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Part 2: Davis reflects on police reform, GTTF saga, public disputes

Second of 2 parts

In the fall of 2017, Andre M. Davis was excited to join the team responsible for shaping police reform in Baltimore under a newly signed federal consent decree, but the process — though making strides — was marred by setbacks and scandal.

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 20, 2019 file photo, listens as Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announces support for a pilot program that uses surveillance planes over the city to combat crime in Baltimore. City solicitor Andre Davis is at left. Baltimore could wrap up 2019 with its highest per-capita homicide rate on record as killings of adults and minors alike for drugs, retribution, money or no clear reason continue to add up and city officials appear unable to stop the violence. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis listens as Police Commissioner Michael Harrison on Dec. 20, 2019, announces support for a pilot program that uses surveillance planes over the city to combat crime in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Davis agreed to become Baltimore’s city solicitor in January of 2017 when the consent decree, a court enforceable agreement to reform the Baltimore Police Department, was formally signed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore during the waning days of the Obama administration.

The public announcement of Davis’ hire wouldn’t come until May, but by then the city had been blindsided by the indictment of the members of the Gun Trace Task Force for everything from planting guns and robbing citizens to overtime fraud.

There were also problems finding and retaining a commissioner to lead the police department. After Davis joined the Baltimore City Law Department in September 2017, Commissioner Kevin Davis was fired in January. His appointed replacement, Darryl De Sousa, resigned in May after he was charged with failure to pay his federal taxes.

“As you can imagine, it was tough, it was tough, in 2018 it was very tough,” Davis said in a conversation with The Daily Record less than a week after his Feb. 28 departure. “It set us back, perhaps not an entire year but effectively a year. But we got a lot done.”

Commissioner Michael Harrison, who was nominated in January 2019 and confirmed two months later, is nearing his one-year anniversary in the role.

In addition to the consent decree and police litigation, Davis was involved in public disputes with the Civilian Review Board — an entity tasked with reviewing police misconduct cases — over confidentiality issues and the ACLU of Maryland over the city’s use of so-called “gag orders” in police misconduct settlements.

The issues with the CRB and the Civilian Oversight Task Force, an add-on created by the consent decree, became “one big hot mess, politically,” Davis said. The dispute with the ACLU, which began with a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s gag orders, “came the closest to stinging,” Davis said, referring to a senior attorney with the organization accusing him of lying.

“I’ve got a tough exterior. You’re not a judge for 30 years — I can take it,” Davis said. “But it’s the fact that he’s from the ACLU and I have been a hero to the ACLU for 30 years. I become city solicitor and now I have the ACLU calling me a liar. That just didn’t seem right. It just seemed to cross some line.”

In the second part of his discussion with The Daily Record, Davis addressed the successes and failures of police reform, the impact of the GTTF indictments and public disputes he became embroiled in during his tenure.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What progress did you make on police reform?

We got policies written, they’re posted, they’re online, the training on those policies has begun. I’m just so anxious for people to begin to see the actual results of that work because there are results, there really are results coming into view.

Much of the heavy lifting, actually, has been done. There’s still a lot of heavy lifting, but the governor’s technology money was approved, was accepted by the city, so we’re on our way. We’re on our way, really. It was one of the things that in terms of my leaving, I was feeling I want to stay for this, I want to stay for this, I want to stay for this, but no, I want to get out of here.

Do you think the rank and file will embrace this to make it work?

If the community and if (Michael) Mancuso (president of the Fraternal Order of Police) and if the leadership of the FOP would just … leave Harrison alone. They don’t even have to support him — they should, and every stakeholder should be supporting him… If we had that, the rank and file would get behind it. That’s what I believe. There’s still some issues with the rank and file. Some of them have to do with Harrison, most of them don’t.

It’s really the sergeants and the lieutenants who are going to make reform happen. And (U.S. District Judge James K.) Bredar gets that. Harrison gets that. I think it’s happening, far more slowly than we hoped, but it’s going to happen.

The supervisors in the field?

Exactly. Precisely. It’s the sergeants who turn cadets and people just coming out of the academy into good police officers and that training you get in that first year is, you know, it stays with you through your career. And so that’s the hope. But a lot of good stuff is happening. It really is.

What impact did the Gun Trace Task Force revelations have?

