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DOJ report criticizes BPD over racially based policing, unconstitutional shakedowns, lack of accountability

DOJ report criticizes BPD over racially based policing, unconstitutional shakedowns, lack of accountability
via The New York Times

A 14-month investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division found a pattern of racially biased policing, unconstitutional shakedowns, and a lack of accountability on nearly every level.

The DOJ report, to be released today but leaked last night to the New York Times, is among the harshest of its kind released in recent years, surpassing even the scathing report on Ferguson, Missouri, the department released a year ago.

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The investigation came in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last April. Until then, the DOJ was conducting a "collaborative review" of the department's policies and procedures. Gray's death and the unrest that followed upped the ante to a full investigation, which is expected to result in a federally-enforceable consent decree to bring reform.

The DOJ's 164-page report alleges the Baltimore Police routinely used excessive force, retaliated against people who spoke out, filed reports or video-taped them, and used "enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans."

The so-called "zero-tolerance" police practices that dominated the department in the mid 2000s have continued, the report says, despite claims to the contrary by a succession of police commissioners.

The DOJ praised the department for its cooperation, saying officers, the police union, and command staff at every level worked with the investigators. The DOJ also interviewed many outsiders and community leaders, including victims of excessive force.

The report found police officers who struggled to do their jobs with inadequate equipment and training, along with demands to work overtime. African-Americans were stopped and searched in disproportionate numbers, although police more often found contraband when searching white people, the report says.

Police did not document most street searches though, so the DOJ guesses it's under-stating the problem. Former Commissioner Anthony Batts told the City Council in January of 2015 that his department had boxes of these records that could not be analyzed. It apparently never happened.

The department's investigations of alleged excessive force were similarly weak, the DOJ found: "Of the 2,818 force incidents that BPD recorded in the nearly six-year period that we reviewed, BPD investigated only 10 incidents based on concerns identified through its internal review. Of these 10 cases, BPD found only one use of force to be excessive."

Near the end of the report there is one case that seems to exemplify the problem. During a 2012 "prostitution initiative" to try to find informants and police misconduct, a prostitute told police that she met another officer (none are named) every other week and had sex with him in a squad car in exchange for immunity from arrest, and some cash. The department "administratively closed" this case nine months later without ever interviewing the accused cop.

Ten months after that, the department received an anonymous tip with the same allegation about the same officer. The case was assigned to internal affairs, but the detective investigating the case subpoenaed the officer's cell phone records but did not look at them for six months. "The records confirmed that the officer and the woman exchanged 237 text messages and five phone calls in the six-month period for which records were subpoenaed," the DOJ report says. "Approximately four months later, the State's Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the officer, though BPD's administrative investigation remained open."

But wait. There's more: Four months later the department received another tip, this time from a neighboring police department, about the same cop doing the same thing. This other department had subpoenaed the phone records and interviewed the woman. BPD opened a third investigation into the accused officer, with a third detective following the lead.

"The case was assigned a 'low' priority," the DOJ report notes. The BPD detective postponed interviewing the woman, and she died. The detective finally looked at the phone records, "which indicated that the officer had exchanged text messages—some sexually explicit—with several other women whose numbers were linked to online profiles for sex trade services. Finally, months later, Department investigators interviewed the officer two times in connection with the two open investigations," the report says.

Eventually, based mainly on evidence supplied from the neighboring police department, internal affairs sustained the misconduct complaint against this cop. He was allowed to resign.

"It is unclear from BPD's files whether any state authorities were notified of the officer's sexual misconduct," the DoJ report says. "We found other complaints of this nature were also not properly investigated."

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