The Baltimore Police Department has disproportionately targeted African-Americans for stops and arrests, a Justice Department investigation has found. After the police department took a "zero tolerance" approach to policing in the early 2000s, the report finds, it began engaging in a pattern and practice of discriminatory policing.
Statistics analyzed in the scathing 163-page report show that the magnitude of racial differences in stops, searches and arrests is so pronounced, it might point to "intentional discrimination."
In one case, for example, an African-American man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years by police, yet none of the stops ever resulted in a citation or criminal charge. Investigators found instances in which leaders in the department ordered officers to directly target black residents.
In one case, a commander allegedly told a lieutenant to order her officers to "lock up all the black hoodies."
The statistics reveal that the Baltimore Police Department stopped and arrested more people in predominantly black areas of town. From January 2010-May 2014, police made some 300,000 stops — 44 percent of which were in two predominantly black areas that make up 12 percent of the city's population.
Citywide, the report finds, the Baltimore Police Department "stopped African-American residents three times as often as white residents after controlling for the population of the area in which the stops occurred."
The report finds that police made too many unjustified stops and used force unnecessarily. Other times, police officers reacted simply because a citizen was exercising their right to free speech.
One officer, for example, listed an arrestee's "mouth" as his weapon.
The review concludes that many of the abuses are the result of inadequate training and the after-effects of a now-discredited policy:
"Starting in at least the late 1990s, ... City and BPD leadership responded to the City's challenges by encouraging 'zero tolerance' street enforcement that prioritized officers making large numbers of stops, searches, and arrests—and often resorting to force—with minimal training and insufficient oversight from supervisors or through other accountability structures. These practices led to repeated violations of the constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community's trust in the police. ...
"BPD's legacy of zero tolerance enforcement continues to drive its policing in certain Baltimore neighborhoods and leads to unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests. Many BPD supervisors instruct officers to make frequent stops and arrests—even for minor offenses and with minimal or no suspicion—without sufficient consideration of whether this enforcement strategy promotes public safety and community trust or conforms to constitutional standards. These instructions, coupled with minimal supervision and accountability for misconduct, lead to constitutional violations."
The report says building relationships in all communities is a better way to head off crime:
"We encourage BPD to be proactive, to get to know Baltimore's communities more deeply, build trust, and reduce crime together with the communities it serves."
Over the past few years, the Justice Department has conducted similar investigations in places like Newark, Ferguson, Mo., and Albuquerque. It has often come to similar conclusions: Police departments were violating the civil rights of citizens with racially biased police practices and excessive use of force.
Many times, these investigations lead to negotiations and agreements between police departments and the Justice Department that are designed to curb some of the violations. Those agreements often involve more stringent record-keeping and the appointment of an independent monitor who makes sure changes that are agreed to actually happen.
In Baltimore, it was outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake who called for a federal probe after near-daily protests boiled over into a night of riots in the spring of 2015.
The demonstrators demanded justice for Gray, who suffered a fatal spine injury in police custody. A total of six officers were charged in the death. Three were acquitted during bench trials, and prosecutors dropped charges for the remaining three officers last month.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The U.S. Justice Department has found a pattern of unconstitutional policing in the city of Baltimore. The civil rights investigators uncovered problems with excessive force and unjustified stops, many of them against black people. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is on the line to talk about this. Carrie, good morning.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So take us back. Remind us how this investigation first started.
JOHNSON: David, this all started soon after the death of Freddie Gray. Of course, he's the 25-year-old black man who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody last April. And his death set off a lot of unrest in the streets of Baltimore. He kind of personified the tension between police and people of color in the city. And as we now know, local prosecutors won no convictions in the case.
GREENE: So that investigation starts, civil rights investigators come to Baltimore - what exactly have they been doing? What have they been looking for?
JOHNSON: Kind of a lot - they've been interviewing police officers about what they need to do their jobs better. They've been meeting with community groups, doing ride-alongs with cops, and reviewing lots of records about traffic stops and when police used force in the past.
GREENE: It sounds comprehensive. I mean, they're really looking at policing at a very broad level.
JOHNSON: Yeah, it took over a year, and that's the reason why.
GREENE: So what did they find?
JOHNSON: Some of this is going to sound familiar because we heard it in Ferguson, Mo., in Newark, N.J., and lots of other areas where a DOJ Civil Rights has investigated in the past. David, first, too many unjustified stops - stopping people for no good legal reason with black people bearing the burden. In one instance, a black man in his 50s was stopped 30 times in four years...
JOHNSON: ...But never charged with a crime. There's also too much use of force in Baltimore, especially when it's not necessary. Police have been striking back at people who were protesting, standing outside in front of housing projects, trying to charge them with misdemeanors or get them to disperse for no good reason. And also, really disturbingly, strip searches of people in public view - the DOJ really called out Baltimore police for doing that.
GREENE: Have the police, have officials in Baltimore, responded to this either during the course of the investigation or now that these findings are coming out now?
JOHNSON: Well, you know, DOJ says Baltimore officials have been unusually cooperative. The mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, actually invited Justice Department investigators in to take a look last year. And she says she wants to do whatever it takes to fix these problems. The newish police commissioner, Kevin Davis, has also been on board. He told me at a news conference earlier this year he named a team to handle requests from the DOJ. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KEVIN DAVIS: I will say that we're the first police department that I know of that stood up a full-time Department of Justice compliance and accountability team that interacts exclusively with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division regarding their requests for documents and policies and interviews, etc. So we welcome their presence on our police department. And we think they'll only make us better.
JOHNSON: And Kevin Davis says police there have already overhauled their training and changed their policy for use of false force in Baltimore.
GREENE: Now, Carrie, I hear the commissioner basically saying there, we are being fully transparent. If you - if other departments actually allowed this level of access, they might find some of the same things. Let's sort of lead the charge in reform. I mean, would critics say that's a fair argument or are they trying to spin this?
JOHNSON: I think if you talk to the Fraternal Order of Police, they will say any big city urban police department is going to have some of these kinds of problems. The issue here in Baltimore, David, is that authorities have now documented what they believe to be two systems of justice - one system of law enforcement for people in white wealthy neighborhoods in Baltimore, another for African-Americans in poor neighborhoods who get targeted by police for no good reason too many times.
GREENE: OK. All right, we'll have to leave it there. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks Carrie.
JOHNSON: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.