Following the Justice Department’s scathing report on the Baltimore Police department’s patterns and practices of civil rights violations and unconstitutional practices on blacks, women and the mentally ill, gender bias, inadequate training and a culture of years of profound blatant racism, there has been an outreach for ways to improve the Baltimore Police department. Improving the department will not be an easy fix after decades of malfeasance. And finding the answers will be like trying to end systemic racism in the overall society and fabric of America—only on a smaller scale.
In the fourteen months following the April 12, 2015 arrest of Freddie Gray, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) investigated the department and found the Baltimore Police intentionally discriminated against residents, used excessive force, made unconstitutional stops and arrests and targeted African Americans, youth and mentally challenged individuals. And the Baltimore Police did not limit its illegal actions to blacks but further engaged in gender bias policing when it came to investigating sexual assaults. In terms of supervision of police, DOJ found the department failed to supervise, had inadequate policies, an inadequate system to even investigate complaints against officers and engaged in retaliatory practices. In essence, the entire Baltimore police department was a dysfunctional organization that harassed and destroyed the lives of many residents, many of whom did not commit any crimes.
The Justice Department analyzed documents, spoke to police officers and Baltimore residents who had encounters from 2010- 2015. It did not review the Freddie Gray case as part of this investigation.
As a former Baltimore prosecutor, I knew of some of the patterns and practices resulting in unconstitutional arrests for failing to obey, trespassing, loitering, resisting arrest and other similar crimes. During the time that I prosecuted, police officers were often advised that most of these charges lacked probable cause for an arrest. Yet, as I recount in a October, 2015 Washington Post Op ed, Baltimore police seemed to routinely arrest residents despite admonishments by judges and prosecutors.
The numbers involved in the report were staggering. Most of the illegal and unconstitutional practices involved a segment of the population involving two districts representing 11% of Baltimore’s population. Hundreds of residents were stopped 10-30 times, with no arrest. And for those who think African Americans commit crime in greater numbers than whites, the report disputed that misconception. In pedestrian stops, one male in his mid-50’s was stopped 30 times without an arrest. It was as if stopping and harassing blacks was a game or sport for police. I guess it really was for some officers.
In vehicle stops, the report found that whites twice as often had contraband versus African Americans. And in pedestrian stops, whites were 50% more likely to have contraband. Yet, of criminal cases, African Americans represented 86% of all criminal offenses although they make up 63% of the Baltimore population. And as reported previously, African Americans use drugs in the same amounts as whites. Yet, police arrested African American 5 times more.
In reading the DOJ report, even as a former prosecutor, I was shocked at some practices which I didn’t know existed. Police would stop individuals and ask for identification. In some cases, if no identification was found on an individual, police would detain and take the individual to police station to finger print to learn their identity. This is not Nazi Germany in the 1940’s where certain groups of people are required to have ID. Yet, the Baltimore policing, in some instances, resembled the stopping of Jews by Nazis.
One of the most egregious practices was that of public strip searches. I had no idea that such inhumane and barbaric treatment of individuals occurred. And it made me sick to my stomach to read in detail what some African Americans endured at the hands of police. One woman was stopped for a busted tail light. She was ordered to remove her clothes, bra, panties and given an anal cavity search, in full view of everyone watching on the street. She ultimately received a reprimand. In another instance, a teenager was ordered to remove his boxer shorts in full view of his girlfriend while the police publicly strip searched him-and found nothing. He filed a complaint. And later, when encountered by the same officer in a McDonald’s restaurant, the officer, in retaliation, required him to pull down his pants and grabbed his groin.
For those who think these were a few rogue police officers—think again. If it were only a few rogue officers, the Department of Justice would not have determined a pattern and practice existed in the Baltimore police force.
And although the DOJ report analyzed police data from 2010-2015, the practices occurred over a long period of time. In Baltimore, former mayor Martin O’Malley commenced a “zero tolerance” policy in the 1990’s which many officers continued through 2015. Zero tolerance led to the illegal stopping, detaining and unlawful despicable practices outlined in the DOJ report.
All present and past Baltimore lawmakers are responsible for the broken system. The Baltimore City leadership from mayors to the police commissioners are responsible for allowing the racist, Nazi like system to exist. Baltimore paid out millions of dollars to settle many lawsuits due to unconstitutional police practices. Those settlements were authorized by the Baltimore Board of Estimates and approved by the Baltimore City Councils and Mayors.
The one hopeful reason for change is a Department of Justice consent order, once reached, will be closely monitored by a monitor, be binding on all future administrations and enforced through the federal court. I just don’t know how you prevent systemic racism in our society.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She appears on Al Jazeera, BET, C-Span, MSNBC, PBS among others speaking on justice, gender and race.