Baltimore police have racial bias, violated civil rights, says Justice Department report

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

(MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — A Justice Department investigation found that the Baltimore Police Department engages in unconstitutional practices that led to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans, and excessive use of force against juveniles and people with mental health disabilities.

The Department of Justice monitored the department’s policing methods for more than a year at the request of the Baltimore Police Department, after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

The report, obtained Tuesday by CNN, attributed the widespread practices to “systemic deficiencies” in training, policies, supervision and accountability structures.

Though the report does not reference Gray, his death continues to loom large over the city’s attempts to heal and rebuild. The federal civil rights report comes weeks after charges were dropped against the remaining officers facing trial in Gray’s death.

From BPD officers, command staff and union representatives, to city leaders and advocacy groups, everyone who spoke to DOJ investigators acknowledged “significant problems” that undermined efforts to police “constitutionally and effectively,” the report said. “Nevertheless, work remains, in part because of the profound lack of trust among these groups.”

Here are some of the highlights:

Unconstitutional stops and arrests

The report blamed “zero tolerance” enforcement practices that emphasized stops, searches and arrests for repeated violations of constitutional rights that eroded the community’s trust.

Encouraged by BPD supervisors, “zero tolerance” policing continues in certain neighborhoods, leading to unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, with little to no suspicion, the report said.

For example:

  • About 44% of those stops occurred in two small predominantly African-American neighborhood that contain only 11% of the city’s population
  • Hundreds of individuals were stopped at least 10 times during this period, and seven were stopped more than 30 times
  • Only 3.7% resulted in citations or arrests
  • From 2010 to 2015, prosecutors and booking supervisors rejected more than 11,000 charges made by BPD officers because they lacked probable cause or did not merit prosecution

Discrimination against African-Americans

BPD stops African-American drivers and pedestrians at disproportionate rates, subjecting them to greater rates of searches than whites, the report said, creating racial disparities at every stage of law enforcement actions, from stop to arrest, the report said.

“These racial disparities, along with evidence suggesting intentional discrimination, erode the community trust that is critical to effective policing.”

Among the investigation’s findings:

  • African-Americans accounted for 95% of 410 individuals stopped at least 10 times from 2010 to 2016
  • One African-American man in his 50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years; none of the stops resulted in a citation or criminal charge
  • African-Americans accounted for 82% of all BPD vehicle stops though they make up 60% of the driving age population in the city and 27% percent of the driving age population in the greater metropolitan area
  • BPD officers found contraband twice as often when searching white individuals compared to African-Americans during vehicle stops and 50% more often during pedestrian stops

Use of constitutionally excessive force

After reviewing all deadly force cases from January 2010 to May 1, and a random sample of more 800 than nondeadly force cases, the DOJ concluded that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force. Insufficient training and lack of oversight of those incidents perpetuate the pattern, leading to several recurring issues:

  • Use of overly aggressive tactics that escalate encounters and increase tensions and failure to de-escalate encounters when appropriate to do so
  • Frequently resorting to physical force when a person does not immediately respond to verbal commands, even if the subject poses no imminent threat to the officer or others
  • Due to a lack of training and improper tactics, BPD officers end up in needlessly violent confrontations with people with mental health disabilities
  • Failure to use widely accepted tactics for dealing with juveniles, treating them the same way as adults, leading to unnecessary conflict
  • Use of excessive force against people already restrained and under officers’ control

Retaliation for activities protected by the First Amendment

DOJ investigators found that officers “routinely infringe” upon First Amendment rights in the following ways:

  • Unlawfully stopping and arresting people for cursing at officers, even though it’s not illegal to use vulgar or offensive language as long as they are not “fighting words”
  • Retaliating with excessive force against people in cases of protected speech
  • Interfering with people who record police activity, including a time in which officers seized the phone of a man who recorded his friend being arrested and deleted all the videos on his phone, even personal videos of his son

Indications of gender bias in sexual assault investigations

The report concludes that BPD “seriously and systematically under-investigates” sexual assault reports and engages in practices that “compromise the effectiveness and impartiality” of their investigations. Among the examples cited:

  • In interviews with women, officers ask questions or make statements in a manner that places blame on them, such as “why are you messing that guy’s life up”? or suggesting their behavior invited the assault
  • An email between an officer and a prosecutor expressing disbelief of a survivor, calling her a “conniving little whore”
  • A review of case reports involving people in the sex trade indicated a tendency to not take them seriously
  • Allegations of disparaging and inappropriate comments toward transgender individuals, including the refusal to call a transgender woman a woman
  • Rape cases remain open for years at a time with little to no follow-up
  • Detectives request testing of rape kits in fewer than one in five adult sexual assault cases

Need for better training and more accountability

The report dedicates significant space to the department’s failure to train, equip, supervise and hold officers accountable, or to build relationships with the community.

“Numerous members of BPD, from line officers to command staff to training personnel, conveyed to us that training is not a priority within the Department.”

The department also fails to collect and record important data on a broad range of activities that could inform their processes, the report said. And when it does, it does not use the data to manage and supervise officer activity.

Earlier Tuesday, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby anticipated that the report “will likely confirm what many in our city already know or have experienced firsthand.”

“While the vast majority of Baltimore City Police officers are good officers, we also know that there are bad officers and that the department has routinely failed to oversee, train or hold bad actors accountable.”

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told The Baltimore Sun that the report will help them improve.

“We have begun this journey to reform long-standing issues in many real, tangible ways,” Davis said. “DOJ’s findings will serve to solidify our road map.”