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Baltimore Police fail to police themselves, Justice Department finds

Baltimore Police fail to police themselves, Justice Department finds.

The Baltimore Police Department's ability to root out officer misconduct has been "plagued by systemic failures" for years and may have allowed officers to commit crimes without being investigated or punished, the U.S. Justice Department found in a sweeping civil rights investigation.

Police discouraged citizens and officers from filing complaints and failed to discipline officers, even in cases of "repeated or egregious" violations of department policy, according to the report released Wednesday. The Justice Department also found that officers charged with reviewing complaints lacked skills and that their investigations were unnecessarily delayed.

In one case, Justice Department officials said they found evidence in internal affairs files that officers were coercing sexual favors from people involved in the sex trade, in exchange for avoiding arrest, or for cash or narcotics, yet it appeared that police failed to adequately investigate the allegations.

One woman interviewed by Baltimore police in 2012 said that she met with an officer and engaged in sexual activities in the officer's patrol car once every other week "in exchange for U.S. Currency or immunity from arrest," the federal report said.

Baltimore police administratively closed the case nine months later and apparently didn't refer it for criminal prosecution, or interview the accused officer or potential witnesses, according to the report.

The Justice Department also found that police improperly classified complaints "to mask misconduct." Another sexual assault allegation against an officer was categorized instead as a "misconduct/improper search" and "discourtesy."

"It's hard to read this without feeling a sense of rage," said David Rocah, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who has lobbied for reforms. Citing the misconduct cases in the report, he said that calling the system "broken" would be an understatement.

Federal investigators also found that the department frequently closed cases prematurely or misclassified them as minor, farming them out to police districts where there was minimal investigation or none at all.

Police supervisors also "administratively closed" one-third of all allegations in complaints received between 2010 and 2015. That meant that the cases were shut down with little investigation and the officer avoided any discipline.

In addition, misconduct investigations were frequently delayed, which would "compromise the evidence-gathering process and undermine community confidence." Justice Department officials said that evidence may have been be lost or destroyed as cases dragged on.

The dysfunctional system signaled to the community that "BPD does not take complaints seriously," the report said.

A Baltimore Sun investigation, published this week, found that internal affairs investigations took nearly eight months, on average, and concluded in two-thirds of cases without proving or disproving the officer's alleged misconduct, meaning officers weren't disciplined.

The data from January 2013 through March 2016 also showed officers were rarely found to have used excessive force — 4 percent of such complaints were upheld.

In one excessive-force complaint from 2013, The Sun found, witnesses were not contacted until weeks after the incident and officers weren't interviewed until eight months later. Internal Affairs detectives discredited the only witness because of inconsistencies in her statements, but didn't challenge the officers' accounts.

The Justice Department report said that police investigating misconduct complaints had a "standard that favors officers." The detectives were trained to be wary of inconsistent statements by a complainant but to allow officers to clarify their original statements.

Federal officials found that police discounted physical evidence, including photographs or videos, that contradicted the accused officer's account.

Civilians were not the only ones discouraged from complaining. Police officers told federal officials that they faced retaliation for raising concerns about certain enforcement practices.

In 2015, a sergeant banned a patrol officer from working overtime when she objected to the practice of "clearing corners," which she believed could have required her to stop residents without reasonable suspicion, violating their constitutional rights.

Rocah called the report "unbelievably depressing." In 2010, the ACLU reached a settlement with Baltimore police that required the department to set up an early intervention system to flag problem officers to prevent misconduct. Justice officials found the system to be ineffective.

"On the other hand, I hope with the Justice Department's intervention, it will be harder to ignore and resist," he said.

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