Before voting to approve a $60,000 settlement with a man the Gun Trace Task Force arrested in 2016, Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby asked whether members of the corrupt plainclothes unit who robbed citizens and planted guns on people were still eligible to collect their pensions.
Deputy City Solicitor Ebony Thompson said she was not sure.
“I think that’s an issue that we’ll continue to bring up,” Mosby said at the Aug. 3 meeting of the Baltimore City Board of Estimates. He said he felt that it was necessary to state for the record that police officers convicted of such egregious crimes “still potentially are eligible for city benefits.”
That includes the former officer-in-charge of the Gun Trace Task Force, Sgt. Thomas Allers, who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and racketeering and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. Any member who meets the eligibility requirements is entitled to a retirement benefit, said Amy Baskerville, a spokesperson for the Baltimore City Fire & Police Employees’ Retirement System.
In Maryland, police officers do not lose their pensions if they are convicted of crimes. Meanwhile, in some neighboring states, such as Pennsylvania, public employees who commit certain offenses related to their employment forfeit that benefit.
Supporters of pension forfeiture laws say they prevent police officers who have abused their power from collecting a taxpayer-supported benefit while also allowing the government to recover money paid out to settle lawsuits related to their misconduct.
“You shouldn’t be able to violate your oath, waste training investment, betray the public trust and fail to do your job — and then get the reward of a pension,” said the Rev. Kobi Little, president of the NAACP Baltimore Branch, which supported legislation that would have created a process for police officers convicted of crimes to lose their pensions.
Police unions and associations, though, view such measures as an attack on law enforcement. They argue that a pension is not a perk, but part of the compensation package.
‘One key component of improving public safety is improving integrity in law enforcement’
The Maryland General Assembly considered bills this past session that would have subjected law enforcement officers convicted of certain crimes to pension forfeiture. The proposals did not receive a vote in committee.
State Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, introduced Senate Bill 47, which would have allowed an assistant state’s attorney or assistant attorney general to file a complaint in court seeking to forfeit part or all of the pension of a police officer convicted of a felony, perjury or misdemeanor related to truthfulness and veracity.
Carter first introduced the measure in 2014 when she was a state delegate. She did so after the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted more than a dozen state corrections officers in a corruption case involving the Black Guerrilla Family gang.
Under her most recent proposal, judges would have to consider seven factors, including the severity of the crime, the financial loss to the government and the amount of public trust placed in the law enforcement officer.
The court could order the money to go to a current or former spouse or child of a police officer who has been convicted. The forfeiture provision would not have applied to crimes committed before July 1, 2022.
The state legislature passed a series of sweeping police reform bills in 2021. Though the Maryland House of Delegates advanced legislation that included language allowing for pension forfeiture, lawmakers stripped that provision during negotiations.
Carter said she thought her proposal was a commonsense next step to police reform, while being limited enough to be palatable for lawmakers. But when legislators want to avoid taking a position on a bill, she said, they do not vote on it.
Lawmakers who give a lot of deference to law enforcement, she said, did not want to possibly upset police in an election year. She said there has also been a lot of focus on public safety and crime.
“I’m not sure we educated all the legislators, even the community enough, that one key component of improving public safety is improving integrity in law enforcement,” Carter said. “It’s not a separate issue. It’s the same issue.”
Meanwhile, Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, D-Montgomery County, introduced a similar proposal, House Bill 123, which would have allowed pension forfeiture for police officers convicted of a felony, perjury or misdemeanor related to truthfulness and veracity and who had exhausted all their appeals.
She said there have been a lot of discussions statewide about police accountability.
“This is a really important aspect of it,” Wilkins said. “The idea that someone has the public trust would commit some type of egregious act and still receive their full checks from the state, I think, really flies in the face of accountability.”
Wilkins said she proposed the measure in part because of the high-dollar settlements involving police misconduct in Baltimore City. The opportunity for the government to recover some money is important, she said.
She said a vast majority of police officers are staying within the law and have nothing to fear.
Baltimore Comptroller Bill Henry testified in support of both bills and submitted written testimony. He is one of five members of the city’s Board of Estimates.
Henry sent letters to Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore, and state Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard County, the chairpersons of the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Budget & Taxation Committees, respectively, stating that he had a duty to safeguard and ensure proper use of taxpayer money as the city’s fiscal watchdog.
“We are long past the point where the City should simply continue paying for police officers’ criminal conduct without any recourse,” Henry wrote. “A change in State law to allow forfeiture of pension benefits is the right thing to do, fiscally and morally.”
Since 2020, Baltimore has paid almost $15 million to settle lawsuits related to the Gun Trace Task Force, according to the Baltimore City Comptroller’s Office.
Fiscal and policy notes for the bills assumed that the measure would apply in a “limited number of cases” and that there would be no effect on local revenue.
‘This was part of my salary package’
The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Maryland Sheriffs’ Association — among other law enforcement organizations — opposed the recent legislation.
Clyde Boatwright, the president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, said creating a provision for pension forfeiture would make the profession less attractive and exacerbate existing issues with recruitment and retention.
Boatwright questioned why these proposals have been limited to law enforcement, which he considers unfair and unjust.
“We’re not having this discussion about any other profession other than policing,” Boatwright said.
“Police officers are people, too. They make mistakes,” he added. “There are no perfect people. Police are not robots.”
The criminal justice system, he said, already exists to address wrongdoing. “And the full weight of the criminal justice system should be used for those who violated criminal law,” Boatwright said, “whether they’re a police officer or they’re a doctor.”
The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association submitted written testimony in opposition to the proposal, stating that the legislation “exhibits a lack of respect for the men and women who work in this profession.” They described the bills as “an unnecessary and punitive measure to degrade the Law Enforcement profession.”
Police officers have dangerous, stressful and hard jobs, said Angelo Consoli, president of the Prince George’s County Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 89.
The pension is something that police officers are promised throughout their employment, he said, and they have to serve for 20, 25 or 30 years to draw one.
“It’s the civil contract. This was part of my salary package,” Consoli said. “This had nothing to do with my job or performance.”
He asked whether a bank robber would have to give up money he or she earned in past employment.
“Where else in society do we do that to anybody else?” Consoli asked.
Carter said she thinks she is going to bring up her proposal again next session. Wilkins said she plans to reintroduce her bill.
Norman Stein, a professor of law at Drexel University and nationally recognized as an expert on pension law, said the decision whether to create a process in which police officers who commit wrongdoing forfeit their pension is not a simple policy question.
The penalty, he said, has nothing to do with the crime.
Police officers who have been on the force for a short time — even if their misdeeds are more serious — stand to lose less than veteran colleagues, Stein said.
Under most government plans, Stein said, spouses have an interest in the pension. So they could end up being penalized without having any involvement in the wrongdoing, he said.
Stein said some state pension forfeiture laws set bright lines — a felony conviction results in the loss of the benefit — while others are more ambiguous. That puts a lot of power in the hands of administrative personnel who have to make an interpretation, he said.
“I think too often the process is often a reaction to a few corrupt cops without really thinking about the total picture and its effects,” Stein said.
“It’s complicated,” he later added. “All you can ask for from a legislature is that it consider everything — and not act just on passion.”