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Opinion The Justice Department’s stunning report on the Baltimore Police Department

A justice department official delivers a statement on the findings of a scathing Justice Department report on the Baltimore Police Department. (Video: Reuters)
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I’ve read a lot of Justice Department reports on local police agencies. This is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Let’s start with the broad strokes. These are all direct quotes from the report:

  • “BPD’s legacy of zero tolerance enforcement continues to drive its policing in certain Baltimore neighborhoods and leads to unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests. Many BPD supervisors instruct officers to make frequent stops and arrests—even for minor offenses and with minimal or no suspicion—without sufficient consideration of whether this enforcement strategy promotes public safety and community trust or conforms to constitutional standards.”
  • “BPD’s pedestrian stops are concentrated on a small portion of Baltimore residents. BPD made roughly 44 percent of its stops in two small, predominantly African-American districts that contain only 11 percent of the City’s population. Consequently, hundreds of individuals—nearly all of them African American—were stopped on at least 10 separate occasions from 2010– 2015. Indeed, seven African-American men were stopped more than 30 times during this period.”
  • “Our review of incident reports and interviews with officers and community members found that officers regularly approach individuals standing or walking on City sidewalks to detain and question them and check for outstanding warrants, despite lacking reasonable suspicion to do so. Only 3.7 percent of pedestrian stops resulted in officers issuing a citation or making an arrest.”
  • “We likewise found many instances in which officers strip search individuals without legal justification. In some cases, officers performed degrading strip searches in public, prior to making an arrest, and without grounds to believe that the searched individuals were concealing contraband on their bodies.”
  • “Arrests without probable cause: from 2010–2015, supervisors at Baltimore’s Central Booking and local prosecutors rejected over 11,000 charges made by BPD officers because they lacked probable cause or otherwise did not merit prosecution. Our review of incident reports describing warrantless arrests likewise found many examples of officers making unjustified arrests.”
  • “While the Constitution requires individuals to receive pre-arrest notice of the specific conduct prohibited as loitering or trespassing, BPD officers approach individuals standing lawfully on sidewalks in front of public housing complexes or private businesses and arrest them unless the individuals are able to “justify” their presence to the officers’ satisfaction.”
  • “BPD uses overly aggressive tactics that unnecessarily escalate encounters, increase tensions, and lead to unnecessary force, and fails to de-escalate encounters when it would be reasonable to do so.”
  • “BPD uses excessive force against individuals with mental health disabilities or in crisis. Due to a lack of training and improper tactics, BPD officers end up in unnecessarily violent confrontations with these vulnerable individuals.”
  • “BPD uses unreasonable force against people who present little or no threat to officers or others. Specifically, BPD uses excessive force against (1) individuals who are already restrained and under officers’ control and (2) individuals who are fleeing from officers and are not suspected of serious criminal offenses.”
  • “Our concerns about BPD’s use of excessive force are compounded by BPD’s ineffective oversight of its use of force. Of the 2,818 force incidents that BPD recorded in the nearly six-year period we reviewed, BPD investigated only ten incidents based on concerns identified through its internal review. Of these ten cases, BPD found only one use of force to be excessive.”
  • “BPD violates the First Amendment by retaliating against individuals engaged in constitutionally protected activities. Officers frequently detain and arrest members of the public for engaging in speech the officers perceive to be critical or disrespectful. And BPD officers use force against members of the public who are engaging in protected speech.”

As you might expect, all of these problems are exacerbated in black neighborhoods, where stops, use of force and unlawful arrests are far more common, even after controlling for racial demographics. There’s also just routine harassment. One officer told DOJ investigators that she likes to disperse (usually black) youths in public spaces because it “looks bad.” She recalled another time when she told a man and his four-year-old son to leave a playground because they “couldn’t just stand around” and “needed to move.”

The report notes that during the investigation, “[A] flyer celebrating loitering arrests was posted in several BPD districts. The flyer depicted three officers from one of BPD’s specialized units known as Violent Crime Impact Division, or VCID, leading a handcuffed man wearing a hoodie along a city sidewalk towards a police transport van, with the text ‘VCID: Striking fear into loiters [sic] City-wide.’” Not surprisingly, the DOJ found that the BPD vastly undercounts the number of times its officers stop city residents, despite that officers are required to report each interaction. The investigators write, “Our investigation suggests that BPD officers likely make several hundred thousand pedestrian stops per year.” 

Several hundred thousand, in a city of 620,000 people. The report also found that the city “failed to take corrective action” even when local prosecutors determined that some officers had repeatedly made unconstitutional stops, detainments, and arrests. In fact, the report found that officers routinely described clearly unconstitutional stops and arrests in their police reports. I suppose it’s at least good that they’re forthcoming about it. But it suggests either a department that doesn’t bother educating its officers about the constitutional rights of the people they serve, or that enforcement of those rights is so lax that officers have no qualms about documented their own unconstitutional behavior. I’m not sure which is worse.

