The Baltimore Police Department has engaged in years of racially discriminatory policing that targeted black residents, illegally detaining and searching people and using excessive force, the Justice Department concluded.
In a scathing review that offers a historical backdrop of Baltimore’s racially divided past, civil rights investigators found that a “legacy of zero tolerance enforcement” that started in 1999 and officially ended a decade ago “continues to drive” the policing strategy of the present-day city.
The federal investigators said officers are poorly trained, and the department has fostered a culture where complaints against police are often ignored. Most of the unconstitutional stops occurred in predominately poor black neighborhoods, the report found, and some people were stopped simply because police perceived them as disrespectful.
The Justice Department concluded that the police force’s “relationship with certain Baltimore communities is broken.”
“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,” the 163-page report found.
The Justice Department is scheduled to announce its findings of its year-long review on Wednesday at Baltimore City Hall. A copy of the report was first posted by the New York Times. The Justice Department later made the report public.
The civil rights probe was announced the month after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died when he suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody after running from officers who confronted him in a high-crime area. That incident sparked protests and rioting in the city, and drew attention to what residents said was a long frayed relationship with law enforcement.
Justice Department investigators, though, were not focused on Gray’s death in particular – that is part of a separate, ongoing federal investigation – but instead assessed generally how police do their jobs in Baltimore. Six officers charged in connection with Gray’s death were either acquitted or had their cases dropped.
Baltimore police officials cooperated with federal authorities, and the reported noted that police have already taken steps toward solving the department’s problems, including revising its use of force policies and beginning to equip officers with body cameras.
Because of the Justice Department’s investigation, the city probably will have to agree to a series of reforms, including the possibility of a federal monitor. Baltimore’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, worked in Prince George’s County, Maryland, when its department was being monitored by the Justice Department and was involved in implementing reforms there.
Spokesmen for the Justice Department declined to comment; the Baltimore Police Department did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Under Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the Justice Department has been aggressive in trying to spark change in local police departments. It sued the city of Ferguson, Missouri – alleging the police and court system there routinely violated the civil rights of black residents – when officials balked at a tentative agreement. That ultimately persuaded local leaders to approve an agreement calling for policy revisions and more training at the city’s police department. The department also reached a comprehensive settlement with the city of Newark, New Jersey, to resolve years-old allegations that city police officers used excessive force, stopped people without just cause and even stole people’s property.
Justice Department reviewers in Baltimore found fault at virtually every level of policing – from training to patrol to investigating complaints – and concluded that the department encouraged illegal stops “as a crime suppression technique.” Baltimore’s former mayor, Martin O’Malley, instituted zero-tolerance policing in 1999, a practice that filled the jails and resulted in more than 100,000 arrests a year.
After O’Malley left office in 2007, new city leaders cut arrests to about 40,000 and publicly stated that arresting large numbers of people had little impact on curbing crime. But the Justice Department found that the ingrained strategy continued. Police routinely detained and arrested people without cause, the department said, and even strip-searched them in public. Officers accused of misconduct rarely, if ever, suffered any consequences because of an internal affairs process that was broken.
Police stopped pedestrians and motorists more often in African American neighborhoods, and often without reasonable suspicion. The report found that 44 percent of all stops over five years were concentrated in just two small, mostly-black communities, meaning hundreds of African Americans were stopped at least 10 times, and seven were stopped more than 30 times.
One 22-year-old black man was detained merely for walking through an area known for high crime and drugs. Another man wearing a hooded sweatshirt on a cold night was stopped because the officer “thought it could be possible that the individual could be out seeking a victim of opportunity.” In one case, one black man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years, yet none of the stops resulted in a citation or criminal charge.
The report found that many of the department’s raced-based policing problems were encouraged by supervisors who told officers to target African Americans.
The department also engaged in two kinds of illegal arrests: those without probable cause and arrests of people who were legally standing on public property but cited for minor offenses such as loitering or trespassing without proper notice. African Americans made up 86 percent of criminal charges issued by police but account for only 63 percent of the city’s population.
The report also hammered the department’s use-of-force practices. Officers often employed excessive force on people with mental-health issues, juveniles and even people who were restrained and presented no threat to police.
When it came time to review those instances of force, the department failed to hold officers accountable. Out of nearly 3,000 force incidents the department logged over a six-year period, the department found only 10 that were thoroughly investigated and just one that was found to be excessive.
The report faulted supervisors for their monitoring of officers, saying that federal reviewers “did not identify a single stop, search, or arrest” that a front-line supervisor found to violate constitutional standards even though incident reports “describe facially unlawful police action.”
The department discourages the public from filing complaints through a cumbersome process and “frequently” closes out complaints with little effort to reach the person who complained, the report concluded.
“A cultural resistance to accountability” has developed in the department that leaves serious misconduct unpunished, even against officers with known a reputation for violating department rules and constitutional protections, the report said.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Peter Hermann, Lynh Bui, Matt Zapotosky