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Baltimore police's problems are more than a few bad apples

How bad is the DOJ report? Baltimore cops violated the constitution while the feds watched.

When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis stood before the cameras this morning to discuss the Department of Justice's exhaustive documentation of the Baltimore Police Department's blatantly unconstitutional and racially discriminatory practices, their message was, in a nutshell, "Don't worry, Baltimore, we're on it." They emphasized that the mayor had asked for the DOJ review, that the city and department had cooperated fully with the federal investigators, that they have already issued several new procedures and policies to "get ahead" of the findings, and that the problems centered on a relatively small number of "bad apples" in the department.

Baloney. Every single incident, every damning statistic, every embarrassing failure of accountability the DOJ documented occurred under Mayor Rawlings-Blake's administration, up to and including the 14 months when the feds were conducting their investigation. The practices the DOJ describes, including potentially hundreds of thousands of unconstitutional stops and searches, excessive and unnecessary use of force, racially discriminatory orders, violations of First Amendment rights and sexist dismissals of complaints of sexual assault are not the work of a few "bad apples." They are the product of intentional policies and wanton failures of accountability, and they continue to this day.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake has said throughout her tenure that she would clean up the bad practices of the Martin O'Malley-zero-tolerance era of Baltimore policing. Her first pick for the city's top cop, Anthony Batts, proclaimed himself a "reform commissioner," and the current chief, Mr. Davis, touts his experience in helping lead Prince George's County's police through a similar DOJ review. Yet the disregard for constitutional policing — not to speak of effective, community-sensitive policing — remains blatant and brazen.

It's still going on

•In the summer of 2015, after the riots and while the DOJ was engaged in its review, a deployment memo posted in one Baltimore police district "encouraged officers to suppress crime through 'proactive enforcement,' including , 'stop and frisk,' 'street level drug enforcement,' 'warrant checks,' 'foot patrol,' 'car stops,' and 'quality of life' arrests" — effectively, an order to violate the constitution and federal law.

•In January of this year, an African-American teenager reported being stopped by two officers who were looking for his brother. They pushed him against a wall and searched him. When they found nothing, they proceeded to strip search him in full view of the street and in front of his girlfriend. Officers claimed that they found drugs on him but no evidence was ever produced, and the charges were dropped. The teen filed a complaint with the department, and he says one of the officers approached him again, "pulled down his pants and grabbed his genitals."

•In March — nearly a year after Freddie Gray was fatally injured in the back of a police van and amid trials of six officers involved in his arrest that centered on whether they committed misconduct by failing to seat-belt him, DOJ investigators surveyed nearly 300 arrestees at bail review hearings and found that more than 20 percent indicated they had been unrestrained for at least part of their rides to Central Booking.

•A Baltimore police sergeant recently told a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American men, question them and order them to disperse. The patrol officer said he had no valid reason to do so, and the sergeant replied, "Then make something up." That happened while a DOJ investigator was in the car.

The DOJ's report is hardly the first time anyone at the police department learned that what they were doing was unconstitutional. The ACLU sued over the department's mass arrest policies in 2006, leading to a settlement requiring the department to adopt new policies and subject itself to independent monitoring. Nonetheless, the unconstitutional practices continued even under Messrs. Batts and Davis, the DOJ report says, because of "a persistent perception among officers that their performance continues to be measured by the raw numbers of stops and arrests they make, particularly for gun and drug offenses." DOJ investigators watched as patrol officers "actively sought out corners to clear" — unconstitutional behavior that was "reinforced by BPD's mid-level supervisors."

Investigators witnessed an incident in which a patrol officer approached a group of people talking and eating outside a late-night restaurant after the bars had closed. No evidence of criminal activity was evident, but the officer decided to try to clear the area because he believed his supervisor would be mad if he didn't. He wound up in a fight with a man who refused to leave, pulled his gun and fired, hitting two people, at least one of whom was an uninvolved bystander. Supervisors reviewing the incident found no fault with the officer's actions.

And that's not at all unusual. The DOJ found not one single instance of a front-line supervisor questioning an arrest. Instead, they routinely signed off on officers' reports even when they "describe egregious constitutional violations."

Those practices are all happening in a department under intense scrutiny from the public, the media, advocates and a large team of federal investigators. The only conclusion we can draw is that large swaths of the department see nothing wrong with it.