This passage in particular is just jaw-dropping.

During a ride-along with Justice Department officials, a BPD sergeant instructed a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American males on a street corner, question them, and order them to disperse. When the patrol officer protested that he had no valid reason to stop the group, the sergeant replied “Then make something up.”

Just so we’re clear, the sergeant not only instructed a subordinate to violate the men’s constitutional rights by concocting a lie, he did so while knowingly in the presence of DOJ monitors. That’s some serious cultural and institutional rot. In another incident, the report describes how several officers detained a man whose only offense was to be in a “high-crime area” with his hands in his pockets. (The DOJ report notes that it happened to be a cold January morning.) After repeated questioning, the officers found a (perfectly legal) kitchen knife in his possession. They then illegally arrested him. When he resisted, they beat and Tased him to the point that he needed medical care. He was never charged with a crime. In his report, the supervising sergeant praised the officers for their “great restraint and professionalism.”

Over the last five years, the DOJ report points out, BPD has faced more than 60 lawsuits over illegal strip searches. It describes on such search of a woman who was stopped for a broken headlight.

Officers ordered the woman to exit her vehicle, remove her clothes, and stand on the sidewalk to be searched. The woman asked the male officer in charge “I really gotta take all my clothes off?” The male officer replied “yeah” and ordered a female officer to strip search the woman. The female officer then put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra. Finding no weapons or contraband around the woman’s chest, the officer then pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity. This search again found no evidence of wrongdoing and the officers released the woman without charges. Indeed, the woman received only a repair order for her headlight.

The search was done publicly “in full view of the street.” In the end, the male officer who ordered the search received only a “simple reprimand.” Here’s another, describing a search of a teenager out walking with his girlfriend near his home:

One of the officers pushed the teenager up against a wall and frisked him. This search did not yield contraband. The officer then stripped off the teenager’s jacket and sweatshirt and frisked him again in front of his teenage girlfriend. When this search likewise found no contraband, the officer ordered the teenager to “give your girl your phone, I’m checking you right now.” The officer then pulled down the teenager’s pants and boxer shorts and strip-searched him in full view of the street and his girlfriend. The officers’ report of the incident disputes this account, claiming that they did not conduct a strip search and instead recovered narcotics from the teenager during a consensual pat down. No narcotics were ever produced to the teenager’s public defender, however, and the State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the drug charges for lack of evidence.

And here’s another:

[I]n 2015 an African American man filed a complaint stating that he was strip-searched by an officer whom BPD eventually fired in 2016 after numerous allegations of misconduct. The man stated that the officer ordered him out of his vehicle during a traffic stop and searched the vehicle without the man’s consent. When the stop of the vehicle did not uncover contraband, the officer pulled down the man’s pants and underwear, exposing his genitals on the side of a public street, and then stripsearched him. The officer seized marijuana and cash during the strip search and allegedly told the man that the officer would return his money and drugs if the man provided information about more serious crimes. The complaint stated that when the man did not provide this information, the officer arrested him and turned over only part of the confiscated money, keeping more than $500. Despite the serious charges in this complaint and the officer’s lengthy record of alleged misconduct, IA deemed it “administratively closed” without interviewing the complainant.

The report describes routine, almost banal arrests of people for nothing other than standing in a public space without a satisfactory explanation. And here again, the police reports don’t even bother attempting to come up with a lawful explanation for these arrests. They either mistakenly believe the arrests are legal, or BPD culture is so bad that it doesn’t matter. DOJ found a “blueprint” one shift commander emailed his officers instructing them to arrest anyone near public housing who didn’t have a valid reason to being there. These again were public spaces. The shift commander wasn’t just looking past unconstitutional behavior, he was basically insisting upon it.

Oh, and then there’s this:

Equally troubling is the fact that the [shift commander’s] template contains blanks to be filled in for details of the arrest, including the arrest data and location and the suspect’s name and address, but does not include a prompt to fill in the race or gender of the arrestee. Rather, the words “black male” are automatically included in the description of the arrest. The supervisor’s template thus presumes that individuals arrested for trespassing will be African American.

Emphasis added. Because it needs to be emphasized. No racism here, right?

How about this?

[I]n the approximately five and half years of data we examined, BPD recorded nearly 55,000 pedestrian stops in its smallest police district — the Western District, with a population of a little more than 37,000 people that is 97 percent African American — while making only 21,000 stops in the predominantly white Northern District, with a population of approximately 91,000. Expressed differently, BPD made 146 stops for every 100 residents in the predominantly African American Western District while making only 22.5 stops per 100 residents in the predominantly white Northern District—a more than 6 to 1 disparity.

