. The mayor’s the ultimate civilian. Under our plan, the idea is to frankly get our police department accountable to our democracy. Get a strong civilian complaint review board with teeth. Get civilians involved in these trials. Right now, we have officers trying officers inside the police department. And we’ve seen, from these cases, that oftentimes you have corrupt officers amongst the three officer panel. Again, it’s too cozy. And it’s easily corrupted. And that’s why you need to be able to put civilians on those internal review boards.

At the same time, what this is about fundamentally is, let’s make the department accountable to the people again. And let’s get the people of the city coming into work as officers again. When I was young, the reason I became a criminologist—and I now teach criminal justice at Princeton—is my granddad was my hero, and my granddad was a probation officer here in the city. When he retired after about 30 years, he was chief of juvenile probation for Baltimore, for the western part of the city. And, I remember the early 1980s, I was a young boy, I was probably eight, nine years old. And the shootings were going up every summer. More and more violent every summer. I said to my granddad one summer as he was putting his badge in his pocket and about to walk out the door, “Granddad, don’t you ever get scared? Some of these kids are kinda dangerous. Don’t you ever get scared?” He said, “Of course I do. And that’s why I tell all of them, ‘Here’s my address. I get home at 6 o’clock sharp every night. If you’ve just had the worst day of your life’—which could mean that they’ve killed somebody—’and you don’t know what to do, you just come sit on my steps. When I get home, we’ll figure it out together.'”

What my grandfather understood was no one became a victimizer unless they had been victimized themselves. These young people were often in a kill-or-be-killed situation that was terrifying. And if we showed courage today, life would get better tomorrow. But he was fueled by a courage that came from a love for the Westside, because he had raised my mom, half her childhood in the McCulloh Homes housing projects, and the other half split between Pulaski Street and Longwood. And so, when he was more successful and older, and lived out in Ashburton, he still had a love for the entire Westside, and a connection to families across the Westside, and a conviction that we were all in this together. There’s no us and them. There’s just us.

BAYNARD WOODS: So yeah, after the death of Freddie Gray and the curfew, there’s a strong feeling that the police here were like an occupying army and 75 percent of officers aren’t living here. The Gun Trace Task Force complicated-

BEN JEALOUS: And many are in Pennsylvania.

BAYNARD WOODS: Right. Not even in the state. The Gun Trace Task Force complicated that a little bit where we, and some people are pushing back on the idea of local hiring because we have people like Gondo, Detective Gondo, who was simultaneously part of the drug crew here with his, you know, one of his childhood friends. We have Hersl, whose mother was in Little Italy, and he’d stop by on duty and be using overtime while he was hanging out with his mom. How would you answer those critics who say that being too close to the community may also be a problem?

BEN JEALOUS: Never, ever, ever is the solution to default to an occupied force.

BAYNARD WOODS: Right.

BEN JEALOUS: The force should be of the people, and yes, the force then has to be held accountable. Under any scenario, you could have somebody stopping to see their mom on any job where you have a vehicle and you’re moving around. But then, somebody should be auditing. And there should be good supervision. That’ll take care of that. On the issue of officers who are prone to criminality, we should be weeding them out multiple ways. One, you’ve gotta have a clean Internal Affairs Division. And that’s why you’ve gotta have an independent prosecutor overseeing it. At the same time, you’ve gotta make sure that they are filtering out people, that you’re doing the correct background checks. One of the things that we talked about in here is creating a cadet program that’s even bigger than the one that we have, and a more robust apprenticeship program so young people … the way that they are in Northern Europe are training in high school to go into the police department, and therefore, don’t have time to be in a gang.

So, it’s fundamentally about bringing more integrity, gaining greater accountability, getting the police out of the business of being the only ones who police the police, and getting them back being accountable to the people, and frankly, being not just for the people, if you will, but of the people of the city.

