GTTF Sgt. Wayne Jenkins during the arrest of Gregory Harding, caught on a body camera. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)
  • Q&A

What the movement to defund police can learn from Baltimore’s corrupt gun task force

To understand American policing, the authors of “I Got A Monster” say you need to listen to people who have had their lives ruined by police.
GTTF Sgt. Wayne Jenkins during the arrest of Gregory Harding, caught on a body camera. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)

“I Got A Monster” is a page turner that’s as hard to put down as it is disturbing. What’s more, it could not be more relevant to our times. Through extensive reporting, authors Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg show that repressive police tactics — like throwing civilians into unmarked cars and fabricating and planting evidence — are more than recent national news topics. They have been used for years against Black communities. 

Immaculately researched, the authors use court documents, wiretaps, interviews, and body camera footage to recreate the unraveling of one of the greatest police scandals of our lifetime: the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, or GTTF.  “I Got A Monster” examines in graphic and horrific detail how an elite police squad got away with robbing, stealing and framing civilians under the color of law for years, while facing few consequences.

Woods and Soderberg provide insight into why there’s a growing movement that’s dissatisfied with so-called reform like police body cameras — and wants systemic change instead. The book leaves you with little reason to expect that the removal of rogue police will result in serious change, when leadership turns a blind eye to their behavior for years. The story unfolds in Baltimore, where the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 and a subsequent uprising put Baltimore’s Police Department in the national spotlight, highlighting the deep disparities and racist treatment police have inflicted on Black residents for decades. 

I recently spoke to the authors, starting off by talking about the global Black Lives Matter rebellion against racism that has changed the conversation around policing in a significant way. 

What lessons can the movement take from “I Got A Monster,” and Baltimore — a city where many liberal reforms were implemented (i.e. body cameras) but police corruption still ran rampant?

Baynard: The book is a portrait of a post-uprising American city and in that regard, it offers a lot of lessons for the current moment. In reporting on the GTTF, we learned that, at least certain factions within police departments will do everything possible to thwart reform. It’s one of the reasons that the Obama-era reforms aren’t enough. We can’t act as if the police squads are neutral actors who will go along with political directives. They are an anti-reform, counterinsurgency. In a recent story for the Washington Post, we laid out the ways that these attempts to thwart reform resulted in more violence in the city. The response of the GTTF to minimal reforms, should spur people to think more creatively about how to live without police. 

Brandon: Because of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the Department of Justice was in Baltimore doing a civil rights investigation into the Baltimore Police Department at the same time that the police in our book were running wild, robbing people, stealing drugs, dealing drugs and more. So that’s some serious federal oversight that still wasn’t able to expose cops running a criminal enterprise in the department. That’s a pretty strong case for the limits of reform, you know? And now we’re facing a moment where the federal government is not even providing the veneer of reform but rather, sending in goon squads to create violence. And most police departments are glad to see feds coming in and creating more chaos like this. They’re fine with it because it’s just an even more aggressive version of the policing already happening. 

One of the strongest arguments opponents of defunding the police have is that police keep the public safe, which is what Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force was tasked with doing — keeping guns off the street in one of America’s deadliest cities. Did the GTTF fulfill its mission?

Baynard: If you define the mission as “keeping people safe” the answer is obviously no. The murder rate was at a historic high while they rampaged through the city. But if their mission was to exact social control, using the war on guns, instead of a war on drugs, to do that, then the answer is “yes, they absolutely fulfilled their mission.” GTTF Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and his crew got a lot of guns off the street — but that doesn’t do a lot to actually keep the city safer. For years, BPD have been letting people go if you can get them a gun. It’s mostly just statistically driven bullshit that allows them to do what they want. And every time the GTTF stole drugs without making an arrest, they disrupted the street economy and created violence rather than solving it. 

Brandon: Seizing guns doesn’t do much to stop crime. We discussed this in a New York Times op-ed. The strategy by Baltimore Police as the drug war became an apparent failure even to cops was to shift to focusing on guns. The war on guns repeated the problems of the war on drugs in a lot of ways, down to the obsession with numbers and seizures. Just as we all know when you see a bunch of cocaine seized that it won’t make a dent in the market because there’s more kilos coming in, you know that when you see a bunch of guns on a table, it won’t make a dent because there are so many guns being sold and passed around. So the strategy of the GTTF — to seize guns to curb crime — even if they were doing their job “legitimately,” was unsuccessful.

