Jim Cabezas may have set out to write his new memoir thinking that readers would love hearing how he helped bring councilmen, state lawmakers and other public officials to justice who were taking bribes, stealing millions from school funds and coercing police offices to conceal their sexual escapades.
But the long-serving chief investigator for the Office of the State Prosecutor was also a Baltimore cop in the 1970s.
Readers have been riveted by his frank descriptions of the department’s racism and baked-in corruption 40-plus years ago, noticing how much it resembles the BPD’s scandals of today.
In his first attempt to arrest a heroin dealer in the East Baltimore neighborhood he patrolled, for example, he was thwarted by his very own officers. He arrived on the scene only to find the dealer tipped off and two cops “with shit-eating grins on their faces.”
• PART I: Taking bribes, stealing from Sears, splitting the take with drug dealers
Cabezas soon got an education in how some officers not only protected criminals, but looted stores, threw police reports in the garbage, transported stolen antiques in police vans and searched homes without warrants. The latter illegality was called “Superman warrants” in cop lingo because police broke the doors open with their shoulders like Superman.
He arrived on the scene to find the dealer tipped off and two cops there “with shit-eating grins on their faces.”
Little seems to have changed at the BPD.
Officers and even senior command regularly show up in the news and in federal indictments for faking overtime, robbing citizens, stealing drugs, cheating on taxes, using excessive force, conducting warrant-less searches – the list goes on.
Meanwhile in the aftermath of the in-custody death of Freddie Gray in 2015, the arrest rate has plummeted while street crime and homicides have soared.
With a revolving-door succession of commissioners (four since Freddie Gray, with a fifth pending), the BPD seems mired in drift, depravity and dysfunction.
Knowing the deep roots of the problem, Cabezas was asked: Does he think the department can be cleaned up and made effective? If so, what would it take?
Us Against Them
Cabezas said he agrees with the blunt pronouncement by Kenneth Thompson, the lawyer serving as monitor of the sweeping federal BPD consent decree.
“The Baltimore Police Department is a dysfunctional organization, a highly dysfunctional organization,” Thompson told a committee in Annapolis last week.
“He’s right. There’s a bad, bad culture within the police department right now, that’s for certain,” Cabezas told The Brew.
“They still have that culture of isolation that’s been us-against-them, them being the citizens of Baltimore.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Cabezas discussed both fighting crime and stamping out corruption, efforts he said are intertwined and require honest sergeants and energetic lieutenants “to get down into the streets and make sure officers are performing their duties the way they’re supposed to.”
Saturating an area with highly visible officers makes sense “if you’re experiencing crime problems in the form of stolen cars and holdups and burglaries.”
“But,” he added, “that will not stop the homicides.”
Cabezas said he was “very pleased to see what [commissioner-designate] Michael Harrison recently said, that he believes in targeting the individual, and not necessarily the area.”
What’s needed, Cabezas observed, is an intelligence unit and a gang unit – perhaps combined – to prevent retaliatory killings by first identifying who the shooters are.
“You need some professionals to find out everything about that individual that you possibly can,” he said. “That means that you may have to get into their trash cans, identify their cellphone numbers, then you need to analyze the cellphone communications.”
With that knowledge, he said, police could take some of the bloodshed out of gang wars and turf beefs.
“In the old days, if Big Diddy killed Junebug, the police absolutely knew there was going to be a retaliatory homicide,” Cabezas said. “But if you can can lock up Big Diddy before the street elements can get to him, you reduce one homicide because he’d be incarcerated.”
Rooting out Corruption
But what about officers colluding with criminals?
“When you’re getting these cellphone records, those conversations could identify one of those [corrupt] officers,” he pointed out.
“And, once again, you gotta look to the supervisors – the sergeants and lieutenants,” he said, expressing disgust that the supervisors of the Gun Trace Task Force were “turning a blind eye” to the unit’s egregious criminal acts.
“How could those sergeants and lieutenants not know?” he asked.
