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The Justice Department’s incredibly damning report on Baltimore police, explained

A mural for Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Mark Makela/Getty Images

The Baltimore Police Department is a complete and utter disaster.

That’s the only possible takeaway from reading the US Department of Justice’s 163-page report into Baltimore police, leaked on Tuesday. The report found major flaws in even the most basic modern policing practices, from arrests to use of force to basic interactions with the community. To make it worse, these findings are compounded by what appears to be purposeful, disproportionate targeting of the city’s black residents.

"Racially disparate impact is present at every stage of BPD’s enforcement actions, from the initial decision to stop individuals on Baltimore streets to searches, arrests, and uses of force," the report concluded. "These racial disparities, along with evidence suggesting intentional discrimination, erode the community trust that is critical to effective policing."

The Justice Department’s conclusions come after an investigation that lasted more than a year, launched swiftly after protests and riots over the death of Freddie Gray while in Baltimore police custody and, more broadly, over racial disparities in policing and the criminal justice system. Federal investigators pored through data and police reports, as well as attended in-person events, including ride-alongs, to conduct their investigation.

The report essentially validates many of the protesters’ claims. Baltimore police stop people for essentially no reason, particularly black residents. They are far too quick to use force. Charges are often dropped due to a lack of merit for any prosecution. Cops regularly violate people’s rights, including those protected by the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment. And virtually everyone is aware of these types of problems — officials within and outside the police department, members of the community, and even police union representatives acknowledge the desperate need for reform.

The Justice Department is also clear in where the blame lies: This is not the story of a few bad apples in the police department; these are systemic issues propagated by leadership, poor guidance, shoddy training, and essentially no accountability to speak of — and these issues go back to at least the 1990s, when city leaders in Baltimore stated "zero tolerance" anti-crime policies. To remedy these issues, federal officials plan to set up a "consent decree" in which they would oversee reforms at the Baltimore Police Department with the cooperation of local officials.

(Baltimore isn’t the only city under investigation by the Justice Department. So are more than two dozen others.)

Here are nine findings from the report that speak to the absolute disaster that is the Baltimore Police Department.

1) Baltimore police target black Americans, even when they’re totally innocent of any crimes

A Baltimore police car. Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images

The Justice Department was unequivocal that Baltimore police, referred to as BPD in the report, disproportionately targeted black residents, even when they were totally innocent of any crimes (emphasis mine):

BPD disproportionately stops African-American pedestrians. Citywide, BPD stopped African-American residents three times as often as white residents after controlling for the population of the area in which the stops occurred. In each of BPD’s nine police districts, African Americans accounted for a greater share of BPD’s stops than the population living in the district. And BPD is far more likely to subject individual African Americans to multiple stops in short periods of time. In the five and a half years of data we examined, African Americans accounted for 95 percent of the 410 individuals BPD stopped at least 10 times. One African American man in his mid-fifties was stopped 30 times in less than 4 years. Despite these repeated intrusions, none of the 30 stops resulted in a citation or criminal charge.

According to the report, this man was typically stopped for small crimes like "loitering" or "trespassing," and in at least 15 stops, officers detained him to check for outstanding warrants — even though their reasons for stopping him in the first place were entirely baseless.

One telling example: During a ride-along with Justice Department officials, a sergeant told a patrol officer to stop a group of young black men. The officer protested, saying he had no valid reason for the stop. The supervisor responded, "Then make something up" — again, in the middle of a ride-along with federal investigators.

The disparities applied to actual searches. According to the report, police were much more likely to search black Americans, even though they were much less likely to find any contraband on black suspects compared to their white counterparts:

BPD disproportionately searches African Americans during stops. BPD searched African Americans more frequently during pedestrian and vehicle stops, even though searches of African Americans were less likely to discover contraband. Indeed, BPD officers found contraband twice as often when searching white individuals compared to African Americans during vehicle stops and 50 percent more often during pedestrian stops.

One explanation for all of this? Higher-ups encouraged cops to stop and arrest as many people as possible, and officers often took on this task by targeting black residents:

As one example of this approach, supervisors frequently encourage officers to "clear corners"—an instruction many officers understand to stop, disperse, or arrest groups of individuals standing on public sidewalks. The continued emphasis on these types of "stats" drives BPD’s tendency to stop, search, and arrest significant numbers of individuals on Baltimore streets—often without requisite legal justification and in situations that put officers in adversarial encounters that have little connection to public safety.