One of the key demands of the defunding the police movement is providing more resources for community-based violence prevention programs like Nonviolence Chicago, and Safe Streets Baltimore. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found Safe Streets reduced homicides by 56 percent in one neighborhood, making it one of Baltimore’s most-effective violence reduction tools. What was the relationship between GTTF and Safe Streets?

Baynard: We just had a story in the Intercept about two cases where GTTF targeted Safe Streets workers. These “elite, proactive” police squads and organizations like Safe Streets that use a Cure Violence approach to violence interruption are dealing with the same populations — the people who are most likely to shoot. Violence interrupters know a lot about what is happening in their communities and so police often hit them for information. When they won’t give it, they become targets themselves. For police squads, this is good PR — and helps undermine organizations that are active competitors for funding. We’re likely to see this get worse as the calls to shift funds from police to other models intensifies. 

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  • Brandon: Safe Streets was launched in Baltimore in 2007 the same year the Gun Trace Task Force police unit was created. In a sense both were founded on similar ideas: “Targeting” specific people who are known for committing acts of gun violence and trying to prevent that or slow it down at least. Safe Streets did it through mediation, GTTF did it through investigation. So right there, you see two different tracks Baltimore could have gone. The city of course went with empowering cops rather than mediators. You also see why GTTF disliked Safe Streets: It was trying to engage the people GTTF just wanted to put in jail.

    Talk of “community policing” would have us believe the approach of the police and the approach of violence interrupters for example is not necessarily incompatible but what we’ve seen is that police want total control over the crime fight and see any other way of reducing crime or helping people as an affront to what they do. 

    Some of the most harrowing scenes in your book take place during the Baltimore uprising, sparked by the death of 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. How has today’s movement been informed by the 2015 uprising, and the lessons of the GTTF?

    Brandon: Among the events that happened during the Baltimore Uprising is that on April 27, the day that there was rioting, the GTTF’s Sgt. Jenkins was robbing people who came out of pharmacies with looted drugs. He then took those drugs to a friend who sold them. That’s an extreme example but you see in that example, how cops will take advantage of unrest.

    And then there are the cops as a whole who claimed protests damaged morale so they “slowed down” in response (essentially, as we said in the Washington Post, leveraging violence against citizens to stop reforms). Basically they used the post-uprising moment to garner support and seize power. There was no reflection by police in Baltimore after the city was on the verge of a revolution. Only that they needed to make sure that they kept that revolutionary energy squashed. So one lesson would be, “realize cops don’t want change” and the other lesson would be, “refuse to let the propaganda machine police engage in post-uprising become the prevailing narrative.”

    Robbery gear found in Sgt. Jenkins’ car. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)

    Baynard: We tried really hard to capture the atmosphere for Baltimore as a post-uprising city where police acted as a counterinsurgency. And I think there are a lot of lessons in that, starting with the fact that a lot of violence attributed to the community was actually caused by the police. In 2015, the Baltimore police commissioner attributed a spike in crime to the drugs looted from pharmacies. We now know that at least some of those drugs were stolen and sold by GTTF Sgt. Wayne Jenkins. 

    GTTF destroyed numerous lives in the process, including accused drug dealers, who were left with little recourse. Why was it important for you to uplift their stories?

    Baynard: The press has done a really bad job at covering the drug war and the related war on guns that we’ve let it morph into. When citizens were arrested by GTTF members, if the press covered it at all, it was mostly reporting the police side of the story. Reporters love documents and police departments produce them. Drug dealers and alleged drug dealers don’t. So there has been a role that we have all played in helping the state carry out a war on its citizens by being too credible when it comes to official sources. Though reporters like to present themselves as “objective” they were no more neutral in this war than any other. The press clearly took sides. GTTF made that painfully obvious.

    Brandon: It was important to tell these people’s stories because these people’s stories were ignored for so long—and they should be heard. So that’s part of telling these stories for us: To correct the record. To expose these cops and also show you that plenty of working people tried to expose them for years. A book, especially ours which has lots of cross-cutting and allows you to encounter characters and catch up with them later, is a good vehicle for presenting the long-term effects of police corruption on citizens. Most importantly, these people were telling the truth about police for years. So they have the insight into policing that the whole country craves right now. You wanna understand American policing? Listen to the people being overpoliced, listen to the people, like the people in our book, who had their lives ruined by police. 

