When Shogun Dowling noticed the unmarked car full of cops in tactical vests in his rearview mirror, he got nervous.
It was January 1 of this year, and Dowling and his wife Julie were heading to the Ravens-Steelers game.
The three officers were members of a Baltimore Police Department District Action Team (DAT), one of the city’s specialized units tasked with seizing guns and drugs.
One of the DAT officers trailing them was Connor Johnson, who later wrote in his report that “Mr. Dowling continued looking back at our vehicle in his rearview mirror.”
The officers followed the couple through nine intersections and noted that Dowling’s 2005 Honda Civic was “swerving back and forth within the traffic lane.” At a red light about to turn green, Dowling allegedly didn’t make a “complete stop” and then failed to use his turn signal.
“They grabbed my husband out of the car and went through the car,” Julie Dowling said. “It felt like an ambush. It wasn’t a regular traffic stop.”
Was this an unconstitutional stop by the DAT, created in 2017 after the disbanding of the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force? A case of the new special plainclothes team engaging in the same kinds of questionable searches and potential misconduct as its predecessor?
Advocates and defense attorneys say they are seeing a repeat of that notorious pattern – officers using a thin pretext to justify an unconstitutional traffic stop.
That’s what Dowling’s attorney says happened that day – a stop and a search that should never have happened.
And as this story was being prepared, new questions were being raised about the latest DAT stop, on Tuesday afternoon that ended with officers shooting and killing a man on Wilkens Avenue.
“My brother ran,” Jelevon Nolley, who identified himself as the victim’s brother, told WJZ. “He was scared.”
After the officers pulled the Dowlings over, Johnson claimed he spotted a black bag “in plain view” on the backseat of the car that he said contained marijuana.
They searched Dowling. The officers said Dowling had a loaded Polymer 80 handgun – often referred to as a “ghost gun” – in his waistband. They found Adderall on Dowling, but he had a prescription for that.
As the DAT officers searched the Civic, uniformed police arrived on the scene, as well. Foxtrot, the city’s police helicopter, flew overhead, circling, putting its spotlight on the couple.
Dowling was arrested. According to their statement of probable cause, officers found more than two dozen small plastic bags of cannabis and pills including five Oxycodone pills and five Xanax along with the handgun and Adderall. They told Julie Dowling she could leave, and she drove home.
The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office charged Dowling with nearly a dozen crimes, including illegal gun and ammunition possession, and use of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime.
Dowling has been incarcerated since the January arrest because of his criminal record, which includes a second-degree assault charge in 2012 and a drug distribution charge from 2013. The charge related to the ghost gun makes Dowling a felon in possession of an illegal firearm, which increases his possible sentence and prevents him from receiving bail.
But Dowling’s public defender, Karyn Meriwether, challenged the case on Fourth Amendment grounds.
On Feb. 15, Meriwether wrote in a motion that “the police did not have reasonable articulable suspicion to stop or search” him, “did not have probable cause to seize or arrest” him, and that “the search and seizure…was invalid.” The Maryland Office of the Public Defender declined to comment on Dowling’s case.
The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office later dismissed Dowling’s drug charges, leaving only the handgun charges. Then, on April 14, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed all of the remaining charges against Shogun. The State’s Attorney’s Office also declined to comment on Dowling’s case.
The Dowling stop is far from the only troubled DAT case.
At least eight DAT arrests have gone to Maryland’s higher courts over challenges to probable cause where the unit used claims for stops such as someone who “quickens [their] pace” when they saw officers or someone carrying “a pointy object” in their jacket. All but one of the eight convictions—including a case before the Maryland Supreme Court that argued running from DAT officers did not constitute probable cause—have been upheld. One case was remanded back to circuit court “without affirmance or reversal.”
A federal case was appealed based on DAT officers chasing a man for wearing winter clothing even though the temperature hovered around 54 degrees. DAT shoved the man into a fence and, they said, a gun fell out of his waistband. The conviction was upheld because the shove itself was considered by a judge to be the “investigatory stop.”
Misconduct is also pervasive in the squad, which is spread across all nine of the Baltimore Police districts.