This is a consistent problem I found in my investigation into low-level police stops. It’s not uncommon across the country for police to disproportionately stop black people for low-level crimes and misdemeanors. These stops — and the fines or jail time they can entail — can become so numerous in a poor person’s life that they end up burdening him with tremendous amounts of debt. Even worse, each of these stops carries the chance that the situation will escalate out of control — with a cop using possibly deadly force on someone who was accused of a crime that typically wouldn’t involve even prison time.

2) Baltimore officers escalate typical policing situations into violence for no good reason

The problems ran all the way up to use of force, which the Justice Department found was regularly deployed by Baltimore police despite absolutely no need to:

BPD uses overly aggressive tactics that unnecessarily escalate encounters, increase tensions, and lead to unnecessary force, and fails to de-escalate encounters when it would be reasonable to do so. Officers frequently resort to physical force when a subject does not immediately respond to verbal commands, even where the subject poses no imminent threat to the officer or others. These tactics result from BPD’s training and guidance.

The Justice Department pointed to cases in which police used force on people who were already restrained, so there was no reason to believe the person posed a threat to officers or others. And police frequently engaged in foot chases that ended violently, even against people who were suspected of no serious offenses.

One particularly telling example, from the report:

For example, on a cold January evening in 2013, an officer approached and questioned an African-American man crossing the street in a "high crime area" while wearing a hooded sweatshirt. The officer lacked any specific reason to believe the man was engaged in criminal activity, but, according to the incident report prepared by the supervisory officer on the scene, the officer "thought it could be possible that the individual could be out seeking a victim of opportunity." This unsupported speculation furnishes no basis to conduct a stop. Nonetheless, multiple officers questioned the man and seized a kitchen knife that the man acknowledged carrying.

When the man asked the officers to return his knife, the officers ordered the man to sit down and then forced him to the ground when the man "persisted to ask for his knife." The man yelled "you can’t arrest me" and resisted his detention. Although there was no basis to detain the man, two officers attempted to handcuff and shackle him, while one officer struck him "in the face, ribs, and back" with fists. The man continued to resist being shackled as additional officers arrived, one of whom tased the man twice to prevent him from "escap[ing] the scene." After officers handcuffed the man, they transported him to Union Memorial Hospital for medical care. The man was not charged with any offense. The sergeant who responded to the scene confirmed that the involved officers tased the man twice and hit him in the face with their fists, yet the sergeant’s report of the incident concluded that the "officers showed great restraint and professionalism."

The officers stopped a man for no reason. They took his property. They tried to detain him while beating him. And the man was never charged of a crime, although he had to go to a hospital for medical care.

But even though police failed at essentially every level, they were praised a higher-ranked official for their "great restraint and professionalism."

3) Before Freddie Gray, police were warned about the dangerous transportation practices that killed him

People protest at the trial of a Baltimore police officer. Mark Makela/Getty Images

Freddie Gray died in 2015 after Baltimore police arrested him, put him in a van while he was cuffed but without a seat belt, ignored his repeated calls for medical help, and let him thrash around the back of the vehicle until he broke his spine — an injury that would later kill him.

Gray’s death seemed emblematic of a "rough ride" — when police officers purposely give someone a dangerous ride to cause injuries. These rough rides were the topic of news reports long before Gray’s death.

The Justice Department said it couldn’t find enough evidence, due to the police department’s poor data and lack of video, that these rough rides were systemically used. But it did note that there was "evidence that BPD officers routinely fail to safely secure arrestees in transport vans with seat belts. In multiple instances in the past, this failure has resulted in serious injuries and, in some circumstances, death." It cited one example:

In 2013, Christine Abbott sued BPD officers, alleging that she and her boyfriend were subjected to a "rough ride" in addition to other constitutional violations. The suit stated that officers threw her into the back of the police van, failed to secure her, and drove erratically. Ms. Abbott claimed she was violently thrown around the interior of the van during the ride and sustained injuries. In a deposition, the transporting officer acknowledged that Ms. Abbott was not secured during the ride. The City settled the case with Ms. Abbott for $95,000.

There’s not enough evidence to know for sure, but the available findings suggest Gray’s death could have been prevented with earlier reforms.

