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Baltimore reacts to searing Justice Department report: 'The stories were always true'

Three Baltimore residents recount their experiences interacting with city police. (Algerina Perna and Wyatt Massey / Baltimore Sun)

A Justice Department investigation that laid bare a history of unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices in Baltimore drew sharp responses across the city Wednesday, including disgust for the tactics and reproach for the leadership that allowed them to take root.

In a 163-page report released Wednesday, Justice Department investigators concluded that the Baltimore Police Department had a pattern or practice of violating the rights of residents, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, in virtually all aspects of daily police work — including targeting, stopping and searching black pedestrians and motorists in disproportionate numbers, dismissing the accounts of sexual assault survivors and infringing on protesters' rights to free speech.

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Investigators described officer misconduct such as strip-searching individuals on the street for no reason, tossing around racial slurs casually and using excessive force against juveniles, people with mental disabilities and individuals who posed no threat.

Few in Baltimore expressed outright surprise, but several called the sheer scope and details of the report "devastating."

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Baltimoreans who had been critical of the Police Department said they now had more evidence. Others, including some in positions of power, expressed sadness or embarrassment — or both — that this was their city, broken in all the ways their constituents had attested to for years.

"The stories were always true, always true," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of Baltimore's NAACP chapter.

"What this report says is, police are not obeying the law," said Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a former state senator from a family of civil rights pioneers, who hosts a radio talk show on WBAL. "They're supposed to be the arbiters of it."

Keith Eagle, 22, stood on a corner in West Baltimore — a prime location to experience mistreatment by police, according to Justice Department investigators.

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"I feel mistreated, like I did something wrong, every day," he said. "It makes me feel like they look at everybody as a criminal."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, stood at City Hall on Wednesday to announce the report's findings.

They said they had signed an "agreement in principle" outlining a consensus that deep reforms are needed and a shared desire to reach a court-enforced consent decree to implement change.

The promise of such oversight, and an end to the practices outlined in the report, drew hope from some and derision from others.

Some said the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered spinal injuries in police custody in April 2015, and the protests and riots that followed, had truly driven change.

"I am thankful the unrest has created an atmosphere that is forcing people to address these issues," said the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, an administrator in the city school district. "We can change the systems and the structures in a way to change the culture."

Others questioned whether the changes the Justice Department wants would — or should — materialize.

Anthony Barksdale is a former acting police commissioner and high-ranking commander who helped lead some of the police units criticized in the Justice report, including the now-defunct Violent Crime Impact Division. He said the Police Department has had commissioners focused on community-oriented policing since 2012, and the only difference between his time in the department and now is "more dead citizens."

"Community policing works once you get control of the crime," Barksdale said. "We have no control in Baltimore."

Barksdale, who is black, also questioned some of the report's findings on racially disproportionate policing.

"You go where the violence is. If there was a drug shop in Roland Park that had 15 homicides and 40 shootings, those m—f—rs would be seeing VCID, and we'd be locking preppy white people up left and right," he said. "We'd be identifying the most violent professors in the community. You go where the crime is."

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers, said he would "not allow the Department of Justice to lay blame on the shoulders of the dedicated men and women" of the force. He called the findings "a clear indictment of the failed leadership at all levels of city government."

Ryan said police officers are still "being ordered to conduct enforcement that runs counter to the suggested reforms" in the Justice Department report, based on standing orders from above to "produce meaningless and ineffective statistics."

The ACLU of Maryland decried "the total lack of supervision and accountability that has allowed abuses to flourish unchecked within the BPD," and said the Justice Department findings are "a long-overdue memorialization of the experience of generations of black communities in the city."

"But, without the commitment of law enforcement, the City Council, and the mayor's office to a fundamental overhaul of the department and current accountability structures," the organization said in a statement, "the findings will not translate to meaningful change in the everyday lives of Baltimore's residents."

Rawlings-Blake and Davis said they have championed reform. The mayor, under whose administration the vast majority of the incidents cited by the Justice Department occurred, said she has been fighting in Annapolis for police reform for years, including to change the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights to increase accountability.

But it has been "a very lonely fight," she said, without the support of lawmakers.

Davis said the reforms he has been driving since he took over as commissioner last summer will continue.

"I don't think this stops the train," he said. "I don't think this puts more weight on the train. I think this pushes the train."

Davis has blamed the department's problems on a "few bad apples." However, the Justice Department investigation found the problems to be widespread.

Davis defended his characterization. He said many well-intentioned officers just need better training, including on what constitutes probable cause and reasonable suspicion to justify stops.

Davis said one focus must be on increasing training for officers who came up under previous administrations that stressed problematic strategies such as "zero-tolerance" policing. That strategy, heavily criticized by the Justice Department, was espoused by Martin O'Malley when he was mayor.

O'Malley, a Democrat, defended his track record Wednesday. He said it was a "shame" the Justice Department review did not look at data from his time in the city, when he said violent crime fell.

"Make no mistake about it — enforcement levels rose when we started closing down the open-air drug markets that had been plaguing our poorest neighborhoods for years," he said. "But after peaking in 2003, arrest levels declined as violent crime was driven down."

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Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that he had not read the report. He said he believes Davis is "doing an incredible job."

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Elected officials at all levels spoke of sadness and a need for change.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said the report was "deeply troubling and reform must be mandatory."

Sen. Ben Cardin said the report "provides a devastating account of how the Baltimore Police Department systematically violated the civil rights of the citizens they were sworn to protect."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings called the statistics "simply astounding" and the violations of citizens' rights "unacceptable."

He said the report "validates what so many residents in Baltimore City already know to be true — that the trust between our law enforcement officers and the communities they serve has been repeatedly violated and is in desperate need of repair."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who attended Wednesday's news conference, said she was not surprised by the findings.

"We knew a lot of it," she said. But "just the number of incidents that came to the attention of the Justice Department, the sheer number, was appalling."

Del. Jill Carter said the report is a first step. She said elected leaders need to help change the mentality and culture of the Police Department by making sure officers are disciplined for invalid arrests.

"You have to have repercussions," she said.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the findings "lay bare the harsh reality of discriminatory policing in a major American city," and confirmed what black Baltimore residents "have known and lived too long."

William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., the attorney who represents the Gray family, said the report reveals "human cancers" pervasive throughout the department that must be removed before they spread.

"Unless we rid the department of these cancerous tumors, the rotten police officers, we demoralize on a continual basis all the good guys who are forced to witness this under the blue wall of silence," he said.

Murphy, who appeared beside Gray's father Wednesday afternoon, decried police commanders who ordered or made false arrests.

"They have to go," he said. "This is criminal conduct."

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Erin Cox, Justin Fenton, John Fritze, Alison Knezevich, Jean Marbella, Wyatt Massey and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

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