A special unit of the Baltimore Police Department dedicated to getting guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals fell from grace in 2017 when almost the entire squad faced indictments on suspicion of racketeering. The details sound more like a movie than real life, from police accused of planting evidence to a witness being shot and killed the day before his testimony.
Now, the City of Baltimore faces another challenge: Making things right with the hundreds of people affected by the actions of these police officers. City officials contend that because the officers had “gone rogue,” their activities fall outside the scope of their employment. However, does that let the city off the hook?
In March 2017, federal prosecutors indicted seven members of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) on charges of racketeering, as well as:
The officers were accused of conspiring with drug dealers and shaking down Baltimore residents while on duty. Later, Sgt. Thomas Allers (the head of the GTTF unit) was also indicted, leaving only one member of the team not facing charges. By May of 2019, Allers and the seven officers had all been convicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges. Two received reduced sentences for cooperating with the government.
In the wake of the GTTF scandal, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office requested court approval to vacate nearly 800 convictions tainted by the task force. In addition, a wave of lawsuits filed against the City left officials worried about the price tag the GTTF’s actions would carry. It’s hard to say just how high the costs might be, but the city has already paid out just under $25 million in police settlements and judgments over the last five years.
Baltimore’s Mayor, Jack Young, told reporters last week that he thinks the city shouldn’t be on the hook for the actions of officers gone rogue. Instead, Mayor Young argues the officers themselves should be the ones to pay. However, the limited resources of individual officers may leave many plaintiffs with nothing to collect.
Attorneys for the city of Baltimore are employing a two-fold argument to mitigate the city’s exposure to liability: In state court, they argue that because the officers’ criminal actions were far outside the scope of their employment, the city should not be held liable. In federal court, they say that since the Baltimore Police Department is technically a state agency the doctrine of qualified immunity applies.
Longstanding Supreme Court precedent assumes police officers personally bear the burden of paying settlements in misconduct cases. However, other research has shown that in around 99% of cases, officers are indemnified. Moreover, a claim generally can only be dismissed under qualified immunity when a government official can show their conduct was objectively reasonable, and they held a good-faith belief they were acting correctly. On that front, the City faces an uphill battle.
The outcome of Baltimore’s legal battles could have widespread ramifications. If the courts accept the city’s arguments, other police misconduct cases may turn in favor of officers. If the city can escape liability because police officers were not trained to engage in illegal activity, who’s to say they can’t do the same in a police brutality case?