Last week, 30 Baltimore City Police officers were implicated in a corruption scheme for accepting kickbacks from owners of an unauthorized towing company.
The alleged crimes – which were uncovered after lengthy internal and FBI investigations – continue a string of public relations mishaps for the Baltimore City Police Department, possibly fueling public distrust in city law enforcement.
At a small community gathering in midtown, a group of Baltimore residents casually discussed the corruption case and other recent police- involved events.
“I’m not surprised, that’s what people do. You help out your friends,” said one woman in her early 30s. “I’m sure there are more things going on like that.”
When asked if she trusts the police, she responded, “If they are your friends.”
Another woman, Katina Taylor of West Baltimore, said she long suspected “fishy business” between the police and towing companies. Her house is adjacent to a towing business and she said they rarely give detailed documents after hauling vehicles.
“I used to complain about that,” she said.
University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken says the “love-hate relationship” between the community and police is inherent in every major city. “We want police because we want them to keep us safe. We don’t like police because we think they have too much power,” he said.
The towing extortion scheme, Warnken added, undermines the credibility of law enforcement and exacerbates the oft-strained bond. “There is a perception, I don’t know how widespread it is, but there is certainly a perception that we don’t pay our police enough, and they have access to things you and I don’t have. It’s the old joke ‘absolute power breeds corruption,’” he said.
A city police officer, who asked that his name not be released, says his relationship with the community varies based on the neighborhood he’s patrolling – the more affluent the better. “Public opinion of officers is great when in a district with homeowners and businesses, because they help you find criminals. They work with you.”
In other neighborhoods, he said, residents have allowed criminals he’s chasing to hide in their homes.
He said low wages have driven cops to seek funds elsewhere. “Being officers, we are always looking for a way to make money … it’s unfortunate that this (corruption incident) was the worst case scenario. They were being greedy.”
A 36-year-old East Baltimore man said he’s heard conflicting stories about another high profile incident involving police that prompted outcry from the community – the nightclub shooting that left one plain clothes officer and an innocent man dead. “If the truth comes out then it will make them (the police) look incompetent so they have to cover it up,” the Baltimore man said.
Unlike most of his friends, he said he doesn’t despise officers. “They are in a public relations business. If I were in the situation, I would do some of the same things. I don’t think everything needs to be transparent,” he said. “You knowing or not knowing isn’t going to change anything.”
But some believe the police force should be transparent. “They look like criminals to me,” said D. Williams, 61. “They really do. I don’t trust them. I didn’t anyway, but this (recent incidents) gave credence to my suspicions.”
According to Warnken, the police department needs to reexamine their regulations, principally as it relates to identifying undercover or off-duty officers. “If you’ve got cops pulling weapons and a situation is evolving rapidly, and I’m a cop, how do I know whether you are an innocent good guy, you’re a bad guy or an undercover cop,” he questioned. “I can’t get the answers to all the questions rapidly so what obviously happened in the shooting case is that they shot first and asked questions later.”
Days after details of the corruption case were made public, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Bealefeld released a joint statement heralding the appointment of an independent review panel to investigate the nightclub shooting case. The five-member panel of former law enforcement officials and researchers are also expected to dissect police policies and submit recommendations for improvements.
At a press conference announcing the corruption charges, Bealefeld reiterated that he would “exhaust every means and resource to eliminate dishonesty from ranks.”
He scoffed at the suggestion that the incident puts a smear on the department. “I don’t think it’s a setback at all,” he said. “This is an absolute affirmation of our commitment to policing and outing corruption.”
The investigation, widely believed to have unearthed one of the largest police scandals in recent years, is still ongoing. “My guess is … corruption in the police department is probably not as big as we see from some of the television shows, but certainly something like this is big,” said Warnken.