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The Enforcer: Baltimore's one-time top cop looks back

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Crime,Luke Broadwater
Jemini Jones walks slowly down Edmondson Avenue in Southwest Baltimore. The day is sunny and warm, and Jones is dressed in black, his short-sleeve shirt revealing powerful, tattooed arms that once manhandled college running backs.

He passes dilapidated brick row houses and trash-filled alleys before turning onto Mt. Holley Street, where Jones points out a nearly hidden apartment once known as a hot spot in Baltimore’s bustling drug trade.

Not that he can do anything about the dealers now.

“Their job was to hustle, my job was to catch ’em,” he says. His face reflects both pride and nostalgia. “I was doing my job, like they were doing theirs. Most of the time, you catch the regular guy, and they say ‘S--- man, you got me.’”

He points up to a second-floor corner apartment, where he once executed a search warrant and seized $350,000 worth of drugs.

“They were selling raw heroin, and they had cornered the market,” Jones says, shaking his head in disgust.

“Ain’t nothing fair about this whole thing,” the former detective says. “I loved the job. I did it every day. It wasn’t so much the satisfaction of it. But I come from a community that was affected by drugs. My mother fell susceptible to drugs. I feel like I owed the community what a lot of these guys couldn’t give them. I was firm, but I was fair.”

‘I was one of the best’
 
Under Mayor Martin O’Malley, the Baltimore Police Department instituted a “zero tolerance” crime-fighting program, and Jones, 31, a former football player at City College and Shepherd University, became an agency star -- the very embodiment of an aggressive, physical approach to law enforcement.

With an estimated — and staggering — 10,000 arrests in only six years between 2001 and 2006, Jones was considered the toughest of the tough, the baddest of the bad — the one officer commanders knew could go into any neighborhood and rattle the nerves of drug dealers, thieves and murderers. (Online court records show about 3,000 criminal cases involving Jones from those years.)

“Jemini Jones was a beast on the streets,” says Sgt. Robert Smith, Jones’ former supervisor at the Southwest Flex Squad. “If I had to arm myself to go out on the streets, I’d have to have Jemini Jones in my arsenal.”

Jones won awards and commendations. The police commissioner praised him. His performance reviews were sterling. Deputy Police Commissioner Marcus Brown wrote Jones several letters of commendation on his “excellent job performance” after seizing loaded handguns, drugs and thousands of dollars from armed suspects in different cases.

“You don’t get awards if you don’t make arrests,” says former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward Norris, who once handed Jones a Commendation for Special Service. “If he’s taking loaded handguns from dangerous people, it’s good work.”

He was assigned to the Southwest Flex Squad, a group of plainclothes detectives who met trouble head-on. If there was violence in Edmondson Village, in came the Flex Squad. If the Poplar Grove corridor got out of control, Jones and his crew moved in.

“I was an enforcer,” Jones says. “Wherever there was a problem — shootings, robberies, drug dealing — they’d send us in to shut it down. I know I was one of the best drug cops in the city. We had the most crime reduction in the city when we were out there. We were bringing in more guns, more felony cases, and clearing more shootings and homicides. We were getting people to talk.”

But with all the arrests came backlash.

Jones had 38 internal affairs complaints filed against him — an extraordinarily high number, ranging from a drug suspect who claimed Jones punched him in the eye to an armed dealer who said Jones stole $700 from him. He was sued seven times.

Jones explains the complaints as a natural byproduct of aggressive policing, similar to a power hitter in baseball who aims for the fences.

“The more swings you take, the more strikeouts you get,” he says.

Jones says the lawsuits were from people trying to get rich quick through bogus police brutality claims.

“Anybody and everybody will sue you,” he says. “I’ve got lawsuits still popping up and surfacing, man. I haven’t been on the street for three years. People are still sending the lawsuits.”

Norris says 38 citizen complaints seems like a high number for an officer, but not if one considers Jones’ arrest figures.
“The only cops who don’t get complaints are the zeros,” he says. “If you’ve never got a complaint, you’ve never done any real police work.”

Even so, each of the accusations filed against him was either administratively closed, ruled unfounded or not sustained after an internal affairs investigation — until Dec. 27, 2005.

On that day, a young woman who had been arrested on drug charges and brought to the Southwest District station accused Jones of rape, and the detective's rising star instantly vanished.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy charged him, and Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm suspended him. High-rankers at City Hall called him a “rogue cop” and O’Malley said Jones’ arrest showed voters the mayor and Hamm were “doing our jobs.” 

For Jemini, it was the beginning of the end.

Now, ‘I’m almost like the plague’

It was late night when Jones and two other officers — both white — pulled up to secluded street in Southwest Baltimore, looking for a drug dealer.

As they turned the corner, one of the officers noticed a parked car with four people inside near an abandoned house.

“We were a couple minutes early,” Jones recalls. “The guy we were investigating was supposed to come and hit them off with some drugs. “

The officers took the two women in the car to the Southwest police station. They released the men, one of whom was in a wheelchair. Jones says this was to avoid the hassle of transporting a wheelchair-bound man; prosecutors believe the decision was made so Jones could sexually assault the woman.

And this is where the stories diverge.

One of the women -- a 25-year-old -- says Jones forced her to have sex with him in a room at the station house in exchange for her freedom.

“He was like, ‘What are you willing to do to get yourself out of this?’ ... and he was like, “You got to give me some a-- or something,” she told investigators.