    In a recent New York Times op-ed a former cop turned professor argues if progressives want to change policing, they should join the force. What’s your response to such arguments?

    Baynard: L-o-fucking-l. Brandon already made a lot of good jokes about this, so I’ll leave that to him. But it misdiagnoses the problem with policing and the way that it not only destroys our communities but it also destroys cops.  

    For a lot of the people in our book, what the police did to them was only the beginning.

    Brandon: This idea that people who want to make change should join up with the thing they want changed and make a difference from within is generally naive (it’s also a cynical placating tactic). But that’s especially [true] with this argument because there’s just such a vast difference of influence between the institution that is bad and the individual in that institution who may or may not be bad. The only way an individual cop could maybe change policing would be if they moved through the ranks and eventually had some kind of command position. Then maybe — maybe — they could influence policing in their own department. That would take years or even a decade and they’d face a lot of opposition from the other cops. So even if you buy into this argument that an armada of good cops entering departments all around the country to change them over a few years or a decade or more makes sense, it’s just not efficient. Solutions like defunding or abolishment — or even basic reforms — are ones that politicians could if they wanted to, introduce tomorrow.

    In your view, are there changes or reforms that would actually have prevented the GTTF corruption scandal? 

    Baynard: They were able to get away with what they did because we shield police officers. There is no simple solution, but eliminating Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which gives cops a whole separate set of legal protections, is a start. 

    Brandon: That a police officer’s Internal Affairs files are protected in Maryland or that body camera footage is selectively released by the department (and always contextualized by police so you see what they want you to see) are part of the reason why these cops got away with so much. Anything resembling oversight regarding cops lying or stealing or beating people up would have meant at the least, three of these cops (Wayne Jenkins, Daniel Hersl, Jemell Rayam) would have no longer been in the department by the time they all came together in one squad. So that basic oversight could have helped prevent this. But again, what the GTTF story shows is that the basic tenets of policing are the problem. Police are not reform-able.  

    You spend a lot of time looking at the role that Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby played in enabling GTTF’s crimes. Why is it important for progressive movements to focus on the role prosecutors play in relation to police abuse? And are there examples of positive models of change movements can reference?

    Brandon: Those critiques of Mosby in the book come from defense attorneys who had been trying to tell the State’s Attorney’s Office about these dirty cops for years. Through court scenes where you see prosecutors from Mosby’s office overlooking or ignoring damning body worn camera footage or being either oblivious — or playing dumb — to certain officers’ lengthy internal affairs files, you get a sense of how this is bigger than a police problem.

    Prosecutors and judges assist in the corruption. And for a lot of the people in our book, what the police did to them was only the beginning. They were then put in jail or prison, called liars by prosecutors, and not believed by judges. For some that was even worse because the nightmare that began when these cops rolled up on them or kidnapped them kept getting worse as they moved through the system.

    I guess I’m supposed to talk up progressive prosecutors as how change can happen but I’m suspicious of that idea. Our book shows that it is defense attorneys that everyone should listen to about dirty cops. They’re the positive models of change in my opinion.

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    Baynard: Ivan Bates, one of our main characters ran against her and so he certainly thought a lot about what he saw as her missteps. But it is the every day decisions that nearly all prosecutors make to believe police officers and not to believe defendants that really help keep this corruption from coming to light. We see it clearly when Bates has body cam footage that shows GTTF breaking into the house of his client — a Safe Streets worker — and neither the prosecutor or the judge want to hear it. But when Bates starts his campaign, his role in the book also shifts and the public defenders like Deborah Levi begin to play the role he played earlier in the book. 

    Look, prosecutors prosecute people so I don’t have a lot of faith that prosecutors will end up being some kind of heroes. But if you read Emily Bazelon’s great book “Charged” about the rise of “progressive prosecutors,” it shows the very real differences that reform can have on people’s lives — and makes it clear that Mosby, despite her decision to charge the cops in the Freddie Gray case, falls more comfortably within the old law and order school of prosecutor than among the more progressive prosecutors she’s often lumped in with.

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