Police Gone Wild

The U.S. Department of Justice’s report on Baltimore chronicles yet another police department that routinely abused its power and violated the civil rights of African Americans.

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Police advance toward protestors as a store burns following the funeral of Freddie Gray on April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Police advance toward protestors as a store burns following the funeral of Freddie Gray on April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

The U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of police misconduct in Baltimore is 163 pages of horror reading.

Almost Kafkaesque—albeit in a dry, statistic-laden prose—the report details how Baltimore’s nearly 3,000-member police force acts like an occupying military force in some unruly wilderness. The feds wasted no time in getting to the point—indeed, in the opening paragraph of the executive summary, the investigators “[conclude] that there is reasonable cause to believe that [the Baltimore Police Department] engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.”

From there, the report documents an unrequited stream of unconstitutional behavior outlined by an awesome quantity of allegations detailing daily indignities, misconduct, excessive force, racist behavior, and, worst of all, criminal acts conducted by the police themselves. Most of these police activities were directed exclusively toward African Americans and in sections of the city where African Americans predominantly live. Typically, these policing activities went undocumented, unpunished, and unaccounted for by city authorities.

Here’s just one of the milder examples drawn directly from the report:

A 2011 complaint described an incident in which two white officers told an African-American man who had double-parked his car and was blocking the street to “move this car, n****r!” The man was double parked in order to assist his aunt into her home in Northeast Baltimore and was not charged with any offense. The man’s complaint—the one complaint BPD correctly categorized as a “racial slur” in the more than six years of data we examined—was assigned to be investigated at the command level and administratively closed six months later. The file BPD provided has no record of the investigation or any attempt to identify the officers involved.

Little wonder black people in Baltimore—and elsewhere across the nation where police abuses have been well documented—don’t trust the police and have diminished respect for their presence in black neighborhoods. The report makes this clear as well. “Such unlawful stops erode public confidence in law enforcement and escalate street encounters, sometimes resulting in officers deploying unnecessary force or committing additional constitutional violations,” the investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice wrote.

To be sure, the facts laid out in the Baltimore report—the latest in a string of some two dozen similar reports written by the U.S. Department of Justice during the past four years or so—aren’t shocking or surprising to those who have been paying attention. A recent study by The Guardian found that, despite making up approximately 2 percent of the total U.S. population, black males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15 percent of all deaths at the hands of police officers in 2015. “Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age,” the newspaper reported.

Folks who don’t peruse government reports or big-city newspapers might have been accidentally informed about police misconduct from watching the popular HBO television series “The Wire,” which shows scenes that are nearly identical to the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on Baltimore in a dramatic and entertaining fashion. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz noted this phenomenon in a 2012 essay—in which called “The Wire” one of the greatest TV dramas of the past quarter century—saying, “I can’t tell you how many times I opened up a newspaper during The Wire’s five-season run and happened upon a story of cop corruption or criminal stupidity or official malfeasance in government that reminded me of something I saw on the show.”

Yet there remains stubborn resistance by some folks to acknowledge the legitimacy of complaints about police abuses in predominately black inner-city communities. And, of course, there’s a reason for this: If a person sees the police as their protector doing the dirty work to keep otherworldly savages at bay, then, in their mind, the police are justified in exerting extralegal measures to uphold law and order. As this argument goes, good and decent taxpayers don’t really want to know what it takes to protect and serve their own interests.

Indeed, as one impassioned letter writer noted to The Baltimore Sun after reading the report, “Let’s stop blaming the people who are trying to protect us … [L]et’s not forget that this is our last defense against the rotten apples, the criminals who will destroy our city if there is no one to stop them.”

And that’s what makes the U.S. Department of Justice’s report all the more frightening to read. As the report states, too many affluent and white people give the police high marks for protecting them and turn a blind eye to the abuse of others:

We found these principles in stark relief in Baltimore, where law enforcement officers confront a long history of social and economic challenges that impact much of the City, including the perception that there are “two Baltimores:” one wealthy and largely white, the second impoverished and predominately black. Community members living in the City’s wealthier and largely white neighborhoods told us that officers tend to be respectful and responsive to their needs, while many individuals living in the City’s largely African-American communities informed us that officers tend to be disrespectful and do not respond promptly to their calls for service.

That’s the untold reality of the situation in Baltimore. The police are effective in serving the interest of the politically empowered parts of the community while also abusing the rights of the vulnerable in other, less influential sections of the city. Arguably, such a dichotomy isn’t in conflict with itself; it’s just how the police are conditioned to do their job.

Anyone who believes this is an effective policing strategy is simply fooling themselves. A wiser approach must build trust and cooperation among the citizens of all communities and the police who are sworn to serve and protect everyone. Otherwise, there will continue to be more horror stories to read in the days ahead.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)