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It took 14 months of investigation, a slew of federal resources and 163 pages for the Department of Justice to reveal what black folks in the city of Baltimore have known for generations: that the system of policing in the city is rigged against them.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, detailed the findings of a scathing DOJ report released on Wednesday, outlining a system that targeted African-Americans, was lax in supervision and training of officers and contributed to the erosion of trust between the police and the black community.
“We found that BPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of serious violations of the U.S. Constitution and federal law that has disproportionately harmed Baltimore’s African-American community and eroded the public’s trust in the police,” Gupta said.
The DOJ’s findings read like a box score of systemic state oppression.
Between January 2010 and May 2015, federal investigators found that:
- 300,000 pedestrians were stopped and less than 4 percent were arrested or issued a summons.
- 44 percent of those stops were made in two small, mostly black neighborhoods, home to just 11 percent of the city’s population.
- African-American residents were three times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police, though whites were twice as likely to be found with illegal guns, drugs and contraband.
- Police conducted stops, searches and arrests without meeting the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.
- Police routinely used unreasonable force and unnecessary violence when dealing with mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals.
- Police often retaliated against individuals for not immediately obeying commands or mouthing off. Ninety-one percent of those arrested for “Failure to Obey” or “Trespassing” were black.
- The department's practice of transporting detainees placed detainees at significant risk of harm.
The investigation was launched at the request of Rawlings-Blake following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody in April 2015.
Gray was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police van without a seatbelt. At some point during the ride to jail, Gray’s spine snapped. Outrage, protests and riots ensued. Six officers were eventually charged in Gray’s death. One by one the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing. One trial ended in a hung jury; two ended in acquittals. In July, the state's attorney for the city dropped the charges against the remaining three officers.
As word of the DOJ’s findings spread, some welcomed the news, but were relatively unmoved.
“I’m not surprised. Not at all,” said Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West died in police custody following a traffic stop. “I’m glad that they finally know what we’ve been saying. All the people in Baltimore city knew. We been knowing this for decades.”
During a press conference on Wednesday, Davis said that residents had a right to be “outraged” by the findings, and that the report was not an indictment on the many good officers on the force, but of bad behavior that would be rooted out.
Rawlings-Blake said the city would work with the Department of Justice to fix the city’s broken system of policing. “These findings are difficult to hear,” she added. “We have to heal our city.”
But when asked by a reporter what the DOJ’s findings meant in terms of the Freddie Gray case, Rawlings-Blake said the findings “have nothing to do with Freddie Gray.”
Many would argue that the investigation into the department’s policing of the black community — and the findings that police have systematically targeted, harassed and often used unreasonable force against black residents — has everything to do with Freddie Gray.
What was the infraction that landed Gray in the back of that police van? He made eye-contact with an officer and then ran. Scores of residents of Baltimore have recounted stories of being stopped and accosted by police without cause. Some say they've been roughed-up, others just harassed.
Rawlings-Blake made clear that she believes the case that brought these systemic issues to light and the case itself operate on two separate tracks.
"Justice is not a verdict, it's a process," the mayor said in the past. For too many in Baltimore, the process is part of the garden variety injustice they've faced. The Justice Department's report validates their pleas.
Gray’s death was a tipping point, one that the city had been inching toward with every not-so-random stop, every use of excessive force, every time someone was arrested for not immediately obeying an officer’s command or giving an officer lip, or each time an officer used the N-word during a stop (there were at least 60 of the latter documented in a five year period).
The Justice Department says the practice of targeting African-Americans and poor neighborhoods was born out of a 1990s era policy of “zero tolerance” in which officers were encouraged to make large numbers of stops and arrests for really minor offenses. In one case cited in the report, a black man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times by police in just four years.
In the weeks ahead, federal and city officials will hammer out the details of a consent decree, a formal and legally binding agreement on various police reforms.
As part of the still-being-hashed-out agreement between the city and the DOJ, the reforms will include additional police training, data collection and analysis that will help police leaders better ensure that officers’ actions are legal and constitutional. New technology will be implemented to help supervisors monitor officer activity, and officers will be offered more support to ensure that they are equipped to perform their jobs effectively. And community policing strategies will guide all aspects of the departments operations and help rebuild the frayed relationship between police and the people they serve.
In entering this agreement with the federal government, Baltimore joins a list of cities — including Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri — now publicly and legally reckoning with the reality of a two-pronged monster that has gobbled up countless poor, black and brown people across the country: A police system that grinds away at their constitutional rights (and in some cases their lives) and a culture that supports and maintains it. Cleveland and Ferguson are currently under consent decrees. And in Chicago, reeling from scandal after scandal involving police-involved killings, a number of which have been captured on video tape, the Justice Department is currently engaged in a sweeping civil rights investigation of the department.
“Our investigation found that Baltimore is a city where the bonds of trust have been broken,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “The results of our investigation raise serious concerns, and in the days ahead, the Department of Justice will continue working tirelessly to ensure that all Baltimoreans enjoy the safety, security and dignity they expect and deserve.”
Now that the findings in Baltimore have been laid bare, some are wondering what’s next.
“This ain’t just start. This has been the culture forever. This has been the mentality of the police. You get abused,” said Jones. “So now that they know, we’re interested in seeing what they’re actually going to do about.”