In a trial that began Tuesday in a Maryland federal court, prosecutors argued that members of of the Baltimore Police Department's Gun Trace Task Force engaged in a breathtaking pattern of illegal arrests, racketeering and theft that stretched back for years.
Their primary evidence on day one consisted of shocking testimony from some of the Task Force members, who admitted to participating in a pattern of behavior that would have made the gangs they supposedly pursued blush.
Most damning of all, only one of the members of the Task Force actually denies having committed the offenses described by prosecutors.
The high-profile trial threatens to further damage the prestige of one of the nation's most troubled police departments.
What's the story?
Federal prosecutors indicted eight members of the Task Force last year on charges of racketeering, robbery and extortion, and use of a firearm in a crime of violence. Six of the officers involved pled guilty, and four also agreed to testify in the trial of the two officers who have pled not guilty.
The trial for those two officers, Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, began Tuesday in federal court. Hersl's attorney conceded that Hersl was guilty of violating his duty as a policeman and stealing from suspects, but claimed merely that prosecutors improperly charged Hersl with racketeering since theft is "not a crime of violence." Thus, of the eight officers charged, only Taylor appears to be challenging the underlying facts set forth by prosecutors, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The trial opened with the explosive testimony of former Detective Maurice Ward, a former Task Force member who pled guilty. According to the Sun, prosecutors played a video of Task Force members prying open a safe that contained thick stacks of cash bound in rubber bands.
The Task Force members in the video called in their find, and their sergeant told them to keep the video rolling and to do this one "by the book." However, Ward testified, the cops present had already pocketed half of the $200,000 they found in the safe before they started the video rolling.
Ward also confessed that they had illegally entered the home containing the safe without a warrant or probable cause after confiscating a man's keys during a traffic stop. Ward testified that for "years," Task Force officers had engaged in a pattern of illegal activity that was designed to maximize the amount of drugs and cash they could confiscate.
According to Ward, Task Force members systematically skimmed both money and drugs whenever they made an arrest. They even went so far as to actively rob people that they never arrested, even going so far as to illegally place GPS devices on their cars in order to determine when they weren't home so that their homes would be easier to invade.
Following the trial on Twitter
According to Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, who was in the courtroom and live tweeted some of the testimony, Task Force supervisor Sgt. Wayne Jenkins specifically authorized and at times directed their misconduct.
Perhaps most troubling, Ward described a series of blatantly illegal police tactics that went unchecked for years and resulted in numerous wrongful convictions because prosecutors and defense attorneys knew that juries would always believe police over criminal defendants:
Ward said Sgt Jenkins profiled vehicles - “dope boy cars” such as Honda Accords, Acuras, Honda Odysseys - for car s… https://t.co/0JD9YOhbsC— Justin Fenton (@Justin Fenton) 1516739932.0
More outrageous testimony from Det Ward: they kept BB guns on hand in case they hit someone or got into a shootout… https://t.co/IrbrNNkH1G— Justin Fenton (@Justin Fenton) 1516744790.0
The man said he was going to hire a good lawyer and try to go after them. Jenkins learned that the man's wife was h… https://t.co/P5aMRBQl7g— Justin Fenton (@Justin Fenton) 1516748450.0
So on one of the calls, Jenkins heard the man talking to another woman. Jenkins, Ward said, had an officer with go… https://t.co/C6YCfVnMT3— Justin Fenton (@Justin Fenton) 1516748519.0
Prosecutors also accuse the Task Force of systematically turning in massive amounts of fraudulent overtime in a scheme to defraud taxpayers.
The trial is expected to continue throughout the week as the city of Baltimore watches. The Task Force, which was created a decade ago as an "elite unit" to crack down on drug crime, has been effectively disbanded since all but one of its members was indicted in this scheme last year.