Ask the Baltimore Police Department about the disciplinary history of Detective Steven Mahan, and they disclose a spreadsheet of 21 incidents for his entire 27-year career.

But according to the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, Mahan has at least 38 complaints since 2015 alone, including seven in 2021 and five in 2020.

In an effort to build on recent reforms intended to improve transparency, the Public Defender’s Special Litigation Section, in partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is developing a comprehensive, searchable statewide database that pulls in all types of potentially relevant information on officers, such as others they worked with, lawsuits against them, and information from social media.

“The defense, I think, has had to start taking the role of tracking police misconduct, because of the total failure on all other players in the system to track it and properly adjudicate and expose it,” said Julie Ciccolini, director of law enforcement accountability for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It’s imperative that defenders now take it upon themselves to track this data, in order to hold prosecutors and law enforcement accountable.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But Clyde Boatwright, president of the Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police, said the database is exactly why the union fought the disclosure of such records, which were previously considered personnel files and not disclosable to the public. He said there’s a low bar for finding an officer guilty of misconduct, and a case that fails to reach that threshold shouldn’t be held against an officer.

“It’s an intentional misrepresentation,” Boatwright said when told of the database. “We know that they want to give their clients the best representation possible, but every cop is not corrupt, and every case does not need to be thrown out because there’s an allegation against an officer.”

Tracking complaints, lawsuits and social media

Defense attorneys know that sometimes — many times, some would contend — cases fall apart for reasons other than an officer’s innocence, including poor internal investigations or complainants not following through. It’s been documented in the civil rights investigation of the Baltimore Police Department, as well as the forensic examination of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, among others.

Spearheading the database effort for the public defender’s office is Amelia McDonell-Parry, a former journalist who dug into cases such as the death of Freddie Gray, the Adnan Syed case from the “Serial” podcast and the Keith Davis Jr. case. She now brings that same zeal and skeptical eye to building the public defenders’ database on questionable cops, working to cross-reference available information and build out a more complete picture.

She tracks officers’ assignments, who they worked with, pulls in photos and social media information, and tags internal affairs cases with hashtags so they can be searched — #ExcessiveForce, #FalseArrest, #EvidenceTampering, #Plainclothes.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

McDonell-Parry works under Deborah Katz Levi, the director of special litigation for the Baltimore Office of the Public Defender. Levi has been working to train attorneys in other state jurisdictions on how to pry loose disclosures on officer misconduct. Their digging led to revelations about a Rockville police officer who had credibility issues in a previous job with the Montgomery County Police Department, and unearthed a coverup by officials in Carroll County that prompted the resignation of a deputy state’s attorney and which caused judges to recuse themselves from hearing cases involving the county’s top prosecutor.

In that case, public defender Janette DeBoissiere learned that a Carroll sheriff’s deputy had been suspended. She pushed to find out more even as prosecutors and the sheriff’s office repeatedly said there was nothing relevant. Working with Levi’s unit, she got Circuit Judge Richard Titus to inquire into the matter, prompting the disclosure that the deputy in question had prepared a false affidavit and that a line prosecutor refused to handle his cases.

“We applaud what the judge did, and would give him all the credit in the world for showing that leadership on pursuing prosecutorial misconduct,” said Melissa Rothstein, director of policy and development. “But he got to that point because of the continued efforts of Janette DeBoissiere and our office, even when the state’s attorney was doing everything to counteract them.”

Though the legislature passed a law in 2021 to make police disciplinary files public records, many agencies have been slow to provide information or are charging steep fees. Matt Zernhelt, of the Baltimore Action Legal Team, has filed lawsuits to battle for records, and one judge found police and the city law department “knowingly and willfully violated” the Public Information Act and “did not act in good faith.”

And while Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby maintains a list of 300 officers deemed to have credibility issues, attorneys say disclosures remain spotty and prosecutors have not explained how officers ended up on the list.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Remember, what they’re hiding is misconduct for people who take the stand and carry a weapon for a living,” Levi said.

Off the streets, in the property room

Public defenders say Mahan’s history of misconduct illustrates the need to cull alleged misconduct into the statewide database. But a review of the cases against the detective also shows the complexity of dealing with police misconduct, and why some — including police unions — say such lists can go too far.

Mahan joined the department in 1995, and for years worked in the plainclothes units known as “knockers” and “jumpout boys.” When the ACLU of Maryland in 2021 sought to rank Baltimore Police officers that it believed had the most complaints between 2015 and 2019, the top five spots were occupied by incarcerated members of the notorious Gun Trace Task Force. But next on the list, even ahead of two of the original seven indicted GTTF officers, was Mahan.

These days he works out of the Northeastern District. Instead of chasing people through alleys, he manages the district’s vehicle fleet, makes sure the copy machine has ink and stocks paper reports.

The department didn’t sideline Mahan to the district property position as a result of complaints — he asked for the position.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Though Mahan appears on Mosby’s list of officers with integrity questions, he testified in court as recently as June 10, said police union attorney Chaz Ball.