Recruiting the Front Line
How to get capable and incorruptible supervisors?
“You have to get the best and the brightest and if that means increasing salary, then that’s what you have to do,” he said, recommending that BPD consider recruiting military police officers.
“Men and women that understand discipline and would probably want to extend their career in law enforcement,” he said. “Go to the different services and try to get an agreement. Say, ‘Look, after your people are going to exit out, we would like to be able to contact them.’”
What is also needed are leaders who will set the tone at the district level, beginning at morning roll call and continuing throughout the day.
“This is where it breaks down. Because no sooner does an individual get to the police district than somebody’s reinforces the isolation that exists right now,” he said. “Someone’s going to say, ‘Hey, don’t trust anybody out there. They’re all your enemies. All your friends are right here.’”
Sergeants and lieutenants need to reinforce the message that police “are there not only to protect, but to serve” and to try as much as possible to become part of the community.
“You have to stop and talk to businesses. Introduce yourself to churches,” he said. “Be like a referral person. If you see a broken traffic light, call the Department of Transportation. If sewer lines are backed up, call DPW.”
A high-quality Internal Affairs Division to investigate misdeeds by officers “is something Baltimore City just doesn’t have right now. It’s dysfunctional,” Cabezas said.
In theory, vigilant sergeants should be alerting Internal Affairs to known problem officers.
“If you have officers coming in with the big three – disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault on a police officer – that’s probably a bogus charge [against a citizen],” he said. “It’s a red flag. The community knows what’s going on. They’re not going to trust those police officers.”
Also needed, he said, is “a good quality Inspectional Services Division given authority by the police commissioner that can inspect any facility, including vehicles and anything inside of those facilities, to make sure that things are being done properly. ”
These internal controls, he said, could help with “the outrageous amount of overtime” that inflates the department’s budget to the tune of $45 to $50 million a year.
Ploys like padding the number of officers required to go to court on a case are well known. To combat such deceptions, an Inspectional Services Division should pull payroll, inspect sergeant reports and determine “which guys are in court all the time,” he said.
Accountability and Political Will
Who is responsible for putting these elements in place? Cabezas’ recommendations may sound like Management 101 – and city officials often talk about them – but somehow, they never seem to be executed.
“There has to be several components, but certainly the mayor should hold the commissioner responsible for operating a professional agency,” he said. “And then it becomes the responsibility of that commissioner.”
How to deal with the police union, which fiercely protects the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights that critics have long said stymies internal investigations?
Cabezas says there are ways around it.
“For example, if there’s enough evidence, charge them criminally with assault or whatever the crime is,” he said. “That throws the matter automatically into the state’s attorney’s office.”
If cleaning up the police department seems like a mammoth task, Cabezas says, it is.
“You’re looking at six to seven years minimum – and probably double that – because the entire culture has to change.”
What’s needed is not only corruption-busting but just basic institutional competence-building, says Cabezas, who experienced the problem recently not as an ex-cop but as a family member of a murdered citizen.
Revisiting his father’s unsolved murder from 44 years ago (discussed in his book), Cabezas decided in 2016 to investigate it himself.
Two years later, after he figured out who he believed committed the crime, he was contacted by a homicide supervisor.
They located his father’s file but, after combing the storage lockers, never found the DNA evidence and fingerprints that could connect the crime to the suspect.
The suspect had died, but Cabezas sought closure and now knew he’d never get it.
“My own police department lost the evidence in my father’s murder,” he wrote in the memoir “Eyes of Justice.”
“I was extremely disappointed to learn that the police department that had been so crucial in my life had failed me in the end.”
“Eyes of Justice: A career crime fighter battles corruption . . . and blindness”
There will be a reading and appearance by authors Jim Cabezas and Joan Jacobson in Southeast Baltimore
Date: Saturday January 26
Time: 4 p.m.
Location: Knotty Pine Bar, 801 South Conkling Street