The only people who weren’t surprised by the 164-page Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department’s rampant brutality were black residents of Baltimore City whose protests and complaints have fallen on deaf ears for years.
“The phrase ‘a few bad apples’ should now be banished from conversations about law enforcement in Baltimore,” said the Rev. Heber Brown III, who led many of the peaceful protests after the death of Freddie Gray. “This is not about a few bad individual officers. This is about an unjust system that is flawed at its foundation and will require more than incremental reform.”
Baltimore attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, who has worked to reform the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, which obstructs accountability for officers in brutality cases, said the crux of the problems laid out in the report relates to lack of accountability.
During a ride-along with Department of Justice officials, according to the report, a police sergeant instructed a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American men on a street corner, question them and then order them to disperse. When the patrol officer protested that he had no valid reason to stop the group, the sergeant replied, “Then make something up.”
“They had no idea that while they’re doing these ride-alongs, that the Justice Department would cite them on their behavior. They just don’t have any concept of it,” said Gordon. “Because it is so rare that anyone says or does anything about their behavior. It creates a lawless environment where there is no redress. No one believes the allegations of the citizens. They don’t give them any credit.”
In fact, current Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has had several judgments filed against him and awarded to citizens because he violated their rights.
Davis was part of a group of Prince George's County police officers who took a teenager on a drive that led to a federal civil jury awarding the victim, Brian Romjue, a $90,000 judgment. According to testimony by Romjue, Davis slammed his head against a window three or four times. Another officer grabbed him from behind and choked him. An internal investigation by the Police Department found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers. In another lawsuit, a defendant was awarded $12,500 by a jury after a lawsuit alleged that Davis "threw him to the ground and handcuffed him without explanation."
“When you have a commissioner like Kevin Davis as an example of what you can become—it lets you know this type of behavior has been excusable for a long time,” said Gordon. “What type of job allows that kind of ascension to occur other than a police department because they wear that kind of behavior as a badge of honor.”
The most striking points of the report note that these kind of abuses persisted in public view, unchecked, and subsequently became normalized. Zero tolerance policies instituted in the late 1990s under Mayor Martin O’Malley only exacerbated the problems.
“The black political leadership that consistently chose to support O’Malley and his administration should be ashamed of themselves,” said local activist Hassan Giordano. “Oftentimes, these black officials represent the interests if the Democratic Party before that of their own people.”
Baltimore activists and lawyers note the war on drugs that preceded zero tolerance, as well as Jim Crow laws, also provided the impetus for rampant abuse of power. Countless historic rebellions have begun with a police brutality case.
In the report, the DOJ notes that the Baltimore Police Department disproportionately searches African Americans during stops: “BPD searched African Americans more frequently during pedestrian and vehicle stops, even though searches of African Americans were less likely to discover contraband. Indeed, BPD officers found contraband twice as often when searching white individuals compared to African Americans during vehicle stops and 50 percent more often during pedestrian stops.”
“You say it’s a war on drugs, but they didn’t wage war on the white neighborhoods where they do just as much drugs as they do in black neighborhoods. It was a war on African Americans,” said Gordon.
Councilman Brandon M. Scott, who represents the 2nd District and is well-respected by activists in Baltimore, saw the report as a step in the right direction, but emphasized that there are broader problems around the city, including entrenched poverty and lack of resources around schools and recreation centers; issues that need to be addressed concurrently with police reform.
“This country is undergoing change around policing,” said Scott. “It’s not just Baltimore. People want police to be held accountable. This is America. And America has problems with black people, young black men like myself in particular. If we don’t deal with that or fix that, we’re going to continue to have these things happen.”
Moving forward from the report, Gordon says citizens need to continue to put pressure on the legislature and that the Baltimore Police Department needs to agree to the consent decree to get the ball rolling.
“There needs to be an independent agency to investigate police officers, separate from police and the prosecutor’s office,” Gordon said regarding reforms that can begin to address the issues outlined in the report. “I’ve always felt that police should individually carry some kind of insurance policy or at least pay a deductible. If they were paying a deductible every time they were sued, we would see a decrease in police misconduct.”
Some residents are skeptical and are waiting to see what actual reforms come out of the report. Baltimore has a thriving nonprofit industry to address poverty, but, according to the DOJ report: “Compared to national averages, Baltimore exhibits: lower incomes, with a median household income nearly 20 percent lower than the national average; higher poverty rates, with 24.2 percent of individuals living below the federal poverty level … [with] average unemployment rates per month that were 50 percent higher than the national average from 2014 to 2015.”
“There is healthy skepticism among residents that the DOJ report will do more to create careers, contracts and credibility for white-led institutions than it will do to address the pattern of violations of constitutional rights and human rights abuses,” said the Rev. Brown.