BAYNARD WOODS: All right, so a couple things on integrity … the new commissioner has called for random integrity checks without being clear of what that would even look like. Like maybe polygraphs, maybe tests, having money to see … you know, setting people up to see if they would do that. And then, on the trial boards, the mayor has called for giving the commissioner the right to fire officers even if they’re found not guilty by a trial board. Do you support those positions?

BEN JEALOUS: I think that the mayor’s suggestion is spot on. The reality is that you can have a trial board internal that could have a bad officer on it that could find you not guilty of something you were guilty of. And you could have a chief, who after decades of experience has just come to the conclusion that there’s a pattern here that makes him feel uneasy or makes her feel uneasy. And that chief needs to have the right, like any other employer, to say, “I just got a bad feeling about you, and you carry a gun every day. So, no, you can’t work here anymore.” You know, we go further in this report and we say there should actually be a database for the entire state of every officer involved shooting, and it should be searchable by the public.

BAYNARD WOODS: Right.

BEN JEALOUS: Too often you have an officer who’s fired in one place, and hired somewhere else, and they don’t know why that officer was fired. They don’t know who that officer is. And what we know from personality tests of officers is there’s a very narrow band of officers who are predisposed to kill unarmed civilians. And so, we also advocate for using those personality tests differently, so that we weed them out on the front end. Right now, we’re giving all of them personality tests but we’re actually not using them to weed out the officers who are most predisposed to violence. We need to change that.

BAYNARD WOODS: So, I mean, we know that one of the main problems with crime here in Baltimore is just lack of opportunity, lack of money, and so there’s … and we have the war on drugs, which creates this drug trade, which then creates things like the Gun Trace Task Force. And yet, we also spend more than, something like, $490 million a year on the police budget. How do we reconcile those things, putting money into the money into the police department instead of the community? What else would you propose that we do for the community to reverse that scenario?

BEN JEALOUS: Our policy proposals on policing sit inside an overall policy framework. Other key elements include raising the minimum wage statewide to $15 per hour. That’s important, not just to workers, it’s important to their kids. You have a lot of parents working two and three jobs. Well, if you raise the minimum wage 50 percent from $10.10 to $15, now they can work one less job. It might not get you from three to one, but it’ll get you from three to two. That’s more time at home with the kids. That’s important. It’s also more money in the community. When you … when we as a nation, and as a state, delinked the minimum wage from inflation, we didn’t just hurt workers or their families, we hurt entire communities where these workers are clustered. And, the thing is, when you are working for minimum wage, you know, you’re not storing your savings over in Switzerland. You’re spending it within two miles of your house.

BAYNARD WOODS: Right.

BEN JEALOUS: My cousin owns a flower shop on the Westside, and she came out in support of a $15 minimum wage, and she said, “Yeah, I might have to pay my own workers a little more but you know, I probably should be. But I don’t just own a flower shop that happens to be located here. I sell flowers here, and I’ll sell more flowers if the folks in my area are being paid more.” We’ve also said that … rather we’ve also put out a plan … I’m the only candidate for governor of Maryland with a plan to provide healthcare for everybody in the state. To get to a state-based Medicare for All here in Maryland, that’s critical because healthcare for all means mental healthcare for all. A lot of the violence in the streets are people who are suffering, get this, not from post-traumatic stress disorder, but from continuous traumatic stress disorder. It’s only post when you get to leave the war zone. We have young people who suffer CTSD at a higher rate than returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq suffer PTSD. And they don’t, unlike the soldiers, they don’t get access to mental healthcare. That will make officers a lot more safe very quickly. It will also change their interactions in the community.

At the same time, I’ll be absolutely committed to, across the state, dealing with these pockets of unemployment and pockets of persistent youth unemployment. One of the best things you can do to change the character of a community is to make it easier for young people to find work, and we’ll be focused on a range of private-public partnerships to get more young people into jobs every summer. And to create community schools to keep kids busier after school every day.

BAYNARD WOODS: So, all of those are really progressive proposals, and you’re probably the most progressive candidate in the Democratic field in this election, and certainly-

BEN JEALOUS: Certainly amongst the three front runners.

BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah. And so, but one of the impediments to all of these reforms in policing that you make is the police union, the FOP, and the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. How do you, as a union-supporting progressive and someone trying to make police reform, how do you reconcile those positions, and how do you do with the FOP?

BEN JEALOUS: You know, I’m a believer in unions and I believe that every public employee has the right to organize, including police officers. There was a time when these unions were founded because officers needed representation on typical kinda OSHA issues, you know, safety and health issues, wage and hour issues. I support the FOP for that. I believe though that they’ve crossed the line when they have become a force for electing the state’s attorneys who oversee issues of integrity and corruption.

BAYNARD WOODS: Right.

BEN JEALOUS: I believe that they’ve crossed a line when they get involved in mayor’s races who oversee the commissioner. The FOP, quite frankly, will find in me somebody who’s absolutely supportive of their right to organize, and also a very effective organizer who’s not afraid of anyone.

BAYNARD WOODS: So, one more question on the political front. You’re a big supporter of Bernie Sanders, and yet, your running mate you’ve chosen was … is someone who is deeply Democratic establishment, Susan Turnbull. And I just happened to be talking to someone at lunch today, said she wanted to host a fundraiser, and because of now worrying that you’re sort of going establishment, doesn’t wanna do that anymore.

BEN JEALOUS: First of all, ask your friend to call me. Susie, you should understand, was pushed aside at the DNC to make room for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. No connection between here and Debbie. I don’t think there’s even a friendship there. She was vice chair of the DNC under Howard Dean, and that was a very different DNC. It was a DNC that was about a 50 state strategy, about building from the bottom up and creating a more inclusive party. At the time, that was the most … this was before Obama, that was the most progressive campaign that came close, and she was part of that revolution, which ultimately is a kind of straight line between what Howard Dean did and what Bernie would do later.

When she was chair of the Maryland Party in 2010, they put 10 times more organizers on the ground than we did in 2014, and turned out 125,000 more voters. She’s the only woman to have been head of two national Jewish organizations, and she co-founded Emerge Maryland, which has helped a bunch of not just women, but progressive women, run for office all over the state. So, I would love to introduce your friend to Susie. I think that they’d find what I found.

But I’ll tell you this. A funny thing. I said I was only gonna run with somebody who would support our efforts to legalize cannabis, to provide healthcare to everybody in the state, to fully fund education, and to end the massive student debt crisis by ending mass incarceration. And I talked to some progressives, noted progressives, leading progressives in the state who were unwilling to go all the way there on one or all of those.

BAYNARD WOODS: Wow.

BEN JEALOUS: Susie … and this is what it’s gonna take. I mean, Martin Luther King, I was trained by some of his lieutenants down South when I was a young organizer in Mississippi, and one of his sayings … I haven’t found it in any book, but multiples of his lieutenants repeated to me was … Dr. King would say, “If you are comfortable in your coalition, then your coalition is too small.” What I do as an organizer is I build big robust coalitions, and that means that it has to be big enough that we don’t … that not everybody knows everybody. And that, we all have to keep reminding ourselves that we’re here to get something done. That’s how I led the state in abolishing the death penalty just a few years after Martin O’Malley tried and did not succeed. That’s how I led the state as the co-chair of the successful campaign to pass the DREAM Act. And that’s how, frankly, I helped to bring black church leaders to the table, to at least not oppose marriage equality as we put organizers on the ground, the NAACP, to pass marriage equality. Leadership requires that you keep stepping beyond your comfort zone, and expanding that coalition around core principles that will change our lives, real people’s lives in real time. That’s what I’m committed to doing.

BAYNARD WOODS: Well, thanks so much for coming out and talking with us. We look forward to following the rest of the campaign.

BEN JEALOUS: Appreciate you, Baynard.

BAYNARD WOODS: Here with Ben Jealous, I am Baynard Woods for The Real News Network.