According to the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s analysis of disciplinary information about DAT’s 79 officers, its members have been investigated more than 700 times.
That includes 410 investigations for use of force and 257 Internal Affairs investigations. There have also been 21 Civilian Review Board investigations into DAT members and nine civil lawsuits.
That data on investigations is not indicative of impropriety, the Baltimore Police Department’s public affairs director Lindsey Eldridge told Baltimore Brew and The Garrison Project.
“Due to their role and enforcement function, we understand that our DATs are subject to a greater number of complaints in the execution of their duties,” Eldridge said.
“From traffic stops, executing warrants and identifying individuals responsible for drug trafficking and violence, these teams focus on many high-level offenses that can produce dangerous interactions,” she said.
“These teams focus on many high-level offenses that can produce dangerous interactions” – Lindsey Eldridge, Baltimore Police Department.
The Garrison Project obtained Johnson’s Internal Affairs history via a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request.
One man alleged he was stopped by Johnson because of his license plate cover and had his car searched without consent.
Another man alleged that Johnson pulled him over and held him for more than an hour before finally releasing him. Only one allegation in Johnson’s file is sustained: for failing to properly seatbelt someone who was arrested.
Defense attorneys and advocates say that DAT simply continues the mission of the disgraced Gun Trace Task Force: they aggressively target people they suspect of possessing guns or drugs, and allegedly engage in brutality, shootings, and unconstitutional stop and search tactics.
“Anytime that you have a unit described as ‘proactive policing’—they’re not responding to calls or issues that are arising in the area but deciding to take it upon themselves—it lends itself to the potential abuse of power,” said Natalie Finegar, a criminal defense attorney who served in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and represented people victimized by the Gun Trace Task Force.
“It’s kind of like repeating GTTF in some ways, in the sense that groups are encouraged by the results, and not necessarily discouraged when there’s an abuse process,” Finegar continued.
Despite Consent Decree
DAT’s conduct is particularly disturbing, defense attorneys say, because the Baltimore Police have been under a federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice since 2017.
The consent decree was meant “to resolve the department’s findings that the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) engages in a pattern and practice of conduct that violates the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.”
One of DOJ’s central conclusions was that “BPD made stops, searches and arrests without the required justification.”
“These are pretextual stops basically,” Finegar said. “‘We have a hunch that something else is going on, but we’re going to stop you for something [such as] a rolling stop.’”
In other cases, officers make a legitimate traffic stop that starts with a relatively benign issue, but then gets dragged out.
“They’re looking to prolong it as much as possible, hoping that something happens so that they can get into the car and then search it,” Finegar explained.
A report recently filed in federal court as part of the federal consent decree included numerous accounts of stops and searches similar to DAT’s stop of the Dowlings.
A community survey report recently filed in federal court as part of the consent decree by the Baltimore Police Department Monitoring Team included numerous accounts of stops and searches similar to DAT’s stop of the Dowlings.
“Coming through town, boyfriends and I were pulled over,” said one respondent.
“Officers said their light was out and automatically searched their vehicle for no reason and tried to say they were looking for drugs and the tail light was never out,” the respondent said. “They actually tore apart the car during the search. Afterward, they just left.”
The survey indicates that six years into the consent decree, Baltimoreans are not satisfied with Baltimore Police’s ability to reduce crime or engage the community.
“We’re noting that a large percentage of the people will report that they don’t see law enforcement engaging the community,” Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris, principal investigator for the consent decree survey, said.
“They talk a lot about observing police in cars or observing police officers but they’re not necessarily walking the beats. They’re not getting out of their vehicles.”
Six years into the federal consent decree, Baltimore Police still are not collecting stop-and-search data
The extent of these questionable stops and searches is unclear because even six years after the consent decree, the Baltimore Police still are not collecting stop-and-search data.
“The Baltimore Police Department is committed to improving our community policing efforts and working alongside our communities to create a safer Baltimore for all,” the BPD’s Eldridge said. “We know we have more work to do to increase trust in our services and this survey highlights that fact.”
