Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland who is on track to become the deputy attorney general in Donald Trump’s Department of Justice, announced a stunning indictment Wednesday against seven Baltimore police officers. In a press conference, Rosenstein said the police officers were “involved in a pernicious conspiracy scheme” to steal large sums of money out of people’s homes and cars and to receive thousands of dollars in bogus overtime pay.
The racketeering indictment comes less than one week before Rosenstein’s Senate confirmation hearing to become second in command to Jeff Sessions—a cheerleader for law enforcement who has signaled a reluctance to bring troubled police departments under federal oversight because doing so is “almost disrespectful.” (As it happens, the Baltimore Police Department was the subject of a scathing report recently published by the civil rights division of the Obama-era Justice Department, and a consent decree agreement mandating reforms is currently pending in district court.) Though it’s too soon to make predictions about what kind of influence Rosenstein will wield in the Justice Department, Wednesday’s indictment suggests his confirmation would place at least one higher-up in the house of Sessions who would be willing to investigate police misconduct.
The seven officers named in Wednesday’s indictment have been with the Baltimore police for over a decade; prior to their arrest, all of them had been working as part of a specialized unit devoted to getting illegal guns off the street. According to the Baltimore Sun, they had been celebrated in the internal department newsletter for their “relentless pursuit to make [the city’s] streets safer by removing guns and arresting the right people for the right reasons.”
The 45-page indictment, which is sprinkled with colorful dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a gritty crime show about Baltimore cops, recounts a series of jaw-dropping stories about shakedowns and carefully plotted deceptions. On May 11, 2016, three of the officers allegedly stole $700 from a man who had been set up to buy drugs from a confidential informant, then filed an arrest report in which they falsely claimed they had seen him holding a gun after pulling him over. Six weeks later, they allegedly entered a man’s house with a SWAT team, then robbed him of $17,000 in cash after the SWAT team left.
Some of the officers involved in the alleged conspiracy have a history of misconduct, according to the Baltimore Sun, including one whose conduct resulted in multiple settled lawsuits and another who was involved in three shootings over the course of two years. The Sun quoted a top public defender in Baltimore as saying that the majority of the indicted arrest officers were known by local defense lawyers to have “significant credibility issues.”
Peter Moskos, a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of a book about working as a Baltimore police officer, said that it wouldn’t be surprising if other officers in the department had harbored vague suspicions about the seven individuals arrested Wednesday, but didn’t take the initiative to turn them in. This wouldn’t have been out of loyalty, as conventional wisdom about the “blue wall of silence” holds, but out of self-preservation, Moskos said: “When you sense someone is not on the level, you just stay away… If you know enough to blow the whistle, you’re in too deep. So you put on blinders, you mind your own business, and you don’t get into other people’s mess. “
Rosenstein, who has served as U.S. Attorney since 2005, said the officers stand accused of committing “robberies [while] wearing police uniforms,” and that their alleged conduct “tarnishes the reputation of all police officers.” It’s anyone’s guess, at this point, whether Rosenstein’s willingness to prosecute a group of allegedly corrupt police officers means he’ll bring that willingness to his role as deputy attorney general. It’s also not self-evident that disapproving of police officers who commit extortion and fraud necessarily translates to disapproval of the kinds of civil rights violations that Black Lives Matter supporters have in mind when calling for police reform. Perhaps someone will ask Rosenstein about that distinction at next week’s confirmation hearing.