By George E. Curry
George Curry Media Columnist
After reading the 164-page Justice Department report on the Baltimore Police Department, it is surprising that street rebellions didn’t occur sooner in Baltimore.
The report is a stinging assessment of the police department’s policies and practices that concluded: “there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.”
It said the Baltimore Police Department “engages in a pattern or practice of:
(1) making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
(2) using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans;
(3) using excessive force; and
(4) retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.”
Furthermore, the report concluded, “BPD’s targeted policing of certain Baltimore neighborhoods with minimal oversight or accountability disproportionately harms African-American residents. Racially disparate impact is present at every stage of BPD’s enforcement actions, from the initial decision to stop individuals on Baltimore streets to searches, arrests, and uses of force. These racial disparities, along with evidence suggesting intentional discrimination, erode the community trust that is critical to effective policing.”
As we have seen from similar investigations conducted by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, this is probably a portrait of most big city police departments. In this case, the sheer breadth of the documented racial discrimination is mind-boggling.
Take the simple matter of being able to walk the streets without being suspected of committing a crime. African Americans were stopped three times as often as White residents and were 95 percent of the 410 people stopped at least 10 times.
“Racial disparities in BPD’s arrests are most pronounced for highly discretionary offenses: African Americans accounted for 91 percent of the 1,800 people charged solely with ‘failure to obey’ or ‘trespassing’; 89 percent of the 1,350 charges for making a false statement to an officer; and 84 percent of the 6,500 people arrested for ‘disorderly conduct,’” the report stated.
Prosecutors rejected more than 11,000 charges because they lacked probable cause.
“BPD also stops African American drivers at disproportionate rates. African Americans accounted for 82 percent of all BPD vehicle stops, compared to only 60 percent of the driving age population in the City and 27 percent of the driving age population in the greater metropolitan area.”
Many of the stops were not justified.
“We also found large racial disparities in BPD’s arrests for drug possession. While survey data shows that African Americans use drugs at rates similar to or slightly exceeding other population groups, BPD arrested African Americans for drug possession at five times the rate of others.”
It explained, “BPD searched African Americans more frequently during pedestrian and vehicle stops, even though searches of African Americans were less likely to discover contraband. Indeed, 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.”
Baltimore police “engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force,” the report found. “Officers frequently resort to physical force when a subject does not immediately respond to verbal commands, even where the subject poses no imminent threat to the officer or others.”
Police also engage in humiliating public strip searches.
“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,” the report recounted. “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.”
The Justice Department conducted the 14-month study in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, 25. He was arrested April 12, 2015 for allegedly possessing an illegal switchblade knife. While being transported for booking, he fell into a coma after suffering neck and spine injuries and died the next day. Relatives attributed Gray’s death to “rough rides” Baltimore police often give to suspects they are transporting to jail.
“We also examined BPD’s transportation of detainees, but were unable to make a finding due to a lack of available data,” the study said. “We were unable to secure reliable records from either BPD or the jail regarding injuries sustained during transport or any recordings.”
Baltimore police were quick to detain or arrest citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. They frequently took offense if someone used language that was rude or disrespectful, though that does not violate the law.
A 1987 Supreme Court decision (City of Houston v. Hill), held: “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principle characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”
While no one is accusing the Baltimore Police Department of operating a police state, it clearly needs a major overhaul.
George E. Curry is President and CEO of George Curry Media, LLC. He is the former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA). He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at twitter.com/currygeorge, George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook, and Periscope. See previous columns at http://www.georgecurry.com/columns.