Violations of civil rights by the Baltimore City Police Department are at best a callous disregard for the rights of citizens; at worst, they are criminal. They are also horrendously expensive for the city's taxpayers. More than $20 million has been paid out in the past decade, according to reports in The Sun and Daily Record, to resolve claims that officers used excessive force or engaged in otherwise improper conduct, such as denial of due process, unreasonable searches and seizures and other violations of civil rights.
Police have broken down the doors to the wrong homes, shot occupants or their dogs, shot unarmed people, shot people in the back, beaten people, used unnecessary force to subdue suspects and made false arrests. People in this city are rightfully fearful and distrustful of the police; abuse is part of the culture.
Because of the press, politicians are claiming to take notice. But this is lip service. Our politicians have known of these abuses for years and have done little or nothing to curb them. In fact, the city's lawyers try to hide the number and amount of these payments by demanding confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements.
The BCPD must change its direction and its gung-ho attitude, though this appears unlikely as police agencies throughout the country continue to militarize post 9/11. Since then, police departments have received millions of dollars' worth of military gear, supposedly in the name of security. City police departments bristle with armaments including automatic weapons, high-capacity magazines, sniper rifles, night vision scopes, infra-red sights and tank-like combat vehicles known as MRAPs. Some police dress like soldiers. They sport combat boots and bloused trousers and ballistic vests and carry multiple weapons, some slung low on the thigh like western gun fighters. There is something wrong with this picture. These weapons are not used to repel an invading army; they are acquired for use against citizens of the United States.
In the post-Revolution United States there is supposed to be a division between federal military forces and the civilian police. We abhor the thought of occupying armies in our cities as did the Founding Fathers. Municipal police now appear like the military and have adopted military training, tactics and weapons.
Police officers have a different mission than the military; they swear an oath to protect citizens and defend the United States Constitution. They are expected to apprehend suspected criminals and to do so within a constitutional frame work. The police must employ only the force necessary to accomplish their purpose, and respect a citizens' constitutional rights.
But we are brainwashed to accept the notion that a curtailment of our constitutional rights is acceptable in exchange for beefed up security. Our leaders don't question a buildup in the police force or its destructive capabilities. They feel security justifies a larger police presence, harsher police tactics to get the job done, more advanced weaponry. Their failure to curb the abuse shows they agree with suspension of civil rights.
Until the police are curbed by the mayor and City Council, citizens will continue to pay out millions of dollars due for police abuse. But there are other consequences aside from money. For example, dangerous criminals are put back on the streets because abuse by the police reaches into the courtroom where city jurors refuse to believe police witnesses because there is dislike and distrust.
The Fourth Estate, trial lawyers, courts and juries are the protectors of constitutional rights. This is ironic considering a principal role of the police is to uphold and enforce the law. But police have become a coercive arm of society and cannot be expected to police themselves. It will be hard to back the Baltimore City Police Department down from its level of militarization and its culture of citizen abuse. Power is a very strong aphrodisiac. But control is in the hands of the mayor and City Council if they have the desire and guts to exercise it.
Cops who abuse citizens must be fired and prosecuted. Supervisors who can't stop the abuse must be fired. If they cover up abuses, they must be prosecuted. The commissioner must be fired if he can't stop the abuse. Ultimately, the problem is the mayor's and the City Council's. They need to take a hard look at the problem, and its cause, and they need to fix it. Now. If they can't, they need to be voted out. No excuses. Our liberty is too important, and a broken police force too dangerous.
James B. Astrachan is a lawyer, and a resident of Baltimore City. His email is email@example.com.
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