Only two of Mahan’s internal affairs complaints have been sustained, according to the spreadsheet of 21 cases provided by the Baltimore Police Department in response to a public records request from The Baltimore Banner. And those two cases are from 1996 and 1998. Ball said Mahan has numerous medals of commendation and received the Medal of Valor for an incident in which he was hit by a vehicle and injured while making a drug arrest.

Police officials maintain that officers engaged in proactive work will generate complaints.

“If an officer has [a high number of] complaints, that’s a red flag,” Eastern District Maj. Guy Thacker said, speaking generally on the topic. “But you have look into those.”

It’s not simply that Mahan has a high number of complaints. An analysis of court outcomes for arrests he was involved with between 2018 and 2020 shows an astounding 62% of cases end with an acquittal or charges thrown out by prosecutors. Almost all of the cases where the charges could be discerned (cases not resulting in convictions are purged from the public courts database) were car theft, drug possession with intent to distribute and gun cases. There are a variety of reasons a case could be thrown out, and Mahan was not the only officer involved in the arrests. Prosecutors did not respond to requests from The Banner about whether they had taken any specific actions regarding Mahan’s cases.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Files show police deemed some of the complaints against Mahan to be demonstrably false. For example, a woman called the Public Integrity Bureau and said she and her wife were pulled over and treated unfairly: An officer told her to shut up multiple times, $600 was taken and her children were traumatized. But internal affairs investigators reviewed body camera footage and saw no such encounter. Officers “conducted themselves professionally,” investigators wrote. “At no times did an officer tell anyone to shut up. They made the kids on scene feel at ease by having harmless conversation.” No cash was taken, they said.

The reasons other cases were not sustained are unclear. Deonte Dowling, 22, submitted a complaint saying he had been arrested in 2020 and had $1,560 in cash seized. Dowling said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner that he was charged with attempted drug distribution and the charges were thrown out; The Banner was able to confirm he was arrested in July 2020 and has had the case expunged. He has no criminal record.

“He thought I was selling drugs, so they illegally stopped me and asked me, did I have anything on me,” Dowling recalled. Dowling says the money was from unemployment, and says he’s been trying to get it back. “I called internal affairs and everything. I talked to one of the people, and then he never called me back,” Dowling said.

Brian Nadeau, the deputy police commissioner who oversees the Public Integrity Bureau, said an investigation showed the cash was in fact properly submitted as evidence and documented. An internal affairs complaint is not the mechanism to have it returned, Nadeau said.

In another case, from 2015, a man acknowledged leading Mahan on a chase for 20 minutes and throwing marijuana out of the car. “You don’t play by the rules, we don’t play by the rules,” Mahan allegedly said after catching the man. He said $2,300 was taken from him and not submitted as evidence. On the spreadsheet provided by police, the case is only listed as “Closed — within policy.”

McDonell-Parry, of the public defender’s office, noted cases where the allegations didn’t match the potential infractions internal affairs pursued.

“I noticed at least one of Mahan’s cases, the allegations include theft and planting evidence. The only allegations investigated were harassment and something else. The allegations are not always translating into appropriate investigation,” she said.

Mahan was under criminal investigation by city prosecutors for a 2020 incident until being cleared in April. While saying he couldn’t determine or prove that Mahan’s actions were willful or corrupt as the law required, Assistant State’s Attorney Steven L. Trostle told police he had “very serious concerns.”

“Aside from his demeanor (rude, aggressive, sarcastic, etc.) with the operator of the vehicle, his report writing and application for statement of charges seem to grossly deviate (both in terms of misrepresentations and omissions) from what we saw on” body worn camera footage, Trostle wrote. He asked BPD to consider requiring training on ethics, report writing and professional demeanor.

The civilian review board took up the complaints, and while the board is required to redact names, it recommended suspensions and letters of reprimand for officers involved.

Mike Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, maintains that many officers are targeted with false complaints, and the department’s efforts to comply with the consent decree results in officers being squeezed.

“Overwhelmingly, we have some great cops out there who want to do the work,” Mancuso said. “At one point we were operating in a room this size, now you’ve got us in a box on the table. And you stick your head out of that box, and you’re going to get hit. Things change, and you wonder why things are out of control, and cops are walking out the door.”

Levi, of the public defender’s office, says she’s trying to change the system. She said she’s already seeing some prosecutors’ offices disclosing more files out of an abundance of caution, “which means it’s working and we’re changing the tide.”

“Maryland has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the country for Black men, 18 to 24 years old, for the entire country. This is the first way we can try to start to fix this problem,” Levi said.

Read more:

· Judge says prosecutors appear vindictive in Keith Davis Jr. case, orders hearing

· From ‘warriors’ to ‘guardians’: Will the Baltimore Police Department’s new approach make a difference?

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

More From The Banner