The Baltimore police officer said he had no valid reason to stop, question and break up a group of black men. But his supervisor urged him on.
“Make something up,” the sergeant said.
Investigators from the Justice Department, who were riding along with the officers, included the exchange in their scathing report released earlier this month on the Police Department — one example among many of the way officers routinely and unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression.
The 163-page report contains statistics and stories covering the years 2010-2015, which have been called horrendous and unacceptable and fully agrees with what many Baltimore residents claim to have witnessed and endured for many years: the racial targeting by an out-of-control police department hired to keep those communities under control.
Upon the report’s release, the Justice Department issued a press release, which states, in part, that it found “reasonable cause to believe that the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.”
The department’s “us-versus-them” mentality resulted in cops treating the city like a war zone, the report said.
“You’ve got to be the baddest motherf—– out there,” one officer told federal investigators.
“We also found evidence of officers using racial slurs or making other statements exhibiting bias … against African-Americans,” was another statement included in the report.
With about 621,000 residents, Baltimore remains one of the most segregated cities in the country — a fact that impacts, in part, how officers do their jobs, according to the DOJ report.
The city is about 63% African-American, 30% white and 4% Latino.
According to the report BPD stops African-American drivers and pedestrians at disproportionate rates, subjecting them to greater rates of searches than whites, and creating racial disparities at every stage of law enforcement actions, from stop to arrest.
The arrests are particularly painful says Deborah Levi, a Baltimore public defender. “The jails are filled with those whose lives have been ruined, in part, by Baltimore policing.
“They lose everything while they are sitting in jail,” she said.
“They lose any assisted housing that they have. They lose any stability, their children lose any sense of stability. They lose the clothes off of their back. They come out of jail with literally nothing … and it trickles down to the smallest members of their family and the oldest.”
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says the reports shows the scope of the challenge now confronting his department. Many officers and supervisors came up in a culture that emphasized arrest numbers over community policing.
“If you’re raised in that culture, you probably don’t think there is anything wrong with it,” Davis said. “But there is something wrong with it.”
Now, under a consent decree to be negotiated by city and federal officials, a court will demand that the culture change.
A DOJ investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department after the shooting death of Michael Brown reached a similar conclusion: a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African-Americans that targeted them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force, and jail sentences. So did the investigation after the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, concluding that Cleveland police have a pattern of excessive force.
Here are some of the report’s highlights:
Unconstitutional stops and arrests
Encouraged by BPD supervisors, “zero tolerance” policing continues in certain neighborhoods, leading to unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, with little to no suspicion, the report said.
• About 44% of those stops occurred in two small predominantly African-American neighborhoods that contain only 11% of the city’s population
• Hundreds of individuals were stopped at least 10 times during this period, and seven were stopped more than 30 times. Of the people stopped more than 10 times, 95% were African American.
• Only 3.7% of those stops resulted in citations or arrests
• From 2010 to 2015, prosecutors and booking supervisors rejected more than 11,000 charges made by BPD officers because they lacked probable cause or did not merit prosecution
Discrimination against African-Americans
BPD stops African-American drivers and pedestrians at disproportionate rates, subjecting them to greater rates of searches than whites, the report said, creating racial disparities at every stage of law enforcement actions, from stop to arrest.
“These racial disparities, along with evidence suggesting intentional discrimination, erode the community trust that is critical to effective policing,” the report said.
Among the investigation’s findings:
• African-Americans accounted for 95% of 410 individuals stopped at least 10 times from 2010 to 2016
• One African-American man in his 50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years; none of the stops resulted in a citation or criminal charge
• African-Americans accounted for 82% of all BPD vehicle stops though they make up 60% of the driving age population in the city and 27% percent of the driving age population in the greater metropolitan area
• BPD officers found contraband twice as often when searching white individuals compared to African-Americans during vehicle stops and 50% more often during pedestrian stops
Use of constitutionally excessive force
After reviewing all deadly force cases from January 2010 to May 1, and a random sample of more than 800 nondeadly force cases, the DOJ concluded that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force. Insufficient training and lack of oversight of those incidents perpetuate the pattern, leading to several recurring issues:
• Use of overly aggressive tactics that escalate encounters and increase tensions and failure to de-escalate encounters when appropriate to do so
• Frequently resorting to physical force when a person does not immediately respond to verbal commands, even if the subject poses no imminent threat to the officer or others
• Failure to use widely accepted tactics for dealing with juveniles, treating them the same way as adults, leading to unnecessary conflict
• Use of excessive force against people already restrained and under officers’ control
Retaliation for activities protected by the First Amendment
DOJ investigators found that officers “routinely infringe” upon First Amendment rights in the following ways:
• Unlawfully stopping and arresting people for cursing at officers, even though it’s not illegal to use vulgar or offensive language as long as they are not “fighting words”
• Retaliating with excessive force against people in cases of protected speech
• Interfering with people who record police activity, including a time in which officers seized the phone of a man who recorded his friend being arrested and deleted all the videos on his phone, even personal videos of his son.