Federal Investigation Lays Bare How Baltimore Police Systematically Abuse the Civil Rights of the City's Mostly Black Residents
It took an uprising to bring attention to the rampant racism of the city police department.
By Sarah Lazare / AlterNet
August 10, 2016
When Baltimore erupted in an uprising last year following the violent death of Freddie Gray in police custody, angry protesters, most of them black youth, were widely denounced as criminals and thugs. Maryland’s governor deployed the national guard as riot police poured in from across the state and residents faced a city-wide curfew. At one point, cops surrounded and maced high school students in the Mondawmin neighborhood, a provocation described as “absolutely vile” by Brian Arnold, an eyewitness and former Baltimore City high school teacher. As rumors of a “gang truce” circulated, no holds were barred in the clampdown on protests.
Yet, as in Ferguson, Missouri, it was the sustained mobilization to Baltimore’s streets that forced the world to see the systemic racism of the city’s police department, and forced Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to ask the Department of Justice to launch an investigation. Poor black residents of the deeply segregated city described a police department that behaved like an occupying force, brutalizing and disproportionately targeting them with unnecessary stops and deadly force.
"They are killing us. They are actually killing us, and then they make this seem like we're out of control,” 26-year-old Antwion Robinson told the Baltimore Sun in April 2015. "But they're killing our neighbors and brothers. We're just supposed to sit back and take that?”
Now, the Department of Justice has released the findings of its investigation in a damning report that confirms police systematically abuse the civil rights of residents, disproportionately targeting African Americans with unjustified stops, searches, arrests and violent force, and committing horrific acts of degradation. The Department of Justice concludes that “there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.”
In other words, Baltimore’s widely demonized protesters were telling the truth. They were expressing outrage at a police force whose atrocities against their community are now confirmed and documented in harrowing detail by the federal government.
“I’m glad we were able to make them see what’s been going on forever,” Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West suspiciously died in police custody in 2013 after he was picked up during a traffic stop, told AlterNet. “They were doing anything to us and literally getting away with it.”
The report cites the city’s “zero tolerance” policing practices, dating to the late 1990s, as responsible for “repeated violations of the constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community’s trust in the police.”
Such policies target black communities, the report confirms. “BPD officers recorded over 300,000 pedestrian stops from January 2010–May 2015, and the true number of BPD’s stops during this period is likely far higher due to under-reporting,” the investigation states. “These stops are concentrated in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and often lack reasonable suspicion.”
Meanwhile, approximately 44 percent of pedestrian stops occur in just “two small, predominantly African-American districts that contain only 11 percent of the city’s population,” the report states. “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.”
Pedestrian stops often occur without any reasonable suspicion. According to the report, only 3.7 percent of pedestrian stops resulted in an actual citation or arrest, and “many of those arrested based upon pedestrian stops had their charges dismissed upon initial review by either supervisors at BPD’s Central Booking or local prosecutors.”
“In some cases, unconstitutional stops result from supervisory officers’ explicit instructions,” the report states. “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.’”
Once stopped by police, individuals are subject to dehumanizing treatment. The investigation describes degrading strip searches performed in public with no apparent grounds, such as in the following account:
In one of these incidents—memorialized in a complaint that the Department sustained—officers in BPD’s Eastern District publicly strip-searched a woman following a routine traffic stop for a missing 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 occurred in full view of the street, although the supervising male officer claimed he “turned away” and did not watch the woman disrobe. After the woman filed a complaint, BPD investigators corroborated the woman’s story with testimony from several witnesses and by recovering the female officer’s latex gloves from the search location. Officers conducted this highly invasive search despite lacking any indication that the woman had committed a criminal offense or possessed concealed contraband. The male officer who ordered the search received only a “simple reprimand” and an instruction that he could not serve as an officer in charge until he was “properly trained.”
According to the report, police exhibit hostility toward the public they are entrusted to protect:
Interviews with BPD officers throughout the chain of command also revealed that officers openly harbor antagonistic feelings towards community members. We found a prevalent “us-versus-them” mentality that is incompatible with community policing principles. When asked about community-oriented problem solving, for example, one supervisor responded, “I don’t pander to the public.” Another supervisor conveyed to us that he approaches policing in Baltimore like it is a war zone. A patrol officer, when describing his approach to policing, voiced similar views, commenting, “You’ve got to be the baddest ************ out there,” which often requires that one “own the block.”
In one stunning example of institutional racism, a police department template for documenting trespassing arrests already included the terms "BLACK MALE" and "PUBLIC HOUSING" filled in.
The report identifies “a persistent failure to discipline officers for misconduct, even in cases of repeated or egregious violations,” as well as “a cultural resistance to accountability has developed and been reinforced.”
Such observations come as no surprise to members of the public outraged after Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced last month that she is dropping all charges against six police officers for the killing of Freddie Gray.
However, the report still manages to unearth disturbing information, including the following excerpt:
Indeed, BPD’s internal affairs records contain only one complaint that officers categorized as a racial slur allegation in the six years of data we examined. 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.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is already hitting the media circuit to claim that reforms are underway and Rawlings-Blake proclaimed Wednesday that "we'll put in place a concrete plan for change and a new culture." Yet in a city where such mistreatment has been perpetrated and ignored for so long, and residents who express outrage are subject to demonization and repression, many say the system is simply broken.
“We're past reform. It's about saving lives right now,” said Jones, who is now active with the grassroots organizations Baltimore BLOC and the Justice for Tyrone West Coalition. “These cops are still walking the beat and terrorizing people. They set out to brutalize and beat, and they get away with it. My kids, community and people have to pay the price when they encounter a deadly cop.”
Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.