4) Good community policing was very rare — typically left to a few cops who defied systemic problems

It would be one thing if these were just a few bad officers acting out in defiance of the police department. But the Justice Department report suggests the opposite is true: It pinned the many problems with Baltimore policing to poor guidance, training, and accountability.

In one particularly telling anecdote, the Justice Department pointed out one good cop who engaged in the much-heralded community policing despite pressures from higher-ups:

Community policing efforts are ad hoc and officer- or major-specific. Those officers we saw interacting with the community in a positive manner did so due to their own interest, noting that such actions were not mandated by command staff. At the command level, one district commander described prioritizing sector officers and sergeants having as many "designed intentional moments" as possible with the community and tracking officers' foot patrol time to encourage such interactions. The same district has been involved in numerous outreach efforts, including listening campaigns, "Cocoa with a Cop," a shoe giveaway, and community walks. However, this district commander's efforts again appear to be an exception to BPD's overall policing strategy. The commander confirmed this, telling us, "I know it needs to happen — so I don't wait for someone to tell me to do it."

5) There are "two Baltimores" — one white, one black — when it comes to policing

Baltimore, one year after the death of Freddie Gray. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White, wealthy Baltimore residents may be shocked to read some of these findings. As the Justice Department points out, that’s because they don’t suffer from the same bad police treatment that the city’s black population does — another sign of how minority residents are disproportionately targeted:

We found these principles in stark relief in Baltimore, where law enforcement officers confront a long history of social and economic challenges that impact much of the City, including the perception that there are "two Baltimores:" one wealthy and largely white, the second impoverished and predominantly black. Community members living in the City’s wealthier and largely white neighborhoods told us that officers tend to be respectful and responsive to their needs, while many individuals living in the City’s largely African-American communities informed us that officers tend to be disrespectful and do not respond promptly to their calls for service. Members of these largely African-American communities often felt they were subjected to unjustified stops, searches, and arrests, as well as excessive force.

6) Baltimore police regularly violate people’s First Amendment rights

Most of the constitutional violations listed above have to do with Fourth Amendment protections "against unreasonable searches and seizures." But the Fourth isn’t the only amendment that Baltimore police repeatedly violated, according to the report:

BPD violates the First Amendment by retaliating against individuals engaged in constitutionally protected activities. Officers frequently detain and arrest members of the public for engaging in speech the officers perceive to be critical or disrespectful. And BPD officers use force against members of the public who are engaging in protected speech. BPD has failed to provide officers with sufficient guidance and oversight regarding their interactions with individuals that implicate First Amendment protections, leading to the violations we observed.

7) Baltimore police may not seriously investigate sexual assault cases

A Baltimore police officer. Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

To top it all off, the Justice Department warns that the Baltimore Police Department may be engaging in gender bias — although it acknowledges that there’s not enough evidence to make a firm determination:

Although we do not, at this time, find reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in gender-biased policing in violation of federal law, the allegations we received during the investigation, along with our review of BPD files, suggests that gender bias may be affecting BPD’s handling of sexual assault cases. We found indications that officers fail to meaningfully investigate reports of sexual assault, particularly for assaults involving women with additional vulnerabilities, such as those who are involved in the sex trade. Detectives fail to develop and resolve preliminary investigations; fail to identify and collect evidence to corroborate victims’ accounts; inadequately document their investigative steps; fail to collect and assess data, and report and classify reports of sexual assault; and lack supervisory review. We also have concerns that officers’ interactions with women victims of sexual assault and with transgender individuals display unlawful gender bias.

8) There’s little to no supervision and accountability at the Baltimore Police Department

The Justice Department makes it very clear that these are not problems with just a few of the police officers in Baltimore. Instead, the Justice Department lays much of the blame on systemic issues — particularly a total lack of accountability for officers who engage in misconduct:

BPD lacks meaningful accountability systems to deter misconduct. The Department does not consistently classify, investigate, adjudicate, and document complaints of misconduct according to its own policies and accepted law enforcement standards. Instead, we found that BPD personnel discourage complaints from being filed, misclassify complaints to minimize their apparent severity, and conduct little or no investigation. As a result, a resistance to accountability persists throughout much of BPD, and many officers are reluctant to report misconduct for fear that doing so is fruitless and may provoke retaliation. The Department also lacks adequate civilian oversight — its Civilian Review Board is hampered by inadequate resources, and the agency’s internal affairs and disciplinary process lacks transparency.

