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Baltimore Cops Are Extremely Racist, Say Feds

Strip searches, unlawful stops, racial slurs—the police force that killed Freddie Gray sounds like a nightmare.

by Annalies Winny
11 August 2016, 12:00am

In this April 29, 2015 file photo, police stand in formation as a curfew approaches in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The fight for criminal accountability in the death of Freddie Gray was a courtroom disaster, but Baltimore cops aren't off the hook yet.

Two weeks after State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby conceded defeat in her effort to convict six cops of crimes ranging from misconduct to second-degree "depraved heart" murder for Gray's arrest and death last April, a scathing report into the city's policing practices was released by the federal government. The Department of Justice paints a picture of obscene, systematic discrimination against people of color—one that isn't exactly stunning after two years of Black Lives Matter protests across America, but serves as a reminder that the men and women policing some of the country's largest cities still have a long way to go.

Among other outrages, the feds found that between 2010 and June 2015, 44 percent of BPD stops were made in two African American communities containing just 11 percent of the city's population. Seven African American men in these areas were stopped more than 30 times, and blacks made up some 91 percent of those arrested for petty offenses like trespassing in Baltimore—even as they represented just 63 percent of residents. What's more, officers issued discriminatory orders to round up "all the black hoodies" in one neighborhood, with fliers depicting black men with hoodies as suspects for loitering posted in several BPD districts.

On Wednesday, Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake told a packed press conference at city hall that she's committed to implementing reforms outlined in the report. "It's not going to be easy, and it's not going to be quick," she said, estimating that, based on costs in other cities, reforms could cost as much as $10 million dollars per year.

For his part, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was repentant—if only vaguely—about the scathing criticism of his cops, having assumed the gig after Gray's death and the subsequent unrest. "I'm very, very concerned by some of the information contained in this report," he said.

The report comes more than a year after the DOJ investigation was launched at the request of Mayor Rawlings-Blake, and it explains exactly how BPD practices make life miserable for black residents. More than 163 pages, the feds detail a pattern of making arrests without probable cause, stopping and arresting black residents without justification and using excessive force. And they say the practices are underpinned by "systemic deficiencies" in the force's training, supervision, and accountability structures.

The probe was launched shortly after Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died in police custody after being driven—cuffed and shackled but without a seatbelt—through six stops before arriving at a police station unconscious in April 2015. He died a week later after sustaining a fatal spinal cord injury.

The DOJ report critiques police practices rooted in the mass arrests that characterized "zero tolerance" policing led by former governor Martin O'Malley in the early 2000s. Perhaps fittingly, his ill-fated 2015 presidential bid leaned in part on his crime record in Baltimore, one fictionalized on HBO's The Wire.

The report also found a pattern of unlawfully strip-searching individuals prior to arrest—citing one incident where a woman was fully strip-searched in public during a traffic stop for a missing headlight. "I really gotta take my clothes off?" the woman asked. "Yeah" the male officer replied, a female officer proceeding to search her anal cavity with a latex glove before releasing her without a criminal charge.

The long-awaited report should resonate nationally, coming nearly two years after a similarly scathing probe suggested Ferguson, Missouri, was basically a police state.

"This speaks to the nation," Jonathan Smith, a former civil rights litigator at the Department of Justice who oversaw the Ferguson investigation, told VICE. "I think you will see, in many of the urban centers in the United States, exactly the same behavior."

Some two dozen federal investigations into the police practices plaguing America's cities have gone forward under the Obama administration. But in two key ways, Baltimore is not like other cities, according to Smith. For starters, cops in the city have allegedly been punished for calling one another out. "You have officers courageously coming forward and saying this is wrong you shouldn't be doing this—and they were punished for it," he said. And local policing seems to have systematically reinforced segregation by heavily concentrating on the borders between white and black neighborhoods.

At the press conference, Rawlings-Blake emphasized a number of reforms already being implemented in the city, noting she's already revised 26 key policies in the police department, and that the city is "revamping our approach to officer accountability."

"This is a moment to get better," Commissioner Davis added.

Of course, some former Baltimore cops take issue with the tone of the federal report, which cited 60 complaints of racial slurs against black people.

"The BPD is not a bunch of white officers calling blacks niggers," said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "I didn't hear the word used once by a white officer. Not once. I'm not saying it's never been used, but this isn't fucking Ferguson. I suspect much of the usage they talk about is from black officers. Doesn't that matter? But the report doesn't tell us."

The report's big-picture look at the BPD marks the first step toward a consent decree between Baltimore and the feds that will force the new reforms into practice.

Since Gray's death, BPD has begun using new police vans with built-in surveillance, instituted training in community policing, and made mandatory body cameras for officers—though uncertainty remains about when these cameras must be turned on. Citizen-shot footage of Gray's arrest played a significant role as evidence in the trials of officers charged in his arrest and death, and the DOJ reported "serious concerns that BPD officers interfere with individuals who attempt to lawfully record police activity," including seizing phones and deleting their contents without just cause

While Mosby's office blamed the broader legal system when she dropped the Freddie Gray charges, if nothing else, the feds' findings ensure Baltimore cops will be under a microscope for years to come.

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