Black and White: Yet Another Scathing Review of Police Brutality
Will Baltimore finally encourage meaningful criminal justice reform and assistance for African-American communities?
Words hold power. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama, there is no doubt that powerful orators can break down barriers and transform the world. However, to the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), words can be weapons, removing the obstacles that keep officers from attacking unarmed police suspects. One officer tazed a man for merely speaking aggressively. While words were held against this man, the Department of Justice (DOJ) used the BPD’s own words to dismantle its gross misconduct and racial discrimination. From the improper handling and detention of now famous civil rights symbol Freddie Gray, to the grave offenses seen daily on the streets of Baltimore, here’s what they found:
Read the full 135-page report here.
Racial Profiling, Unconstitutional Stops, & Arrests
“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. These stops are concentrated in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and often lack reasonable suspicion.”
The Department of Justice explains that racial bias in the city stems from a historical foundation of policies that ensured wealth inequality between races — leading to increased residential segregation that was detailed in the DOJ report. In fact, unemployment is drastically higher in predominantly black communities, and social mobility is practically a myth in Baltimore. With homogeneous neighborhoods, the BPD can easily target low-income zones, which tend to be African American neighborhoods.
Baltimore police officers — no matter how diverse a group — lack any real connection to many of the communities they serve, especially after a lack of investigation into abuse. On a basic interactive level, the black community has complained being called a number of terms: “monkey…n****r…black b***h.” Findings from the DOJ include a lack of proper investigation or discipline in these instances, their silence endorsing these actions.
In action, the BPD has used things as simple as “loose” clothing as justification for their assumption of concealed weaponry according to DOJ research. In fact, the training manual for police officers literally included that description as a key characteristic for determining if a suspect is dangerous, and therefore if force is permissible. This language unnecessarily targets the African-American community, and does not lead to productive policing.
The DOJ report also found repeated instances of arrests on individuals with no probable cause, violating fourth amendment rights. After illegally detaining citizens, body searches would occasionally reveal drugs. These drugs would be the actual reason they got prosecuted. When African-Americans are 5.6 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana use in Baltimore despite roughly equal usage, that is a systemic problem.
The BPD’s zero-tolerance policy has created an uncharacteristically high number of unconstitutional stops and sanctions petty investigations that, apart from proliferating racial disparity, harm police relations with the general public.
Statistical analysis conducted in the report shows that the Baltimore police have systematic issues with discrimination against African-Americans that clearly violates provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 14th Amendment.
Although William [as identified by BPD] was in handcuffs and three officers were present to control the restrained man, the officers resorted to tasing the man in drive stun mode “approximately six times.” The lieutenant and one of the officers also reportedly kicked William several times either in an effort to get him to the ground or to keep him on the ground; the reports are unclear. When the drive-stuns were reportedly ineffective, and William reportedly pushed away the taser and continued to fight, the lieutenant ordered the officers to move away and deployed two bursts of pepper spray in William’s face. The officers were then able to hold William on the ground and place him in a transport vehicle. The inability of three officers to control William is concerning and reflects insufficient training on arrest and control techniques.
The Baltimore Police Department has a problem with using their tasers too much on a single victim, as in the case above, and on non-violent, restrained victims. The BPD has used tasers on victims who were not under arrest, and without proper warrants for their restraint. Testimony given to the DOJ makes it seem that the BPD has no real issue with taser usage in many cases, which stops any real procedural progress. However, the DOJ finds their usage wholly improper — strong reform is needed.
In another incident, Baltimore police dragged a 10-year old child on the floor and used a 300-pound man to restrain the youth. Without proper training on how to restrain suspects, officers resort to extreme measures.
The BPD engages in astronomically high rates of on-foot pursuits, against international policing regulations. The DOJ explains that the specific strategies in Baltimore lead to escalation of criminal situations and needlessly endanger the lives of police officers and community members. Adrenaline boosts due to these chases also tend to encourage the likelihood of excessive force — a pattern clearly seen in Baltimore.
On eight separate occasions, the BPD fired shots at moving vehicles — decisions not supported by the DOJ due to safety concerns. However, the brass of the Baltimore Police Department generally supported such tactics to subdue possible threats. Inconsistent responses to this and other issues point to and promote a lack of accountability and order within the department.
Training, accountability, and improved internal policies are imperative to rectify many of these situations.
Violating Free Speech
We found that BPD officers routinely infringe upon the First Amendment rights of the people of Baltimore City, typically in one of three ways. First, we found that BPD unlawfully stops and arrests individuals for speech they perceive to be disrespectful or insolent. Second, we found that officers retaliate against individuals for protected speech through the use of excessive force. Third, we have concerns that BPD improperly interferes with individuals who record police activity.
In one case, officers ordered three individuals to leave an area for not respecting police officers with their comments. Later, when the men were seen spotted in the area again, they were arrested for failure to obey. This is against the law, and the police officers had no authority to make the arrest.
In another case — illustrating the second infringement outlined by the DOJ — when bumped into accidentally, a police officer demanded an explanation. In defiance, the man kept walking and uttered “F**k you.” While clearly antagonistic, nothing about that event is illegal. The officer then grabbed the man and demanded identification with no basis for probable cause. Cases like this show a lack of restraint and continued use of excessive force that escalates situations.
To make matters worse, other individuals have been arrested for the mere act of questioning police decisions. When a friend was pulled over, a Baltimore man asked for the nature of the stop. He was subsequently arrested for questioning the police’s authority. The BPD shows continued apathy to respecting First Amendment rights. The police officer injured the man’s head during the arrest, but was cleared of any wrongdoing even though no probable cause was found for the arrest.
While the current leadership in Baltimore was cooperative with this investigation, they still have a long way to go. While reforms in 2016 have officially taken stances on shooting moving vehicles and improved guidelines for using different methods of force, they aren’t perfect.
The BPD needs to focus on community relations, improved training, and actually upholding internal rules to create accountability. Baltimore doesn’t trust their men in blue, but that does not have to be a permanent sentiment.
Words can do great good, and they can do great harm. We need to use our words to have a broader discussion, one which encompasses both police and community perspectives nationwide. If we don’t, we will continue to see grave injustice and systematic failure like we did — what we do — in Baltimore. Freddie Gray and all those affected by this police department are strong reminders that inaction will only create further pain.
But, this conversation needs to grow past just police. In the neighborhood that Freddy Gray was raised in, over 7% of young children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. High school graduation rates are low. School absenteeism is at rates near 44%. Poverty is the norm. Something has to change.
Martin Luther King Jr. told us in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Let’s stop the injustice. Let’s improve our streets. Let’s build beneficial bonds between our communities and our police. Let’s have the next hero of civil rights talk to us from where freedom rings, and not behind the bars of a jail cell. Talk to me — I’ll listen. Talk to the nation — hopefully they’ll listen too.