The racial dimension of the misconduct is overwhelming

Chief Davis said during today's news conference that Baltimore police officers can and do engage in effective, constitutional law enforcement. The DOJ report suggests that's true — in white neighborhoods. Investigators found anecdotal evidence of that from the varying reports of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the police from one neighborhood to another, but there's "overwhelming statistical evidence" of racial disparities in police practices as well.

•Blacks are nearly three times more likely than whites to be stopped by police in Baltimore. Police recorded 300,000 pedestrian stops during the period the DOJ examined (likely only a fraction of the actual number, given the department's horrendous record keeping practices), and 44 percent of them occurred in two, heavily African-American police districts that comprise just 11 percent of the city's population. More than 400 people were stopped by police at least 10 times during the 2010-2015 period; 95 percent of them were African-American. One middle-aged African-American man was stopped 30 times in four years, resulting in not one citation or arrest.

•Discretionary arrests for offenses like loitering, failure to obey and disorderly conduct overwhelmingly fall on African-Americans, far in excess of their share of the population. Blacks are arrested for drug possession at five times the rate of whites, despite similar levels of drug use. As the report notes, the fact that racial disparities were most pronounced for discretionary offenses "is suggestive of intentional discrimination."

•Blacks are 37 percent more likely than others to be searched in pedestrian stops and 27 percent more likely to be searched in vehicle stops. Yet searches of white people are more than twice as likely to turn up contraband in vehicle stops and 50 percent more likely in pedestrian stops. That means Baltimore officers are capable of exercising the level of discernment the law and good policing requires; they are simply far more likely to do so when dealing with white residents.

Why should that be in a department where minorities make up a majority of the force, that was headed by a black commissioner during two of the five years examined and that answered to a black mayor the entire time? It's not just a function of overzealous enforcement of the war on drugs in poor, black neighborhoods. It's rooted in a prejudice that is reinforced by the department itself. The DOJ found a template created by a shift commander for justifying trespassing arrests near public housing complexes. It includes blanks for the officer to fill in various details like name, date and location — but the detail that the arrestee is a black male is already written in, as if there is no other conceivable option. "In some cases, supervisors have issued explicitly discriminatory orders, such as directing a shift to arrest 'all the black hoodies' in a neighborhood," the DOJ report says.

The department has failed to learn its lessons

Federal and city officials are now expected to negotiate a consent decree, to be overseen by a federal judge, to improve training, technology and recruitment, among other things. Ms. Rawlings-Blake promised full cooperation, and Mr. Davis pledged that the Baltimore police department would emerge from the process as a national model. But as the report underscores, the department has shown a remarkable ability to avoid learning its lessons.

•The settlement from the ACLU lawsuit required the department to instigate a series of reforms to move away from zero-tolerance policing, but after four years, the independent monitor found it had failed to fully comply with more than half of the conditions of the agreement. The DOJ found that some of the guidance the department issued pursuant to the suit on how to make constitutional arrests was itself wrong.

•Although the department itself has historically shown little interest in tracking data about complaints or even lawsuits against individual officers, others have. The state's attorney's office has at various times maintained lists of officers who were so untrustworthy that prosecutors would not call them to the witness stand. "Although the State's Attorney's Office regularly shared this list with BPD, the department rarely used the information to identify officers who may need support or discipline," the DOJ report says. "As a result, problematic officers remain on the street, detaining, searching and arresting people even though the state's attorney's office has determined that it cannot prosecute a crime based on the officers' testimony."

•Despite losing or settling a number of lawsuits relating to alleged "rough rides" that led to severe injury, paralysis or even death to detainees, the DOJ found that Baltimore police made only half-hearted efforts to determine whether officers were following policies on the use of seat belts in transport vans. Audits were cursory, and impressive results were flatly contradicted by officers' descriptions of actual practice. The department kept no statistics on such injuries, and what cameras existed in the vans before a recent retrofit did not work.

•In 2010, The Sun published an investigation into the misclassification of rape cases by the Baltimore police, but the DOJ found that the reforms the department promised either never materialized or faded. The department's handling of rape cases is "grossly inadequate," and investigators documented cases of extreme dismissiveness and even outright disdain of victims by officers.

We believe Commissioner Davis is sincere about his desire to make the Baltimore department a model of urban policing. His predecessor, Anthony Batts, was too, and Mayor Rawlings-Blake has been for the entire six years she's been in office. Yet the DOJ report shows that their efforts have not come close to changing pervasive patterns of unconstitutional, discriminatory and self-defeating practices. Correcting that is going to require a lot more than some new training programs and computers in officers' cars. It's going to take a complete overhaul of the department, and it can't come soon enough.

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