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Scathing DOJ Report Rips Baltimore Police for 'Long-Standing' Unconstitutional Practices

Police stand in formation as a curfew approaches in Baltimore on April 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said an investigation into the Baltimore Police Department found a pattern of excessive force and unconstitutional practices while cops were not provided with the equipment and training they needed.

The pattern-or-practice investigation into Baltimore police began in May 2015, the month after the in-custody death of Freddie Gray.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, told reporters in Baltimore today that investigators combed through “hundreds of thousands of pages of documents – covering 2010 to 2016 – including policies and training materials, internal affairs files, data on stops, searches, and arrests and use-of-force reports.”

“Nearly everyone who spoke to us – from the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, who showed us their 2012 report, ‘Blueprint for Improved Policing,’ to the residents who shared serious concerns – agreed that the Baltimore Police Department needs sustainable reform,” Gupta said. “…We conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution and federal anti-discrimination law.”

That includes, she said, “making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches, and arrests of African-Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.”

“The problems in Baltimore didn’t happen overnight or appear in a day. The pattern or practice we found results from long-standing, systemic deficiencies at BPD. The agency fails to provide officers with sufficient policy guidance and training; fails to collect and analyze data regarding officers’ activities; and fails to hold officers accountable for misconduct. BPD also fails to provide officers with the necessary equipment and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally, and effectively.”

Gupta said “the city’s African-American residents and African-American neighborhoods bore the brunt” of unwarranted stops by police.

“Out of the data we surveyed, the police department made roughly 44 percent of its stops in two small, predominantly African-American districts that contain only 11 percent of the city’s population. African-Americans accounted for 95 percent of the 410 individuals the police department stopped at least 10 times,” she said. “Indeed, one African-American man was stopped 30 times in less than four years – with none of the stops resulting in a citation or criminal charge.”

“…Policing that violates the Constitution or federal law severely undermines community trust.  Blanket assumptions and stereotypes about certain neighborhoods can lead to resentment of the police. And resentment can prevent the type of effective policing needed to keep communities and officers safe.”

She stressed that “most officers in the Baltimore Police Department work hard to provide vital services to the community and to abide by the Constitution and federal law.”

Baltimore and the Justice Department “have entered into an agreement in principle that identifies the types of reforms we plan to address as we prepare to negotiate a court-enforceable, independently-monitored consent decree,” Gupta said.

The report noted that one detective who reported misconduct in 2012 “found a dead rat on his car with its head severed under his wiper blades,” with a sergeant later telling the detective “you better pray to God you’re not the star witness” against the accused officers. Internal affairs didn’t talk to the threatened detective until 2014, when he left for another department and later sued Baltimore PD.

The police department was found to have made 10,163 arrests from November 2010 to July 2015 that “authorities immediately determined did not merit prosecution.”

In one report uncovered by investigators, a man was tasered for “unruly behavior,” with the officer writing in the weapon field “mouth.”

DOJ investigators said they “reviewed many incidents in which BPD officers believe they are justified in using force or arresting a person based solely on profane or insulting words.”

“We heard complaints from the community that some officers target members of a vulnerable population—people involved in the sex trade—to coerce sexual favors from them in exchange for avoiding arrest, or for cash or narcotics,” the report states. “This conduct is not only criminal, it is an abuse of power. Unfortunately, we not only found evidence of this conduct in BPD’s internal affairs files, it appeared that the Department failed to adequately investigate allegations of such conduct, allowing it to recur.”

The DOJ report cites a prostitute who told Baltimore PD that she was meeting with an officer every other week for sex in his patrol car “in exchange for U.S. Currency or immunity from arrest.” The police department closed the case without interviewing the accused officer.

Investigators also found problems with the department’s practices in handling sexual assault allegations. “In their interviews of women reporting sexual assault, for example, BPD detectives ask questions such as ‘Why are you messing that guy’s life up?’ BPD officers and detectives also asked questions suggesting that they discredit the reports of victims who delayed in reporting the assault to the police,” continues the report. “…One victim advocate told us about a detective in the BPD Sex Offense Unit making comments at a party, in the company of BPD officers and victim advocates, that, ‘in homicide, there are real victims; all our cases are bullshit.’”

The report details a 2010 incident in which “an African-American man stated that he witnessed officers use excessive force during an arrest and punch a fourteen-year-old boy who attempted to film the arrest on his cell phone.”

“The African-American man recounted that the officers used ‘the word ‘n****r’ frequently’ and asked him if he ‘take[s] it up the ass by Allah.’ When the man went to the district headquarters to report the misconduct, he was met by the same officers who told him, ‘what brings your black ass back here?’ and ‘you can take your black ass down to Kirk Avenue before the bus leaves because you know how you black people like the bus.’” Despite two witnesses, the DOJ said, the misconduct claim was closed without a single interview.

“BPD conducted a similarly inadequate investigation in a 2010 case that also alleged race motivated misconduct,” the report added. “There, an African-American man alleged that while being held in a cell at the Southwest District, several officers called him a ‘monkey’ and a ‘n****r’ while beating him. The investigative file, which consisted solely of a few summary paragraphs about the incident, revealed that the investigating officer administratively closed the case without even reading a related incident report because ‘it was locked in the report box at the time of my investigation.’”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) called the report “devastating.”

“We owe the citizens of Baltimore who were denied justice and equal treatment under the law‎ the opportunity to make BPD a model police force for the nation,” Cardin said. “We must ensure that BPD officers have the best possible training, equipment, and resources to carry out their sworn duties in a lawful manner that builds trust with communities they serve, and that officers are quickly held accountable for misconduct.”