In March of 2017, seven police officers serving in the Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) were indicted on federal racketeering charges. The force was accused of robbing citizens, making fraudulent overtime claims, and filing false court paperwork. Since then, two more officers have been added to the indictment and in November, an officer named Sean Suiter was shot in the head in a vacant West Baltimore lot a day before he was set to testify against the indicted officers. His death has been ruled a homicide and remains unsolved, although a $215,000 reward for information is still up for grabs. These events have started to get national attention recently, further confirming that Baltimore’s police force continues to be one of the most corrupt in the US. But for many residents of the inner city, such news is not only old, but a reminder of why some of their lives have been permanently railroaded. In 2014, two years before the FBI launched their investigation on the GTTF, local rapper Young Moose warned citizens about foul play within the Baltimore City Police Department through his music, drawing from his own experiences with some of these very same cops.
Moose has spoken in general terms about some of these struggles, like being first arrested as a 12-year-old selling weed. But the majority of his raps have been much more specific, even down the officer. “Detective Hersl he a bitch. I swear to God he ain't right / Heard about my rap career, he trying to fuck up my life,” he warned in a 2015 track called “Tired.” The song was released after Moose served three months in jail in 2014 for being connected to a raid in which officers found gel caps typically used to distribute heroin in a property his father owned. Daniel T. Hersl, the man mentioned in the song, is a former Baltimore detective who led the raid, which Moose wasn’t present for but was still arrested for 18 days later when Hersl obtained a warrant for Moose's arrest, tying him to the alleged operation.
Hersl is one of the initial seven indicted officers from the city’s GTTR and his name is listed on four separate criminal charges against Moose dating back to 2012 when the 24-year-old, born Kevron Evans, was 19. Each case is related to distributing narcotics. Moose’s criminal record is presumably why none his repeated warnings about Hersl’s misconduct were taken seriously by city officials, but it underscores why officers across the nation target people with checkered pasts like Moose, especially when they continuously broadcast the truth about corruption.
Rappers being targeted by their local police forces is not a new development. But the lengths at which some officers go has gone largely unnoticed and unchallenged throughout history. For decades, New York City’s famed hip-hop police have been believed to target local and visiting rappers, trying to find drugs and weapons. The arrest of Brooklyn’s Bobby Schmurda in 2014 sparked speculation that he had been on the hip-hop police radar since his “Hot Nigga” single picked up steam. In April of 2017, Bay Area weekly publication East Bay Express reported on how locally-lauded Oakland rapper Philthy Rich was virtually banned from performing in his hometown. In the report, Philthy’s manager estimated that they’d lost around $10,000 on a homecoming show that was cancelled at the last minute. It was later found that local venue owners were required to submit monthly calendars to the local police department’s Special Event Unit. Venues had to acquire an official Special Event Permit for shows that involved outside promoters. Though the listed fee for permits doesn’t exceed $450 on the city of Oakland’s official website, there is a stipulation that states: “If it is determined that police presence is required at your event, that is an additional cost.” The report alleges that police charged venues hosting rap shows $5,000 per event, driving them to steer away from the genre. It’s worth noting that venue owners who did not host rap music were largely unaware of this policy, meaning that police made systematic efforts to stop artists like Philthy from performing. When I spoke to Young Moose last year concerning his struggle with Daniel Hersl, the rapper’s father alleged that the former detective would drop by their family’s shop before any of Moose’s scheduled performances to promise: “'He ain't making that show. We gonna make sure he don't make that show.’”
On Monday, January 22, Daniel Hersl and former colleague Marcus Taylor’s racketeering trial began. Taylor is another one of the seven initially-indicted officers of the GTTF. I sat in on the trial at Baltimore’s Edward A. Garmatz United States Courthouse on Monday, February 5 to see if any new developments had been made in the case. Throughout the course of the day, Mamadou Gondo, another indicted GTTF officer, testified that each member of their task force falsified police reports that helped them get into the houses of big time drug dealers in order to rob them. Many of the stories I heard helped make sense of how these former officers identified their prey and why Moose felt unsure of where his life was headed after serving eight months in prison on a misdemeanor gun charge in late 2016.
Just about every victim of the force’s big heists were successful drug dealers in the area, which shows how calculated the officers’ criminal activity truly was. Drug dealers, by larger society’s standards, are some of the most vile, cruel, and heartless individuals in our world. They provide people with drugs, which leads to addiction, which leads to families being deteriorated, which leads to children growing up without proper supervision, which leads to them looking to the streets for love, which leads to violence and more drug addiction or distribution. This fundamental, though incomplete, understanding of their role in society lays the groundwork for law enforcement to abuse their relationship with them. If you sell drugs, your word means nothing. If a cop steals money from a drug dealer, they have all-but assured themselves that they will face no backlash or punishment—which works in their favor double-time because drug dealers tend to have the biggest supply of untraceable dollars. “Because they know we seized drugs on them so we had them dead to rights,” Gondo said of why he and his colleagues targeted drug dealers.
But even deeper than the individual shakedowns is the heartbreaking reality that black people from inner cities and underserved communities often have their fates decided for them by people who want nothing more than to exploit them in every way imaginable. And if they are ever fortunate enough to defy probability by gaining financial freedom or establishing a platform in which they can share the true nuances of growing up in these environments, they become even bigger targets than they were before. So by default, people in disenfranchised communities don’t even matter, but if they do escape in any way, they become a well that appointed enforcers can run dry before finding someone else. Artists like Philthy Rich, Young Moose, and Bobby Shmurda can attest to this. And unlike Moose and others who were targeted by police illegal activity, Philthy Rich’s situation shows that there are legal ways to confine people as well.
The point isn’t for drug dealers to be made out as innocent, law-abiding citizens. But police like the GTTF, forces in the Bay Area, and beyond were not interested in bringing criminals to justice. They want to punish them for not only being from a place in which their feelings and thoughts are deemed useless, but also for escaping unfavorable conditions by stripping them of the progress they’ve made—even if it’s not much. And beyond that, these police aim to profit off of some of society’s most vulnerable people. By stifling their progress, crooked police ensure that these people’s families will continuously have to start at square one, making them susceptible to criminal activity, and continuing the legacy of being targeted by people who want to keep them in the bottom rung of the social ladder. Gondo’s reasoning for the GTFF’s crimes sheds light on why rappers’ roles are crucial in this struggle against corrupt policing and oppression of black people in general.
Rappers are often times some of the only reliable sources we have on the relationship between the hood and the police. The journalists and filmmakers that we celebrate for their brave coverage of these issues get to take shortcuts. Compiling sources and spending an abbreviated time in a hostile environment boiling over with generational tension doesn’t quite shape up to the artists who are literally risking their freedoms for telling the truth. These artists are usually still living in the neighborhoods they describe in their music, making them accessible to the people they criticize, who likely know every detail about them. Young Moose’s first mention of Daniel Hersl’s corruption in 2014’s “Fuck The Police” informed thousands of listeners of what they may be up against in their own communities, but it also set him on a course that he has yet to reverse. From that time forward, Hersl made it his mission to block any progress the rising rapper made. He locked Moose up days before a scheduled performance with Boosie Badazz, used his music videos as evidence to keep him locked up, and allegedly stole money from the rapper’s family shop. So how can a person in a similar position even win when these roadblocks persist? How can people think shit is going to change just because nine bad cops may go to jail, when they know police are groomed to treat them like they have no purpose other than to serve cops’ appetite for domination? At times, it feels like a person has to be slightly insane to be optimistic in the face of these challenges, but thanks to the voices of artists like Young Moose who risk it all to expose these truths, the path feels less lonely and unrealistic than it actually is.
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