As the charges were dropped against the Baltimore police officers accused of causing Freddie Gray’s death, an unbelieving question emerged on Twitter: Did no one kill Freddie Gray?
The federal Department of Justice answered that cynicism on Wednesday, in a damning report that found “systemic deficiencies” in the Baltimore Police Department.
The DOJ report found what it called blatantly unconstitutional policing, particularly with regards to stops — similar to the 2013 federal ruling that the NYPD was unconstitutionally using stop-and-frisk.
The report’s table of contents alone reads as an encyclopedia of bad practices: “BPD Uses Unreasonable Force,” "BPD's Handling of Sexual Assault Investigations Raises Serious Concerns of Gender-Biased Policing," “BPD Fails to Hold Officers Accountable for Misconduct.”
It includes details that show the surreal experience of minorities living with policing of this kind: seven African-American men were stopped by police more than 30 times between 2010 and 2015.
Or the fact that the words “black male” are automatically included in some arrest paperwork.
Or the sergeant who instructed a patrol officer to “make something up” to justify stopping a group of African-American males on a street corner.
Or the officer who justified his use of a stun gun citing a suspect’s “weapon” of choice: his “mouth.”
There's something wrong here
The report demonstrates that BPD’s strategies are relentlessly focused on African-American neighborhoods.
Forty-four percent of BPD pedestrian stops were in two African-American districts containing 11 percent of the city's population, according to the report. Yet only 3.7 percent of those stops resulted in citations or arrests. Many of those that did were ultimately dismissed.
This is comparable to the situation in New York at the height of stop-and-frisk policing. Between January 2004 and June 2012, only 6 percent of stops here resulted in arrests, according to court filings. Another 6 percent resulted in summonses. No weapon was recovered in 98.5 percent of the 2.3 million frisks police executed.
In New York, a higher percentage of white people stopped were found to have contraband or weapons. And yet 83 percent of those stopped were black or Hispanic — the DOJ found the same imbalance in Baltimore.
This unequal police attention has led to frayed relationships between police departments and minority communities, which the DOJ report says came out in the open after Gray’s death and “ensuing unrest.”
Reform doesn't come easy
BPD, which has begun reforms, has a long road ahead of it.
The NYPD has a head start on that road, but still has distance to go. There are delays implementing a court-ordered body camera program, but the number of stops continues to fall.
As Commissioner William Bratton prepares to leave the NYPD, the byword of his replacement, current Chief of Department Jimmy O’Neill, is “neighborhood policing,” a community engagement program that has been attempted to varying degrees before. Yet the new version may be an expansion, with more officers walking a beat getting to know their neighbors, beyond “black male.”
Still, community relations is only one half of the issue at hand in reports like these. The other half is the continued focus of police resources on minority communities regardless of crimes, which continues under broken windows in NYC.
We’ve found that a decrease of stop-and-frisk in the five boroughs did not lead to increased crime. In fact, overall crime continues to decrease.
Maybe O'Neill will be able to consider changes in how he deploys his prodigious resources, moving further away from a legacy of unconstitutional policing which will be an even quicker route to his admirable goal of making a more responsive and fair department.
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