New data from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland — as if we needed anymore proof — shows once again why state lawmakers can no longer wait to pass substantive police reform. The report, which looked at police misconduct cases in Baltimore from 2015 to 2019, found that too many cops use the power of their badges and positions to abuse and mistreat, particularly when it comes to Black residents, which accounted for an astonishing 91% of those who were targeted with use of force. Black residents are only 31% of Marylanders, but make up 63% of those killed by police.
The report, “Chasing Justice,” also revealed the not so well-kept secret that some officers are allowed to keep their jobs despite repeated infractions. Officers remained on the force after sustained complaints of domestic violence, criminal sexual offenses, DUI, DWI, hit-and-run, and theft. If only the rest of us could be so lucky.
Chasing Justice raises the question of what exactly is needed before lawmakers, both in Maryland and federally, will find the fortitude to change the laws that give cops little incentive to do what’s right. How many more videos of beatings, internal investigations, consent decrees, financial settlements, social justice protests and cops caught lying will it take? How many innocent citizens’ lives need to be ruined and lost before we finally start reigning in bad cops?
The ACLU findings are damning — 13,392 complaints of misconduct filed against 1,826 Baltimore City police officers and 22,884 use of force incidents in the city in a five-year period. Still, the “few bad apples theory” that cops like to throw out rang somewhat true: 6% percent of Baltimore police officers received around 33% of all complaints.
Across the state, police officers in Maryland were charged with 271 crimes in 18 counties and Baltimore City from 2005 to 2011, but the report found officers were rarely convicted.
Some justice is to be had — if you have the correct skin color. A white resident’s complaint against a Baltimore police officer was 61% more likely to be upheld than someone who was Black. White officers also seemed more likely to get the benefit of the doubt if they were accused of misconduct. A complaint against a Black officer was almost 44% more likely to be sustained than one against a white officer.
None of this is really all that surprising. Black residents have complained for years of mistreatment, and a 2017 consent decree outlines ways to improve relations in the community. A federal judge overseeing that decree, U.S. District Judge James Bredar, said last week that the “warrior model” of policing is over and it is high time the department cleans itself up. Former City Solicitor Andre Davis and Bernard “Jack” C. Young once worried about the staggering costs to the city of settling complaints against the infamous Gun Trace Task Force, whose members are now serving time on a string of police misconduct charges.
Other cops are costing the city as well. Baltimore has announced even more settlements in recent months to rectify bad behavior by officers. This month, the city’s Board of Estimates approved a $100,000 settlement to Yusef Smith, who served time in jail as a result of false testimony from former city police officer Michael O’Sullivan, who was convicted of perjury for lying in the case. Underscoring the challenges of holding bad cops responsible, board members complained that they couldn’t revoke the former officer’s pension nor recoup any of the settlement costs from him. Mr. Smith got $100,000, much of which will get eaten up in taxes, and he’ll never get back the time he lost to prison. Mr. O’Sullivan, meanwhile, gets a pension for the rest of his life.
We thank the ACLU for its well-researched report. But quite frankly lawmakers shouldn’t need any more data sets. Everyone knows the problem exists. Do something about it. At least one poll shows the majority of Marylanders want to see change. A group of 85 organizations that includes the ACLU Maryland said in October that the time is here and that particular attention needs to be paid to repealing the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR), reform Maryland’s Public Information Act, and restrict when use of force is permissible. We can get behind all of that, and Maryland’s lawmakers should be able to as well. Baltimore Police Chief Michael Harrison said he wants to clean up the department, but he and other chiefs need help in the form of reform. No more speeches decrying police misconduct. Words are empty if reform doesn’t follow.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.