Officially, BPD claims that in six years, there’s been only a single complaint of racial bias made against its police officers. The DOJ report explains why that claim is bunk.

Our interviews with hundreds of Baltimore residents, along with other complaints we have received from the Baltimore community, demonstrates that this number is implausibly low. Because of this, we manually reviewed the narrative descriptions of a subset of the complaints that were not classified as alleging racial bias, and we identified more than one hundred examples of officers allegedly using racial epithets, slurs, and making threats when interacting with African Americans in that subset. Indeed, we found 60 separate allegations between 2010 and 2016 that officers used the word “n****r” that were not classified as complaints alleging use of racial slurs or other racial bias.

It isn’t that there was only one complaint. It’s that BPD only classified one complaint as a racial bias complaint. The DOJ also found numerous incidents in which a Baltimore resident alleged a police officer used a racial epithet and the BPD internal affairs investigators dismissed the complaint without ever interviewing the complainant. Here’s one such incident:

In another incident from 2010, an African-American man stated that he witnessed officers use excessive force during an arrest and punch a fourteen-year-old boy who attempted to film the arrest on his cell phone. The African-American man recounted that the officers used “the word ‘n****r’ frequently” and asked him if he “take[s] it up the ass by Allah.” When the man went to the district headquarters to report the misconduct, he was met by the same officers who told him, “what brings your black ass back here?” and “you can take your black ass down to Kirk Avenue before the bus leaves because you know how you black people like the bus.” Despite the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that the complaint identified two witnesses, BPD never investigated the incident’s alleged racial motivation. Instead, detectives categorized the allegations as “misconduct,” “excessive force,” and “unwarranted action,” and administratively closed the case without conducting a single interview.

Not a single interview. Here’s another example:

In a case from 2010, an officer admitted that he said “you know, you’re acting like a real n****r right now” during an encounter with a young African-American male he had stopped for “loitering.” The officer’s partner, who was African American, filed the complaint after witnessing the incident. The complaint was initially categorized as a “racial slur” complaint. Before issuing an investigative finding sustaining the allegation, however, the lead BPD investigator changed the categorization in BPD’s internal affairs database from “racial slur” to “inappropriate comments, profanity, or gestures to a departmental member.” This change in classification, shortly before the allegation was sustained, indicates an intent to disguise and excuse the racial motivation for the enforcement action. The incident resulted in minimal discipline against the offending officer.

The report just goes on like that. And on. And on. It not only documents incidents of excessive force, it points out that constitutionally excessive force is a matter of policy. The BPD police manual instructs officers to point their guns at unarmed people in order to exert control, a tactic that anyone who is familiar with firearms knows is reckless and dangerous. (There’s a reason why one the first lessons you’ll learn at any firearms safety course is, “Never point your weapon at something you don’t intend to destroy.”)

The impetus for this investigation was of course the death of Freddie Gray. Just as happened in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown, Gray’s death spurred protests — and eventually some violence. Just as with Michael Brown, the officers who killed Freddie Gray have since been cleared. But the protests, unrest, and violence in Ferguson were never just about Michael Brown. His death was merely the spark that ignited years of anger, frustration and pain. We later learned that black people in Ferguson — and in St. Louis County more broadly — face near-daily harassment, oppressive enforcement of petty laws, local governments that treat them like ATMs and a crippling municipal court system that thrives on their misery.

Similarly, the Baltimore protests, unrest, and riots were never just about Freddie Gray. They were about the systemic, routine harassment, indignity and violence documented in the DOJ report released today. They were about zero tolerance policies, brazen racism and brutality, and rampant abuse. Gray’s death merely blew it all open.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to get stopped by the police 20 or more times every year — to be arrested and jailed for nothing at all, to be stripped nude and searched in public for a traffic offense, or to be told it’s basically illegal for me to merely exist in public. I can’t imagine trying to have a life under those conditions, to raise kids, to just function as a human being — much less rise above my surroundings. I suppose defenders of these tactics will say that black neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted because that’s where most of the crime takes place. I don’t doubt that may be true. But your constitutional rights aren’t determined by the behavior of people who look like you, or by the behavior of the people who live in your neighborhood. Neither should the dignity and humanity afforded to you by the people who are supposed to be protecting you.

I suppose it’s obligatory to add here that I’m not endorsing violence or rioting. It’s just that after reading that report, I’m surprised that it isn’t more common. The problems in Baltimore were never going to be fixed by throwing the cops who killed Freddie Gray in prison. But the flip side of that is also true: The fact that those cops are now clear of criminal culpability doesn’t de-legitimize the underlying anger behind the protests, nor should it slow down the move for reform. The anger in Baltimore wasn’t over one guy who died while in police custody. It was that a sizable portion of the city believes — with good reason — that it could easily have been them.