BALTIMORE, MD – When a prisoner shattered glass panes in a control center at a Baltimore jail, the staff summoned a paramilitary-style tactical team to help quell the disturbance. Some inmates used pieces of shirts or bedsheets to hide their faces.
What happened at the jail on that Friday afternoon in May 2017 has become fodder for an indictment charging 25 correctional officers in Baltimore with operating as a “criminal gang" that used violence, threats and intimidation tactics against inmates.
The jailhouse disturbance also led to a federal lawsuit that provides additional details and context for the bare-bones allegations in Tuesday’s 236-count indictment, the latest in a string of corruption cases to cast a shadow over the city.
The indictment names 25 prisoners as victims of assaults by officers from the Baltimore Central Region Tactical Unit, better known as the “TAC team.” One of those inmates is Bryan C. Thompson, who sued five of the indicted officers over his alleged beating on May 19, 2017.
In a handwritten summary of his claims, Thompson said officers kicked, punched and stomped on him until he was “unrecognizable.” Thompson also claimed that tactical team officers arrived approximately two hours after order already had been restored at the jail, precluding any need for them to use force.
Antoine Mayo, whom the indictment identifies as a second victim of the May 2017 beatings, said he saw Thompson bleeding from his nose and mouth as officers dragged him away by his arms. In an affidavit for Thompson's lawsuit, Mayo says officers punched and kicked him in the head after he asked them, “Why y'all do that man like that?” Thompson says he, Mayo and three other inmates were taken away for medical treatment.
An investigative report says Thompson had refused to remove his clothes and submit to a strip search. The report says Thompson tried to punch an officer, Kenyatta Barrett, who dodged the attack and responded by punching Thompson's face and body. Barrett is one of two officers charged in the indictment with assaulting Thompson.
On Wednesday, a federal judge refused to dismiss Thompson’s claims against two of the officers he sued.
“There is no evidence before this court to support a finding that the use of force against Thompson was a reasonable reaction to the circumstances confronted by the officers involved,” wrote U.S. District Judge James Bredar.
A lawyer from Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh's office, which represents the officers, had urged the judge to dismiss the case. Assistant Attorney General Laura Mullally argued that Thompson's allegations didn't rise to the level of an excessive force claim.
“Cruel and unusual punishment in the context of a prison disturbance requires conduct that involves 'more than ordinary lack of due care for the prisoner’s interests or safety,'” she wrote in February.
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, whose office secured the indictments, said the investigation started in 2018 after officials heard “rumors and anecdotes” about officers using excessive force against inmates in the city's state-run jails.
Some of the indicted officers already had been sued over excessive force claims before the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services began investigating.
In one of those cases, an inmate accused tactical team members of severely beating him while he was handcuffed and shackled at the Baltimore City Detention Center in October 2008. The inmate, Brandon Grimes, had been convicted of killing a Baltimore city police officer. Grimes claimed officers screamed, “Cop killer!” and “You going to die up here today!” during the attack in his cell.
A judge who refused to dismiss Grimes' claims against a warden said a log book didn't note any incident between the tactical team and a prisoner.
“Stripped to essentials, defendants’ argument is that the incident never occurred,” the judge wrote.
One of the officers indicted Tuesday was named as a defendant in the suit that Grimes filed in 2011. A settlement resolved the case in 2015 after the judge dismissed Grimes' excessive force claims.
The judge said he was “sympathetic to (Grimes') claim of unprovoked assault,” but noted that Grimes wasn't certain how many officers had entered his cell and couldn't describe them in any detail.
Steven Meehan, an attorney for the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland Inc. who represented Grimes, said the case settled over a medical claim. Grimes had claimed he was denied medical treatment.
Grimes' case isn't mentioned in the indictments against the 25 officers, who are accused of assaulting and threatening detainees at correctional facilities, tampering with evidence and falsifying documents. The string of alleged assaults listed in the indictment date back to March 2016.
TAC team members operate inside four detention facilities in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Other state-run jails in Baltimore have been plagued by violence and corruption.
In 2015, the state closed the men’s section of a Baltimore jail where a federal indictment exposed a sophisticated smuggling ring involving dozens of gang members and correctional officers. The investigation also revealed that a jailhouse gang leader had impregnated four female guards.
Corruption has plagued Baltimore’s city government for decades. Disgraced former mayor Catherine Pugh pleaded guilty last month to federal charges stemming from sales of her self-published children’s books. The city’s police department has been rocked by a string of indictments and guilty pleas by task force officers accused of extortion, robbery, falsifying evidence and reselling seized drugs.