FBI investigators acting on a tip from a disgraced former Baltimore police investigator have found that officers in a special plainclothes unit falsified reports to further their cases, a federal prosecutor alleged in court Thursday.
Kendell Richburg, who was assigned to the Violent Crimes Impact Section, turned on his colleagues after he was charged with federal drug and gun offenses. He told prosecutors he was just one of many who misrepresented facts in order to protect informants and continue making arrests, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Copperthite said.
At Richburg's sentencing Thursday, Copperthite said the FBI had not found "widespread corruption" in the unit. But he said Richburg's cooperation had helped investigators to find some officers who were filing improper reports.
Richburg pleaded guilty to drug dealing and firearms charges in March, and his cooperation with the FBI was enough to earn him a slight reduction in sentence. A federal judge sentenced Richburg to eight years in prison, followed by 10 months of home detention.
Copperthite said federal investigators interviewed officers and their superiors and compared written police reports to the memories of witnesses and suspects.
"There are officers we were able to identify who have written false reports," Copperthite said.
The suspects in the investigation were not named in court, and details of Richburg's cooperation are under seal. An FBI spokeswoman said the investigation is continuing and that it relates to a number of officers from Richburg's district.
The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The Violent Crimes Impact Section, which consisted of plainclothes officers deployed in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods, has been praised as a tool for driving down crime. But it also attracted criticism from City Council members for what they described as heavy-handed tactics.
The unit was renamed the Special Enforcement Section in December as part of a shake-up by Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, but it was mostly left intact.
Richburg was a member of a group of officers assigned to the Northwestern District. Copperthite said he first came to the attention of federal authorities when they suspected him of fencing stolen electronic goods.
But when they wiretapped Richburg's phone, Copperthite said, authorities discovered he was working to protect a drug dealer who authorities said was feeding him information so that Richburg could make easy arrests.
The relationship developed to the point that Richburg helped the dealer, Brandon West, set up a robbery and provided him information about the killing of one of West's relatives — for which West wanted revenge, according to conversations intercepted on the wiretap described in court Thursday.
In "a lot of the calls it was hard to tell who was in charge," Copperthite said.
At one point, West and Richburg discussed planting a gun on an unlicensed taxi driver. The plan was never carried out, Copperthite said. But if it had been, he said, agents listening in on the calls were ready to step in and clear the driver.
West was sentenced Tuesday to five years on a federal drug conviction. Details of his case were not available in the public court file Thursday and his attorney could not be reached for comment.
Richburg said in court that his actions, and those of other officers he helped agents identify, were motivated by intense pressure to make arrests. Officers with many arrests were praised, he said, while those with fewer were punished.
"I'm not a bad person," Richburg said. "I just made some bad choices."
Police have denied that officers are pressured to reach arrest quotas. They have said Richburg acted alone.
But after his guilty plea this spring, prosecutors said the conviction could taint hundreds of cases. At his sentencing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett described honest police work as the foundation of the criminal justice system.
Crooked officers help feed "cynicism and skepticism" about the fairness of the courts, Bennett added. He said that lying on search warrant applications could undermine people's constitutional rights.
Bennett made clear that while he understood the pressure on officers like Richburg, his case went beyond playing with the truth to pump up arrest statistics.
"We're talking about blatant corruption on the streets of Baltimore," Bennett said.
Having a guardian police officer, he added, would be a "drug dealer's dream."