In 2017, following a corruption scandal, the Baltimore Police Department disbanded its plainclothes gun squad, committing to enhanced oversight while continuing to focus on illegal weapons confiscation and violence reduction. However, recent incidents involving the department’s new specialized units have sparked debates about their current operational methods.
No body camera footage has been released of a recent shooting, which happened on a Tuesday afternoon in southwest Baltimore. Local residents have expressed their dissatisfaction, labeling the incident as an avoidable fatality. They claim the shooting highlights a long-standing issue: certain officers in the predominantly Black community are reputed for harassing locals and escalating peaceful situations.
Rashawn McNeil, a 25-year-old resident near the shooting site, described hearing a volley of gunshots and questioned the necessity of such police force. The officers involved were part of a District Action Team (DAT), groups concentrating on illegal gun seizure. They were patrolling when they confronted Hunter Jessup, suspected of carrying a weapon. Jessup fled and allegedly aimed a gun at the officers during the chase, leading to four officers firing their weapons. Jessup, 27, was later declared deceased at a hospital.
The following day, McNeil, alongside his brother and a friend, recounted experiences with DAT officers, describing them as disdainful and prone to initiating negative interactions. These officers, recognizable by their distinct attire — neither fully uniformed nor in plainclothes but wearing vests marked as police — patrol the city’s most violent areas.
Police Commissioner Richard Worley defended the officers’ actions in Tuesday’s incident, stating they repeatedly instructed Jessup to drop his weapon. He commended the officers for their role in apprehending an armed individual. Baltimore has recently seen a downward trend in gun violence, and police leaders often praise officers for removing illegal firearms from the streets.
The creation of the DAT squads followed the disbandment of the Gun Trace Task Force, which was implicated in federal racketeering charges for illegal searches and evidence planting. This scandal spurred extensive reforms within the Baltimore Police Department, historically known for problematic interactions with the city’s Black community.
The 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody and subsequent Department of Justice investigation revealing unconstitutional policing practices resulted in the department being under a federal consent decree for court-ordered reforms.
Other cities have faced similar challenges with specialized police units. In Memphis, the SCORPION unit was permanently disbanded after the release of body camera footage showing members fatally beating Tyre Nichols. Like Baltimore’s DAT, this unit focused on illegal guns and repeat violent offenders.
Daniel Webster, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Violence Solutions, emphasizes the need for a targeted approach in specialized gun units. He advocates for focusing on actual violence perpetrators rather than broad enforcement, which, according to a study by his team, is often perceived as targeting the wrong individuals. Webster notes the lack of evidence supporting widespread gun law enforcement as beneficial for community safety, pointing out its potential to cause harm and distrust.
Critics argue that DAT teams disproportionately affect Baltimore’s low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods due to their proactive patrolling in areas with high violence. A report earlier this year by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers noted that despite new unit names, many problematic tactics persist.
Baltimore police spokesperson Lindsey Eldridge stated that DAT officers focus on strategic arrests of key individuals involved in violent crimes. The department takes misconduct complaints seriously, imposing discipline when necessary, and has recently overhauled its internal discipline process. Eldridge acknowledges the higher complaint rates against DATs due to their high-risk enforcement functions.
Less than six months before the recent shooting, another incident occurred involving DAT officers and a teenager displaying “characteristics of an armed person.” The teen, holding a gun, fled and was shot from behind by an officer.
The McNeil brothers express frustration over the need to assert their constitutional rights when approached by certain officers, feeling dehumanized by their treatment based on age and race perceptions.