Jones and the two other officers were charged criminally with sex crimes. Internal affairs raided the offices of the Southwest Flex Squad. They accused the officers there of all manner of crimes: planting drugs of suspects; stealing cell phones; faking statements of probable cause.

There were news conferences and condemnations, but Jones says it was a “bunch of lies.” 

He says the woman agreed to snitch on her drug-dealing friends, so he let her go. Shortly after her release, she saw a friend on the street, who questioned her about how she got away from the police, and, Jones says, she made up a lie to cover for her snitching.

“My whole life was ruined over a lie,” he says.

The trial took two weeks in January 2007, and as Jones walked to court, he regularly wore sunglasses and a dark suit. He was under orders from his attorney not to talk.

“People say, ‘When you were walking back and forth to court, you were arrogant. You had your head held high,’” he says. “Why the f--- would I look like I did something and I ain’t done nothing? Am I supposed to walk around with my head down, running from cameras? Man, I ain’t done nothing. I’m not going to act like I did something.”

Jones’ accuser cried on the witness stand, and, at one point, ran from the courtroom. Prosecutor JoAnne Stanton told the jury that Jones  was a rapist, and the facts proved it.

But Jones’ attorney, Jan Bledsoe, slowly whittled away at discrepancies in the woman’s version of events.

The accuser first gave a fake name — Dara Johnson — to police, Bledsoe said. The woman testified on the witness stand that she had sex with Jones on the heater, but she told a nurse at Mercy Medical Center that she was bending over a chair during the sex act, the attorney pointed out. 

“It is physically impossible to have sex over this chair, because the backrest tilts backwards,” Bledsoe said. “The chair would tip over.”

The accuser -- who has been arrested six times on charges, including burglary and assault and has two convictions for drug possession -- testified the door to the room where the alleged sex act occurred was closed, but the door couldn’t close because it was warped, the lawyer argued.

“[Her] motive was to not go to jail, and she got exactly what she wanted,” Bledsoe said. “After her allegations, the [drug] case never came to court, and she never spent one day in jail.”

Jones took the witness stand and declared: “I never had sexual intercourse with that woman.”

It took the jury a day and a half to come back with a verdict.

“Jan pulled me to the side,” Jones recalls. “She said, ‘J, I wouldn’t be a good friend or a good lawyer if I didn’t tell you the consequences of this. You should take your jewelry and watches and wallet and give it to your family. I gave you the best defense I could give you. But you could be going away for a long time.’

“I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t nervous. I was accepting. I sat down at the table. It was standing room only. Twelve marshals were standing behind me. I remember looking out the window. There was just a calm. I told myself, ‘Don’t get scared now.’ I knew might not be free for a long time.”

Then the jury foreman spoke: “Not guilty.”

The girlfriend of Jones’ accuser yelled angrily that “police think they can get away with everything,” but Jones found little relief in the outcome.

“I was infuriated because they [police and prosecutors] wasted my life,” he says. “They know I didn’t do it. They really took and played with my life. That’s a hell of a feeling.”

 Just as quickly as the case against the Flex Squad came, it fell apart.

Prosecutors dropped charges against the two officers working with Jones that night. They dropped a second — weaker — sexual assault case against Jones. The city paid Jones some $60,000 in missed back pay. The police department agreed to pay out $200,000 and $50,000 to Smith and Detective Vicki Mengel, respectively, to settle a defamation suit. The department even took the rare step of publicly apologizing to Mengel and Smith.

But the department fired Jones, because, police say, he was caught with a handgun in his car while his police powers were suspended. Suddenly, Jones was scrambling to find a job, unable to re-enter the one profession for which he had passion.

“I had to file for bankruptcy,” he said. “I had to liquidate my assets. I lost my mom during the situation. I haven’t been able to find a real job. Just doing a little odd jobs. It’s like nobody will touch me. I’m almost like the plague.”

Bledsoe says she “feels really badly” for Jones.

“I think prosecutors actually believed their witness,” she says. “But the whole thing just seemed so completely unfair.”


Looking forward

Jones returned to the Southwest station on a recent sunny September morning. He was greeted with hugs and big smiles.

His gun case is on appeal with the Court of Special Appeals, the state’s second highest court. If he’s cleared, Jones wants to return to law enforcement. He says he still has the skills some agency would want: He says he’s hard-working, a good investigator and can get almost anyone to talk to him.

“Jemini had the acquired technique of being able to read people on the street,” Smith says. “That’s something that you just don’t get overnight. You get it by coming up in the neighborhood. He is highly intelligent. All the drug dealers, they hated him, but they respected him.”

Smith says Jones would still have his job if he hadn’t have fallen prey to his biggest flaw — an inability to lay low.

“If he wasn’t out clubbing, he would have never been pulled over [for the gun charge],” Smith says. “But he was railroaded. The department wrote him off, like he was bad luggage.

“He made them look good for years. He was an aggressive drug cop. We [the Flex Squad] were feared, and we were good at what we did. We didn’t go after open-container guys. We went after the guns, the drugs, the violent guys. They guys we went after were killers. They created Jemini Jones, used him all up and kicked him to the curb.”

During his time as Jones’ supervisor, Smith also got to know Jones’ softer side. One winter night on Catherine Street, the two officers came across a homeless man shivering in the cold. 

Jones called the man over, gave him $20 and said, “Go get yourself something to eat,” Smith recalls. “I thought, ‘This guy is older in many ways than I give him credit for. He was a good police officer.”

As for Jones, “I’d like to work somewhere more quiet,” he says. “Somewhere where I can keep my head down and just do the job.”

lbroadwater@baltimoreexaminer.com

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