Baltimore: another example of systemic racism and police officers abusing their power

The U.S. Department of Justice releases a scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department’s discriminating and aggressive policing tactics.

Baltimore Police - Photo by (Courtesy of Google)

It took the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) fourteen months and 164 pages to document what many black Baltimore residents have known for years.  In their report, the DOJ describes how the Baltimore Police Department routinely violated the constitutional rights of citizens, used excessive force, and discriminated against African Americans.

Alethea Booze, a Baltimore resident, says she has known all of her life that police officers routinely abuse the city’s majority African-American community.  Booze, 72, who lives a few doors from where Freddie Gray was arrested before his eventual death in police custody, states, “I’ve seen them push them down.  It can be 10, 20 degrees and they will make them sit on that sidewalk.  They will pull their pants down and they don’t care if you was outside, if I’m outside, kids outside.  I would say that’s not right.  You shouldn’t do that and they tell me, if I don’t shut up, they will lock me up.”

[T]he DOJ report “corroborates what Black people have been saying for decades…”

Paul D. Butler, a professor at Georgetown Law and a former DOJ prosecutor, states that the DOJ report “reads more like a description of the Jim Crow South than what you would hope for a modern American city in 2016.”  Due to the report’s findings, people across the country are finally responding to the cries for help from African Americans in Baltimore.  However, why did it take a report from the Department of Justice to validate these people’s complaints against their police force?   Professor Butler says this dynamic has deep roots.  “During slavery, if an African-American was even allowed to testify against a white person in court, there would have to be another white person who corroborated what the African-American said… [W]hat these videos and official reports from the Justice Department are doing is corroborating what African-Americans have been saying for decades.”

According to the report, the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and many of the communities it serves is broken.  “Officers seemed to view themselves as controlling the city rather than as a part of the city.  Many others, including high ranking officers in the Department, view themselves as enforcing the will of the ‘silent majority.’”  The document describes, in often repulsive detail, the many ways Baltimore Police abused the law, the people they are supposed to serve, the public trust, and their own brothers in arms.  The report serves as evidence that the Freddie Gray case was not an isolated incident.  Rather, it is a symptom of a force that regularly arrests people for insufficient reasons or no reasons at all, and uses excessive force against them, particularly, and uniquely, Black citizens of Baltimore.  The DOJ makes it clear that African-Americans in Baltimore were targeted and abused by the police, making this report almost identical to the DOJ’s report on Ferguson, Missouri.

The investigation was initiated after the Freddie Gray incident…

The investigation was initiated after the Freddie Gray incident when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the DOJ to intervene.  Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in her first week on the job, agreed.   The report analyzed the Baltimore police records from 2010 through 2016.  Although the report discusses a variety of issues, the major components deal with racial disparities, dismissive attitudes towards sexual assault, violence against the mentally ill, and a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers.

The report heavily criticized Baltimore’s “zero-tolerance” policing tactic.  This tactic made it a priority for officers to make large numbers of stops, searches, and arrests, often resulting in use of force.  The report describes that the officers did so with minimal training and insufficient oversight from supervisors or through other accountability structures.  Although city and police leaders have disavowed zero-tolerance policing, it has continued on Baltimore’s streets as supervisors who came up through the ranks under the former policy have perpetuated it, according to the report.  These practices led to repeated violations of constitutional and statutory rights, further severing the community’s trust in the police.  As Brandon Scott, a Baltimore City Council member, stated, “People say, ‘driving while black, walking while black,’ when you’re talking about zero tolerance, it’s breathing while black.”

Based on the findings, many of the police officers’ stops lacked the reasonable suspicion required to justify them, and many of the arrests they made were unconstitutional.  They either lack a warrant and probable cause, or officers failed to inform people they were engaged in unlawful activity.  In many cases, they concluded without a citation or arrest.  Strong evidence of the flimsiness of many arrests comes from the fact central booking and local prosecutors rejected more than 11,000 charges between 2010 and 2015.

One African American man was stopped 34 times…

From January 2010 to May 2014, police reported 300,000 pedestrian stops.  However, the report questions this number, noting that stops are one area where Baltimore police officers consistently failed to document their actions.  “In short, our investigation suggests that BPD officers likely make several hundred thousand pedestrian stops per year in a city with only 620,000 residents,” the report says.  These stops are also highly localized.  From 2010–2014, Baltimore police officers in the Western and Central Districts recorded more than 111,500 stops, roughly 44 percent of the total stops for which officers recorded a district location.  Yet these are the two least populated police districts in Baltimore, with a combined population of only 75,000, or 12 percent of City residents.  These districts include several poor urban neighborhoods with mostly African-American residents.  In these districts, police recorded nearly 1.5 stops per resident over the four year period.  One African American man was stopped 34 times during that stretch, all in the Western or Central districts, while several hundred others were stopped at least 10 times. Seven were stopped more than 30 times.  “BPD officers made 520 stops for every 1,000 black residents in Baltimore, but only 180 stops for every 1,000 Caucasian residents,” the DOJ report notes.

Even as the report finds widespread abuses within the department, it leaves no doubt that it is black Baltimore residents who bear the brunt of this abuse.  This is true of both stops and arrests.  In both cases, African-American pedestrians and drivers are both stopped at numbers that far outweigh their share of the population.  They are also more likely to be searched, even though “BPD officers found contraband twice as often when searching white individuals compared to African- Americans during vehicle stops and 50 percent more often during pedestrian stops.”