When I agreed to become city solicitor back in 2016, in conversations with (Mayor) Cathy Pugh, that had not happened. The focus was on Freddie Gray and the fallout and the Department of Justice Investigation and, you know, the consent decree, the negotiations for the consent decree and the selection of the monitor. And then in March of 2017, boom. Boom, they’re riding around with BB guns in the trunk. And it all comes to light because one of them gets picked up on a wiretap being maintained by the DEA. Who could have imagined it? Well, you can imagine it, but nobody knew. Nobody knew.

Somebody asked me, suppose that had all come to light before you agreed to come? That’s a good question and I have no idea what the answer is. I have no idea what the answer is.

When did you get the sense that the litigation floodgates could open from this?

Before I became city solicitor. Once I read the indictment, oh, this is going to be a monster.

Did you consider backing out?

No, never considered backing out.

But you knew this was going to be a very big part of your job?

Oh, this is going to be a very big part of it. And I started, believe me, it’s going to take me a couple of years to catch up on my sleep. I don’t say that to garner sympathy, but it kept me up at night.

What about it?

All of the above. How do I manage this? What does the city do? What does a good lawyer do? And of course, I’ve gotten a lot of criticism because people say, “Oh, you’re depriving victims of compensation. The big, bad city.” Well, you know what, that $12 million going to the Youth Fund every year, I don’t know if that will happen if the Gun Trace Task Force, to say nothing of these wrongful convictions.

It’s really unfortunate that prosecutors have absolute immunity, judges have absolute immunity, witnesses have absolute immunity. The only person you can sue are the police officers, and that’s what we’re seeing … my point is, my job is to save the taxpayers from having to pay sometimes even just claims. I know that sounds, I don’t know, what does it sound like? You tell me. But that’s the lawyer’s job.

And I knew that was going to be my job when I agreed to take the job. And I’ve disappointed a lot of people, because I had this reputation as a progressive judge, who went out of his way to find a way to render justice to individuals and now I’ve gone over to the dark side.

But, you know what I’ve discovered is that’s what happens to people who actually leave the activist community, and you can regard certain judges as activist if you choose, but when you come inside of government to try to make government work better, you’re pretty much automatically Darth Vader.

Was there some particular aspect of what you were trying to accomplish that you felt got particularly hamstrung by the political environment?

Oh sure. The whole controversy around the Civilian Review Board, I kind of walked into that blind and that — you know, I was thinking on the way over here, they’re going to ask me what are my regrets, I should try to think about my regrets, and of course, I have a few and there are some things I would do differently.

So as a part of the consent decree, we had this add-on called the Civilian Oversight Task Force. COTF, it was called. They got an OSI grant to travel to Seattle, and New Orleans and Cleveland to study those systems. They produced this wonderful report. (T)he CRB attacked the report even before it was publicized. They wanted nothing to do with COTF. It was just bizarre. It was bizarre. It was all political. It got a lot of publicity, of course, I was made the bad guy.

Something similar occurred around the gag orders. Again, I blame myself. I’m hard on myself. … The (Ashley) Overbey situation, the actual encounter at her apartment between her and the three officers, occurred in 2013. The settlement was in 2014. And then she filed the lawsuit in June of ’17, right.

I showed up as city solicitor in September of ’17. Well, if I had been paying attention to what was going on in Baltimore city, I would have known what a hot issue the whole gag order thing was in 2014. There are media reports (with former solicitor) George Nilson defending the nondisparagement clause etc., etc., and the criticism and I was later to hear that Jack Young was opposed to what was called “gag orders,” I keep calling them nondisparagement clauses, but I changed it as soon as I became city solicitor.

We stopped using the old one, we tweaked it, but then I became the gag order solicitor. I became the face of shutting people up and all those demonstrations of the people with duct tape over their — on a certain level it was hilarious.

It sounds like you regret not having more information or being more familiar with the players when you started the job?

Performance failures, yeah. You know, I should have been paying attention more to, and I don’t blame anybody for not pulling me aside. Like, on the gag orders, Susan Goering, who I admire, former executive director of the ACLU, did come to see me, you know, and said, “Can we work this out?” Well, at that point, we had filed our motion for summary judgment and how do you work it out? And people, kind of snicker when I say this, but I really mean it, maybe I’m either old-fashioned or ahead of my time or something, but I believe in institutional integrity. And while I never would have used that kind of nondisparagement clause, never, in a million years, once there’s litigation, I felt, as the city solicitor, I don’t just throw my predecessor under the bus.


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