The grassroots group Organizing Black notes the consent decree was meant to eliminate this kind of policing, common among Baltimore’s specialized units for years.
“The District Action Team is just the latest iteration of specialized policing units that effectively continue the types of racist, classist and unconstitutional policing practices that landed Baltimore in a consent decree in the first place,” Samantha Master, of Organizing Black, said.
“There’s no value in these units except to harass, maim and kill Baltimore City’s community members that they deem disposable,” she said.“ These units should be illegal because what they do is illegal.”
Even though the state charges against Dowling related to the DAT stop in January were dropped in April, his entanglement in the criminal legal system was just beginning.
On April 5, Dowling was reindicted, this time by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. His case went federal on just one charge: possession of ammunition by a prohibited person. If he is convicted, Dowling faces up to 15 years in federal prison.
“The federal government doesn’t have the resources to take over state prosecutions—so they’re not out looking to take over things,” said Herbert Larson, a criminal defense attorney and professor at the Tulane University School of Law.
“But if they see where the state is falling down or where the state comes to them and says, ‘We think this case is important, but we just can’t do it,’ they’re going to take it into federal court.”
In June, Dowling made his first appearance in federal court. In July, a federal magistrate judge ordered that he remain incarcerated. The Federal Public Defender for the District of Maryland declined to comment on Dowling’s case because it is ongoing in federal court. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland also declined to comment on Dowling’s case.
Around the same time, Julie Dowling heard about the officer in her husband’s case—Connor Johnson—on the news.
On June 29, Johnson and four other Baltimore Police officers shot and killed Darryl Gamble, a 40-year-old Black man. One of the officers was listed in a drug case involving Gamble and knew there was a warrant out for him. Body camera and security footage in the incident show that Gamble, who had a rifle and a handgun, ran and fired at Johnson and others chasing him.
More than 70 shots were fired by the officers and Gamble.
“To hear [the police officer] on my husband’s charging papers was part of a fatal shooting, that was a surprise,” Julie Dowling said.
Johnson is currently assigned to administrative duties, the BPD’s Eldridge said. Gamble’s shooting is still being investigated by the Baltimore Police Department, the Office of the Attorney General, and the State’s Attorney’s Office.
The June police shooting of Gamble was the second DAT shooting in two months.
In May, DAT officer Cedric Elleby shot a Black 17-year-old during a foot chase. In body camera footage, Elleby can be seen sitting on a stoop, speaking to the teen. After talking to the teen, Elleby said he asked to search him because the teen displayed “characteristics of an armed person.” The teen refused to be searched and ran, and Elleby gave chase.
Video shows the 17-year-old removing a gun from his pants and running with it. Elleby shot the teen in the back when he allegedly refused to comply with a command to drop the weapon. The teen was later charged with first- and second-degree assault and numerous gun charges.
His aunt told WBAL that the shooting was the culmination of police harassment of her nephew and other children.
“Apparently, this had been going on for about four or five days. They kind of just, like, come through jumping out on the kids, sitting with them and different stuff like that,” she said.
As for the most recent DAT shooting on November 7, of a man identified as 27-year-old Hunter Jessup, the initial reporting suggests it follows a familiar pattern.
In a press conference, Baltimore Police said officers from the District Action Team “saw something that made them believe” that the man was armed, and when they attempted to stop him, he fled.
They said they located a handgun with an extended magazine at the scene — though they did not say if they knew it belonged to the man or if it was on his person —and that they did not know if the man fired at the officers.
The department described the shooting as an active, ongoing investigation.
Shogun Dowling is incarcerated in the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore and still has no trial date.
According to a late October filing in federal court, prosecutors and his defense team are reviewing discovery and preparing motions.
“It’s hard without Shogun. It’s like losing somebody, like they’re dead. We should be growing together and doing all these things together and now I can’t touch this person,” Julie Dowling said.
“We just bought a house and now I feel like I’m in a whole other universe. What happened? It’s almost been a year.”
• This story was produced in partnership with The Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.
• Brandon Soderberg reports on cops, drugs and guns and is the the co-author of “I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org