Report highlights disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans
One woman was strip-searched in view of others on the sidewalk
Officers involved in police shootings are asked only cursory questions
The Justice Department report on the systemic problems plaguing the nation’s eighth-largest municipal police force opens a window into how ordinary citizens get caught up in a whirlpool of policing bias and brutality.
The disturbing revelations highlight the disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans, and excessive use of force against juveniles and people with mental health disabilities on the streets of Baltimore.
With about 621,000 residents, Baltimore remains one of the most segregated cities in the country – a fact that impacts, in part, how the police department’s 2,600 sworn officers do their jobs, according to the DOJ report. The city’s about 63% African-American, 30% white and 4% Latino.
Baltimore and the Justice Department have agreed to negotiate a court-enforceable consent decree that will prescribe steps for reform – in addition to steps that Baltimore already has taken.
“Change is painful,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told reporters. “Growth is painful. But nothing is as painful as being stuck in a place that we do not belong.”
Davis vowed zero tolerance for cops who “choose to engage in racist, sexist, discriminatory or biased-based policing.” The officers behind the most egregious examples cited in the report already have been removed from the job, he said.
Here are six examples of the widespread “systemic deficiencies” highlighted in the scathing report:
A loitering arrest
In a four-year period beginning in 2010, roughly 44% of 111,500 police stops occurred in two small, predominantly African-American neighborhoods that account for about 11% of the city’s population, according to the report.
Only 3.7% of those stops resulted in citations or arrests.
In a Facebook post, a police sergeant recently endorsed the controversial policing approach, writing that the “solution to the murder rate is easy. Flex cuffs and a line at [Central Booking]. CJIS code 2-0055.”
CJIS 2-0055 is the code for a loitering arrest.
In some police districts, fliers celebrated such arrests with the image of cops from the specialized Violent Crime Impact Division. They are leading a handcuffed man in a hoodie toward a police van. The text says, “VCID: Striking fear into loiters [sic] City-wide.”
On a cold January night in 2013, an officer stopped an African-American man wearing a hooded sweatshirt as he crossed the street in a “high crime area.”
A report by a supervisory officer said the cop “thought it could be possible that the individual could be out seeking a victim of opportunity.”
Multiple officers questioned the man and seized a kitchen knife that he admitted was in his possession.
The cops justified the stop by noting that the man put his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt. They also observed the man “shivering” on the cold night.
When the man asked for his knife back, he was ordered to sit on the ground. When he “persisted to ask for his knife,” they forced him to the ground.
“You can’t arrest me,” the man yelled before resisting.
Two cops tried to handcuff and shackle him. One officer used his fists to strike the man “in the face, ribs, and back.” Other officers arrived as the man resisted. One Tased the man twice to prevent him from “escap[ing] the scene.”
The man, who was eventually taken to a hospital, was not charged.
The sergeant at the scene acknowledged that the man was Tased twice and struck in the face but his report concluded the “officers showed great restraint and professionalism.”
A strip search on the street
In the department’s Eastern District, police publicly strip-searched a woman after a traffic stop for a missing headlight.
Officers ordered the woman to step out of her car, remove her clothes and stand on the sidewalk.
“I really gotta take all my clothes off?” she asked.
A female officer put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra. No weapons or contraband were found. “The officer then pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity. This search again found no evidence of wrongdoing and the officers released the woman without charges.”
She was searched in full view of the street. The supervising male officer claimed he “turned away” at the time of the search.
In the end, the woman was given a repair order for the headlight.
After she filed a complaint, investigators corroborated her account with testimony from witnesses. The latex gloves were recovered on the street.
“Officers conducted this highly invasive search despite lacking any indication that the woman had committed a criminal offense or possessed concealed contraband,” the report stated. “The male officer who ordered the search received only a ‘simple reprimand’ and an instruction that he could not serve as an officer in charge until he was ‘properly trained.’”
Biased interviewing of police officers
The DOJ investigation found that interviews of officers involved in shootings tend to be “conclusory and superficial, often lasting no longer than ten or fifteen minutes, with some ending after five minutes.”
“Officers are generally not asked any critical questions about the threat they faced or their decision-making process leading up to their deadly force.”
In a lethal 2013 shooting, an internal affairs interview of the officer lasted only five minutes. It included questions about the nature of the interview which were not particular to the facts of the case. The “actual substantive interview” lasted three minutes.
Interviews of civilian witnesses, however, often last hours, with investigators asking “specific, probing questions, demonstrating their ability to be thorough and exacting.”
Baltimore police also conduct “pre-interviews” with officers before turning on recording devices.
In another officer-involved shooting, also in 2013, an investigator told the officer, “Sir, please just as we did before we went on the tape, just tell us what happen [sic].”
“The officer then provided a canned and prepared presentation about a shooting, summarizing the incident, from beginning to end. The entire interview, on tape, lasts only eight minutes. Pre-interviews impede the integrity of the investigation,” the report said.
“Because of this, pre-interviews in investigations of officer-involved shootings have been discouraged since at least the early 1990s.”
Officers ordered to ‘clear corners’
Justice Department officials were on a ride-along with Baltimore officers. It didn’t seem to matter.
A sergeant instructed a cop to stop a group of young African-American men on a street corner, question them, and order them to disperse.
The officer protested that he had no valid reason for the stop.
The sergeant replied, “Then make something up.”
Another sergeant posted on Facebook that when he supervises officers in the Northeast District, he wants them to “clear corners.” The term is understood by officers to mean stopping people standing on sidewalks to question and disperse them by threatening arrest for minor offenses.
The sergeant wrote, “I used to say at roll call in NE when I ran the shift: Do not treat criminals like citizens. Citizens want that corner cleared.”
Risky transport practices and ‘rough rides’
The report does not directly reference the actions of officers involved in the case of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury while being transported in a police van. But federal investigators found “significant deficiencies” in transport practices that put detainees “at significant risk of harm.”
The report said officers “routinely fail to safely secure arrestees in transport vans with seatbelts.”
In 2005, Dondi Johnson Sr. was arrested for urinating on a public street and transported in a police van.
During a trial, officers admitted that neither the driver nor arresting officers secured Johnson.
While transporting him, the van driver testified that she heard several bangs from the back of the vehicle. She said she reached the district station in half the time it would have taken her driving at the speed limit.
In the van, Johnson was found face-down on the floor and in pain. Hospital records show Johnson described being hurt in a fall during a sharp turn. An expert witness testified his injuries were consistent with the van being “driven in an aggressive manner.”
Johnson eventually died due to complications from paralysis. A jury awarded his family $7.4 million in damages.
In 2013, Christine Abbott sued the department, claiming she and her boyfriend were taken on a “rough ride” in the back of a police van.
The suit said officers threw her into the back of the van, failed to secure her and drove erratically.
Abbott claimed she was injured after being violently thrown in the van. In a deposition, the transporting officer acknowledged that Abbott was not secured. The city settled with Abbott for $95,000.
Handling of sexual assault investigations
In interviews of women reporting sexual assault, Baltimore detectives ask questions such as “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?”
One victim advocate told DOJ investigators that a detective in the sex offense unit once made a comment at a party in which he said, “in homicide, there are real victims; all our cases are bulls**t.”
In an email exchange between a police officer and a prosecutor, both openly expressed their “contempt for and disbelief of a woman who had reported a sexual assault.”
The prosecutor wrote, “This case is crazy … I am not excited about charging it. This victim seems like a conniving little whore. (pardon my language).”
The officer replied, “Lmao! I feel the same.”