Baltimore police walk by a mural depicting Freddie Gray on July 27, 2016. Three officers were acquitted in Gray's death; prosecutors dropped charges against the remaining three. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

How Baltimore’s Police Policy Led to Freddie Gray

August 10, 2016
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by Sarah Childress Senior Reporter

In its investigation of the Baltimore police department, the Justice Department found multiple violations: a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests used disproportionately against African-Americans; the use of excessive force, even against juveniles, those who have mental health problems and those who don’t pose an imminent threat; retaliation against those who criticized police, and evidence that officers don’t properly investigate sexual assaults.

But most striking were the reasons behind the violations. Most stemmed from a police policy of targeting African-Americans for low-level offenses, Justice Department officials said in a report released on Wednesday. The practice enabled officer misconduct, eroded morale among police and devastated their relationship with the community, they said.

In fact, the DOJ found that the circumstances surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, who in April 2015 was chased by officers and suffered a severe spinal injury while in police custody, were among the routine practices of Baltimore police. Gray’s death sparked days of protests. None of the six officers involved were held criminally responsible for his death, which was ruled a homicide. But the incident also led to the broader federal investigation into the police department’s practices.

Baltimore had adopted so-called “Broken Windows” policing — the idea that focusing on low-level offenses prevents or reduces crime. But in practice, the theory has most often led to harassment of minority residents, in particular African-Americans, and done little to reduce overall crime. In Baltimore, the rate of violent crime has remained relatively higher than most other large cities. Last year was the deadliest in the city’s history, with 344 homicides, according to the Justice Department.

Today’s report is one of the first by the Justice Department to single out a Broken Windows-style policy for helping create what the DOJ said were “systemic deficiencies” within the department that lead to residents being unnecessarily harassed, injured and even killed by police. The Justice Department found a similar pattern in Newark, N.J. of unconstitutional stops and searches two years ago and entered into a reform agreement with the government. It also investigated, but did not sanction, the New York City police for similar practices in the 1990s.

“The police department’s ‘zero tolerance’ street enforcement strategy became a quest to produce large numbers of enforcement actions — pedestrian stops in particular — often without enough consideration of their limited impact on solving crime and their caustic damage to community relationships,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s civil rights division. “While today’s city leaders have recognized these issues, many in the BPD still continue to follow this strategy.”

From Broken Windows to Freddie Gray

Baltimore police imposed its “zero tolerance” policing strategy in the late 1990s in an attempt to combat violent crime. The city has a troubling legacy of government-sponsored housing segregation, which has led to entrenched racial disparities in education, employment and even lead poisoning in children, the DOJ said. Against that backdrop, federal officials said the aggressive policing policy evolved into one of aggressive stops, searches and arrests that mainly targeted black residents.

In 2006, local chapters of the ACLU and the NAACP filed a lawsuit alleging that police engaged in illegal arrests, and Baltimore police amended its policy to curb the practice. Police officials also had come to believe that the focus on stops and arrests was counterproductive and undermined officer morale and community trust in police.

Yet because officers continued to be rewarded or sanctioned based on the numbers of arrests, they continued to focus on low-level offenses, the DOJ said. “Many officers believe that the path to promotions and favorable treatment, as well as the best way to avoid discipline, is to increase their number of stops and make arrest for these offenses,” the report found. And, the DOJ found, there was little accountability or discipline for officers who crossed the line.

Improper Stops

Today, only one out of every 27 pedestrian stops resulted in a citation or charge of criminal activity, suggesting that officers had little reason to make most of the stops, the DOJ said. Officers police almost exclusively in the central business district and poor neighborhoods with mostly black populations, the report found. In that area, police made nearly 1.5 stops per resident over a four-year period. One man was stopped 34 times in four years, and several hundred residents were stopped at least 10 times.

Well before Gray’s last encounter with police, he had already been stopped multiple times, including twice in the same week without being charged with a crime.

Supervisors often ordered the practice. In one case, the DOJ said a patrol officer was ordered to stop and potentially arrest several young black men standing on a corner. When the officer argued that he had no valid reason to stop them, his sergeant said, “Then make something up.”

Officers were sometimes explicitly ordered to target blacks. One lieutenant, for example, ordered all officers patrolling one district to “lock up all the black hoodies” in a neighborhood. When one sergeant objected, she was given a poor performance review and transferred to another unit. Another lieutenant gave officers under his command a template for trespassing that suggested officers would arrest exclusively black men.

Illegal Searches

Officers also conducted illegal strip searches in public view. In one instance, a teenager was strip-searched because officers were looking for his older brother, who they suspected of dealing drugs, the DOJ said. The officer frisked him, and after finding nothing, pulled down the teen’s pants and boxers on the street to search him further. The boy said the same officer later pushed him up against a wall, pulled down his pants and grabbed his genitals. The teen had filed a complaint about the first incident, and believed the officer was retaliating against him.

Unfounded Arrests

Because officers were rewarded for making arrests, they swept up as many people as they could, the report found. Many arrests were found to have no legal basis, and the charges were often thrown out: Prosecutors or booking supervisors dismissed more than 20 percent of disorderly conduct charges and 25 percent of charges for failure to obey an officer.

Excessive Force

The racial disparities in stops, searches and arrests also led officers to use excessive force disproportionately against African-Americans, the DOJ said. Blacks accounted for roughly 88 percent of the subjects of non-deadly force that the DOJ reviewed. Baltimore is roughly 63 percent black.

Gray’s last encounter with police began after he made eye contact with an officer and took off running. Officers gave chase, something that federal officials said happened frequently, even though Gray and many of those they pursued weren’t suspected of violent crimes. Officers also frequently used excessive force against those they chased down, even when they posed a minimal threat to officers or the public.

The foot pursuit tactics “endanger officers and the community,” the DOJ found.

Department officials said that Baltimore police don’t keep reliable records on injuries people sustain when they’re being transported by police, so it’s unclear how often officers give subjects a so-called “rough ride.” But, it said that BPD routinely fails to secure those they arrest in their vehicles, and has insufficient monitoring systems to ensure proper policies are being followed.

What Happens Next

On the same day the Justice Department announced its findings, Baltimore officials announced that they had signed an agreement in principle to pursue a court-enforceable consent decree, to be negotiated in the coming months. Once a deal is in place, a federal monitor will be appointed to oversee the reform process.

The Justice Department has opened 68 investigations of law enforcement agencies since Congress granted it the power to do so in 1994. Of those, more than one-third were opened under the Obama administration. It has so far secured 19 reform agreements — more than any other administration.

It takes years to overhaul a police department. Even if city officials are supportive, the process costs millions of dollars and can be slowed by resistance from police or union officials.

Newark, for example, is the only other city that signed an agreement in principle to reform immediately after Justice Department officials announced it had found a pattern of unconstitutional policing. But it still took nearly two years to negotiate a consent decree, which it finally signed in March.

In Baltimore, officials requested federal intervention in the wake of protests over Gray’s death. It’s an unusual step, since cities usually are reluctant to submit to federal oversight.

On Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that the city was already taking steps to reform by updating its use of force policy and retraining officers. It’s also improving the use of force review process and officer discipline. She said the city is also investing in new technology and infrastructure for officers, including body cameras, which the department plans to roll out over the next two years.

The department is also retrofitting transport vans to improve their safety and introducing cameras inside. Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference on Wednesday that the city was committed to reform. “It’s so very important that we get this right,” she said.

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