African Americans particularly dominate the arrest rates for minor and procedural violations.

African Americans particularly dominate the arrest rates for minor and procedural violations. For example, they represent:

  • 87 percent of the 3,400 charges for resisting arrest
  • 89 percent of 1,350 charges for making a false statement to an officer
  • 84 percent of the 4,000 charges for failing to obey an order
  • 83 percent of the roughly 6,500 arrests for disorderly conduct

The report notes that charges against African- Americans are declined at “significantly higher rates” than charges against people of other races, indicating that they are being over-arrested.

Other charges seem to be reserved entirely for African Americans.  Of 657 people arrested for “gaming” or playing “cards or dice,” 99 percent were Black.  The report comments, “Although we are not aware of any data tracking the precise rate at which people of different races play cards or dice, it is extremely unlikely that African Americans comprise 99 percent of those doing so.”

Use of excessive force was another major issue in the report.  For example, one officer tased a man simply for swearing in an “aggressive” manner.  Although the report is not clear on what the officer meant by “aggressive,” the report does make clear that the man’s “mouth,” more specifically his words, constituted the weapon or means of attack.  This report appears to indicate the officer felt he was justified in tasing an individual, a high level of force, for this reason.  The report notes that, “If this was in fact the officer’s justification for tasing this individual, it is grossly insufficient, and it would violate both the First and Fourth Amendments.”  Another man was stopped without reason, detained without basis, and had to be taken to a hospital. He was not charged with any crime.

Officers conducted this highly invasive search…

The department repeatedly engaged in improper strip searches, the report finds.  In one incident, a woman was pulled over by two officers, one male and one female.  She was instructed to strip.  The female officer then 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.  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.  Officers conducted this highly invasive search despite lacking any indication that the woman had committed a criminal offense or possessed concealed contraband.  In fact, the officers found no wrongdoing, and the woman was released without being charged.

In another case, a teenage boy reported that an officer “pulled down the teenager’s pants and boxer shorts and strip-searched him in full view of the street and his girlfriend.”  He filed a complaint, but that was not the end.  The teenager recounted that, shortly after filing the complaint, the same officer approached him near a McDonald’s restaurant in his neighborhood, pushed the teenager against a wall, pulled down his pants, and grabbed his genitals.  The officer filed no charges against the teenager in the second incident, which the teenager believes was done in retaliation for filing a complaint about the first strip search.

In sexual assault cases, officers often engaged in victim-blaming and tried to discourage pressing of charges.  In their interviews of women reporting sexual assault, for example, detectives asked questions such as “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?”  One source reported hearing a detective in the Sex Offense Unit say that “all of our cases are bullshit.”  Residents with mental health issues were also subjected to unnecessary force.  On one occasion, a man named Christopher, was reciting religious verses and arguing with himself while wearing no clothing when officers confronted him.  The officers then decided to take him to a hospital for a mental evaluation.  However, rather than attempt to take Christopher voluntarily, the officers immediately attempted to handcuff him which led to a violent encounter that involved a total of nine officers.  Christopher was tased several times and ended being taken to the emergency room.  He was never arrested or charged with a crime.

[T]he Baltimore Police Department made it difficult for community members to file complaints.

The report also analyzes how the Baltimore Police Department made it difficult for community members to file complaints.  As well as, how even other police officers were discouraged from and intimidated into not reporting misconduct from fellow officers.  In June 2016, the police department settled a lawsuit by one of its former officers who claimed he was harassed by his supervisors and colleagues for reporting police misconduct he witnessed.

Although the Baltimore Police Department is currently working with the DOJ to come up with a court enforced agreement to resolve all of these issues, it is not enough.  This problem of racial discrimination and oppression is bigger than just one police department.  Unfortunately, it is only a symptom of a disease that is ingrained in the American culture.  Until white America accepts that systemic racism is real, nothing will ever change.  To some, all of these issues with our police departments and other government officials seem new.  However, for minorities this has been a well-known reality since the inception of this country.  If the United States really wants to become the greatest country in the world, it must first learn to treat all of its residents as equals, rather than treating some as sub-human.

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About Josue Jimenez, Managing Editor Emeritus (18 Articles)
Josue Jimenez is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as the Managing Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. He is a Los Angeles, California native, but has lived in Charlotte, NC, since November, 2003. In 2013, Josue graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with degrees in Global Studies (Concentration in Politics, region Latin America) and Religious Studies (Focus on Early Christianity). From August, 2013- July, 2014, Josue worked as a legal assistant at an immigration law firm in Grand Rapids, MI. During the summer of 2015, he interned at Fayad Law, PC, where he worked on immigration and criminal defense cases. In the summer of 2016, Josue interned at the Charlotte Immigration Court where he prepared draft decisions for Immigration Judges on immigration matters including cancellation of removal and asylum applications. As well as, consulted with Immigration Judges and Judicial Law Clerks regarding pending decisions. During his final semester at Campbell Law Josue interned in the Legislative Analysis Division of the NC General Assembly. There, Josue assisted attorneys in the Division with numerous projects that dealt with constituent requests to pending legislation. These projects also covered a wide range of legal issues, ranging from multi-state surveys related to health and human services, agriculture, immigration, and aviation, to research on current state and federal law related to employment, local governments, veterans, immigration, and criminal law. Josue also served as the Vice-President of the Student Bar Association and a Peer Mentor during the 2016-2017 academic year.
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