Here is one particularly striking example:

In 2013 a white male BPD officer made a racially-charged threat to an African-American teenager while booking the youth into Baltimore’s juvenile facility on a failure to appear charge. The incident stemmed from an argument about George Zimmerman, who had been acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin four days earlier. In response to the teenager referring to the officers present as "Zimmermans," a white officer threatened the juvenile by referring to the outfit Martin wore at the time he was killed: "Put a hoodie on and come to my neighborhood, you will see." The officer also threatened the youth by stating, "If you come to my neighborhood I’ll throw you in the water and feed you to the crabs. I will then let the crabs get fat off you and then sell them to your family." When BPD investigated the incident, the officer admitted to "talking about the crabs and throwing him in the river," but claimed to internal affairs investigators that he "could not recall" whether he made the remark about the hoodie. BPD sustained a complaint against the officer for "misconduct" and making an "inappropriate comment," but the investigative file contains no record of discipline. The officer remains employed at BPD.

Beyond accountability, the guidance and training that low-level officers receive from their bosses is lacking or even explicitly racially biased:

BPD failed to use adequate policy, training and accountability mechanisms to prevent discrimination, despite longstanding notice of concerns about how it polices African-American communities in the City. BPD has conducted virtually no analysis of its own data to ensure that its enforcement activities are non-discriminatory, and the Department misclassifies or otherwise fails to investigate specific complaints of racial bias. Nor has the Department held officers accountable for using racial slurs or making other statements exhibiting racial bias. In some cases, BPD supervisors have ordered officers to specifically target African Americans for stops and arrests.

Reading these findings, it’s really no wonder that the Baltimore Police Department is so screwed up. Policing is inherently a tough job; it requires careful training, strong character, and determination to do the right thing in the face of incredibly stressful moments. If higher-ranking officials don’t offer any of that to the cops who are on the streets everyday, there’s going to be a lot of problems.

9) Virtually all parties — even Baltimore police officers — agree reform is needed

The Justice Department isn’t alone in noting all of these problems. Apparently, just about everyone in Baltimore is aware of the need for reform, the report found:

Almost everyone who spoke to us — from current and former city leaders, BPD officers and command staff during ride-alongs and interviews, community members throughout the many neighborhoods of Baltimore, union representatives of all levels of officers in BPD, advocacy groups, and civic and religious leaders — agrees that BPD has significant problems that have undermined its efforts to police constitutionally and effectively. As we note in this report, many of these people and groups have documented those problems in the past, and although they may disagree about the nature, scope, and solutions to the challenges, many have also made efforts to address them.

To try to ensure reform happens, the Justice Department will move to negotiate an agreement with the city — known as a "consent decree" — so federal officials can guide and oversee future changes. These types of agreements have a mixed history, but they are the main tool that the federal government has to try to push for change within a local police force.

The bottom line: The Baltimore Police Department is deeply flawed at practically every level

Freddie Gray mural in Baltimore. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Reading through the report, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion: The Baltimore Police Department is deeply flawed. The Justice Department investigation was exhausting, with its conclusions backed by data — some from local officials, some put together by investigators — and the persistent personal experiences of locals.

Many of the complaints in the report aren’t even new. They are the kind of criticisms that black residents in Baltimore have been raising — almost wholly to deaf ears. And these critiques have been backed by media reports — such as a 2014 report by Mark Puente for the Baltimore Sun that found that the city government had paid out $5.7 million since 2011 to more than 100 people (most of whom were black) who claimed that cops had beaten them.

This is similar to Ferguson, Missouri, where residents regularly complained about local policing practices — only to be heard once they rose up in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The Justice Department investigation into Ferguson similarly validated black residents’ complaints about police.

Despite the many complaints, there has been little change to the Baltimore Police Department or the criminal justice system more broadly. Most recently, the charges against the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death were all dropped — a fact that’s hard to reconcile with the brutal findings from the investigation that Gray’s death helped prompt.

The report also has troubling implications for the rest of the country: What does it say about America that one of its major cities was run by this kind of police department — and these horrific policing practices only got attention after people literally rioted?

Watch: Why police are so rarely prosecuted

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