Baltimore police killed a man Sunday in circumstances that spotlight broken trust with community

Cops want people to trust they are telling the truth about the killing. An ongoing corruption trial makes that hard.

Police outside a public transit stop during a period of heightened street presence in 2015.
 CREDIT: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Police outside a public transit stop during a period of heightened street presence in 2015. CREDIT: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Police in Baltimore killed a man Sunday night during a foot chase. Details are scarce and come only from police officials thus far, but the description they gave reporters Sunday resonates eerily with court testimony given last week by an allegedly corrupt former member of a similar task force initiative.

Police say the unnamed 33-year-old man killed Sunday had hopped a fence to run from officers who tried to pull him over on Westwood Avenue shortly after 8:00 p.m. “During that time he had a gun in his hand,” police spokesman T.J. Smith told reporters late Sunday from the scene. “It appears that he turned and pointed that gun toward the officer.” He could not say if the man fired at the officer, who’s been with the department for at least four years, or how many times the officer shot the man.

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Officers found both an actual handgun and a replica or toy pistol on the dead man’s person. But the officer who shot him following the foot pursuit is confident the weapon he perceived the man to be aiming at him was the the actual pistol “because the replica gun was inside a bag and the real gun was underneath his person,” Smith said. The officer was wearing a body camera. Police did not immediately respond to questions about when that video might be released or whether it corroborates the officer’s story relayed Sunday by Smith.

Recent news has given Baltimore citizens ample reason to raise an eyebrow at the detail that the man killed had a replica gun with him.

Federal prosecutors have accused eight of the nine members of the department’s high-profile Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) with criminal corruption. They are currently presenting jurors with evidence that the cops on the team used the opportunities afforded by their special, roving assignment to rob people. One officer who is cooperating with the government testified last week in detail about the task force’s pattern of operating outside the law.

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Task force members were instructed to keep replica guns in their squad cars, Detective Maurice Ward testified, “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.” Prosecutors then showed jurors one such toy pistol found in a task force member’s glove box.

The GTTF was just one unit within a broader set of specialized operations teams that operated in plainclothes on special assignments. After the corruption case broke, then-Commissioner Kevin Davis broke up those teams and reorganized the officers from those assignments into “District Action Teams” that would operate in full police uniform. Sunday’s fatal shots were fired by a member of the Northwestern District Action Team, Smith said Sunday. Police officials did not immediately respond to questions about the officer’s previous postings within the now-disbanded plainclothes system that included the crew now facing trial for corruption.

Davis has since been fired by Mayor Catherine Pugh, who depicted the decision as a reaction to high violent crime rates. Interim chief Darryl DeSousa, who was on the scene Sunday night as investigators marked evidence, promised to toughen up the department’s tactics without undermining a one-year-old court-mandated effort to end unconstitutional policing practices that have been rampant in the department for years.

But the GTTF case illustrates just how challenging it will be to do both of those things at once. Gun prosecutions dropped dramatically across the city after the alleged criminality of the GTTF cops took that tool out of BPD’s belt — reflecting the trade-offs brass might be inclined to accept between effective casework on violent crime and gang-like behavior by the cops who work those prestigious, politically sensitive assignments.

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The task force is far from the only thing undermining citizens’ ability to take Smith’s statement at face value absent corroborating evidence. 2017 was a scandalous year across the city, with hundreds of cases falling apart after multiple officers were seen planting evidence in recordings from their own body cameras. That was only the latest in a series of bad years for community-police relations in Charm City. While the suspicious death of Freddie Gray and ensuing riots in 2015 drew new national attention to the force’s ugly reputation among those it serves, the resulting federal investigation into the department detailed a pattern of violent, near-daily civil rights abuses going back years.

UPDATE: Police have identified the man killed as Billy L. Rucker. Rucker did fire one shot toward the officer who then returned fire and killed him, Smith told reporters on Monday afternoon. The department has also released video from officers’ body-worn cameras showing the foot chase and a muzzle flash from the moment Rucker fired at the pursuing officer.

Police excised the end portion of the video after the officer returns fire, citing a concern for the family’s privacy. “At the end of the day this is a suspect who had a gun, who fired it at police officers, but it’s a person who still has a family, and there’s certain things that should not be portrayed to the public in reference to somebody’s death,” Smith said Monday.

This piece has been updated to incorporate further details released Monday afternoon by police.