By Brendan Kennedy
After the officers in Freddie Gray’s death were exonerated of murder charges, many the media were quick to use the results as evidence that protests in Baltimore were another example of manufactured outrage. But of course, the protests were always about much bigger issues. They spoke out against systemic abuse and discrimination by Baltimore’s police, which were the issues that the Department of Justice (DOJ) spent months investigating. This week, the DOJ released its investigation that outlined the Baltimore Police Department’s long history of racially discriminatory policing.
Baltimore’s black population has faced systematic oppression in housing, education, and the workplace for decades.
The report began by outlining why racism in policing had become such a huge issue in the city. This has created “two Baltimores”- an affluent white area kept separate from the city’s disadvantaged black areas (a topic I covered in The Contemporary’s latest edition). Opportunities available to the city’s white residents have been consistently and intentionally denied to its black residents.
Policing plays a role in this oppression. In the 1990s, the city’s police department adopted “zero-tolerance policing”, focusing on high numbers of stops and arrests for minor infractions. As the report demonstrates, this culture has tarnished the department’s reputation in black communities.
The report found that zero-tolerance policing meant the department “frequently makes investigative stops… in violation of the 4th and 14th Amendments… of people who are lawfully present on Baltimore streets” (found on page 24 of the report). Stops are consistently under-reported, but analysis indicates obscene numbers–around 412,000 stops, maybe more, in 2014 alone (pg. 25).
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These stops often lack any reasonable suspicion. Only 3.7% of all pedestrian stops–again, only 3.7%–yielded any citation or arrest (pg. 6). Of those arrests, many of the charges were soon dropped. This indicates an incredibly pervasive problem of unconstitutional stops (a national issue that was well-covered by another contributor to The Contemporary). Several examples demonstrate the level of abuse. One man was stopped, detained, and taken to District headquarters just because he walked into an alley in a bad neighborhood (page 29). A supervisor signed off on the officer’s report without raising any concerns. In another instance, during a ride-along with a DOJ official, a sergeant ordered an officer to stop a group of young black men. When the officer protested that he did not have probable cause, the officer said “Then make something up” (pg. 29).
Not only were stops conducted unconstitutionally, many escalated into pat-downs, frisks, or strip searches without the constitutional grounds to do so (pg. 6). One man was subjected to a pat-down because he “looked nervous” after being stopped for driving without headlights (pg. 31). One woman was ordered to strip and given an anal cavity search in public after a stop for a missing headlight. The search yielded nothing, but the officer received only a simple reprimand (pg. 32).
Baltimore police routinely violated the Constitution in all three elements of zero-tolerance policing stops, searches, and arrests.
Arrests were also frequently unconstitutional. The report found “thousands of unlawful arrests” that were either warrantless without probable cause, or arrests for minor offenses that violated citizens’ due process (pg. 34). Many of these arrests were for “discretionary offenses” like loitering or trespassing, and they targeted “people who are lawfully present on public sidewalks” (pg. 36).
The data behind claims of racially discriminatory policing has become a controversial topic. Much of this controversy focuses on police shootings, where data is scarce. Some people have touted a recent Harvard working paper as “proving” that black people are no more likely to be shot by police. But this study also has legitimate criticisms about sample size (the analysis barely extends beyond Houston) as well as methodology. Meanwhile, advocates of police reform have other studies of wide scope “proving” racial discrimination in shootings, despite severe limitations in data collection.
The truth is, we cannot develop any meaningful conclusion on bias in police shootings with the sparse data available. But there is plenty of data on other forms of policing, and that data consistently provides evidence for discrimination. And investigations in cities like New York City, Ferguson, and Chicago have revealed the same patterns.
Data in Baltimore reveals similar trends. The data presented in the investigation gives evidence of wide-ranging discrimination. Black residents were stopped at rates far exceeding their relative population size, falsely arrested at far greater rates, and subjected to excessive force at far greater rates (pg. 47).
The typical response to these discrepancies is that black urban neighborhoods have high rates of crime, warranting targeting by police. There are a few reasons this narrative is generally misguided. First, high crime has been shown to be a symptom of segregation and discrimination, including harsher policing. Protests for police reform and equality seek to ease these causes. Secondly, analysis has repeatedly shown that discriminatory policing exceeds rates warrants by crime levels. Such is the case in Baltimore.
There is overwhelming statistical evidence that Baltimore PD’s racial discrepancies go far beyond what is necessary to fight crime.
Recall that only 3.7% of stops yielded a citation or arrests, an incredibly low rate (pg. 6). Further, stops and searches found contraband at higher rates for other races compared to African Americans–twice as often for traffic stops, and 50% more often for pedestrian stops (pg. 53). And black residents had charges dismissed at significantly higher rates for misdemeanor street offenses like loitering, a discrepancy that didn’t exist for more serious crimes. This demonstrates that “when officers have wider discretion to make arrests, they exercise it in a discriminatory manner” (pg. 57). When considering the damage done to community trust in police, these unconstitutional and discriminatory patterns of policing yield very little in meaningful crime prevention.
Other evidence points to police systematically and unjustly targeting black residents. BPD brass at times “ordered officers to specifically target African-Americans for stops and arrests” (pg. 63). The resulting disparities are apparent. In the affluent, low-crime Northern district, black residents make up only 41% of residents, but 83% of stops. In the Southeast district, black residents make up 23% of the population but 66% of stops (pg. 49). The War on Drugs has played a role too, with drug enforcement against African Americans far exceeding “any demographic differences in the rates at which individuals use drugs,” including Baltimore-specific drug use (pg. 59). BPD’s targeting of black residents at times delved into the absurd, such as when officers used a specialized helicopter unit, meant to coordinate officers during emergency situations, to search for black residents playing street dice (pg. 56). The list of abuses goes on and on.
The report rightly emphasizes that police officers routinely put their lives on the line, and deserve respect and admiration. What is indisputable, however, is that systemic issues within Baltimore PD have . The good work that officers do daily should not be undone by institutional failures. And despite doomsday predictions, reducing abusive stopping practices has not led to higher crime in other cities.
While this report is an important step, there are questions to consider. The first is, will it reach anyone new? The abuses outlined in the report are hardly news to Baltimore residents and reform advocates. And opponents of police reform, the same ones who were exuberant over charges being dropped in the Freddie Gray case, are largely silent now that demonstrators’ complaints have been verified. Many in right-wing media insisted that Baltimore protests were much ado about nothing. Their listeners will probably never learn that the protesters were right all along.
The second question: why does it take a dead citizen, violent protests, and a lengthy investigation for us to finally take claims of abuse seriously? Black Baltimore residents have struggled to be heard for years but weren’t taken seriously until one of them was killed. The same happened in Ferguson, Chicago and many other places. It shouldn’t take a killing for us to finally consider their claims.
If the evidence the Department of Justice uncovered makes you want to prevent similar abuses elsewhere, there’s an important lesson to be learned. This report justifies what the black community in Baltimore has said for years; they were ignored, criticized, and vilified. But they were right. Rather than casting doubt at every turn and criticizing people whose lives we can hardly understand, we ought to try something different. It’s time that we all shut up and start to listen.
Brendan Kennedy is a senior at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas, majoring in Political Science.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
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