clock menu more-arrow no yes

The 14 worst cases of outright racism the Justice Department saw in Baltimore police

A mural in Baltimore. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In an investigation that lasted more than a year, the US Department of Justice found systemic racial bias at the Baltimore Police Department — in which police stopped, arrested, and used force on black residents far more often than white ones.

But perhaps even more damningly, the Justice Department also found several signs of a culture of outright racism within the Baltimore police force. Time and time again, it seemed like police officers made racist comments or engaged in racist acts and their supervisors actively allowed or encouraged such behavior.

Here are some of the examples from the report. Keep in mind that some of the officers were fired upon the Justice Department report’s release.

1) The n-word

In 2014, a middle-aged African-American man alleged that a sergeant in Southeast Baltimore stopped him near Patterson Park and strip-searched him in public. When the man protested and said he would contact a lawyer, the sergeant allegedly told him, “Get your n****r ass out of here.” BPD found the complaint “not sustained” without interviewing any of the involved parties.

2) The n-word, again

An African-American man told us that, while out walking in April 2015, officers stopped him, accused him of looting, and called him a “low life n****r.”

3) The n-word, 60 more times

In the approximately six years of complaint data we received from BPD, we found only one complaint that BPD classified as a racial slur. This is implausible. By manually reviewing and performing text searches on BPD’s complaint data, we found 60 more complaints that alleged that BPD officers used just one racial slur — “n****r” — but all these complaints were misclassified as a lesser offense.

4) Covering up use of the n-word

In a case from 2010, an officer admitted that he said “you know, you’re acting like a real n****r right now” during an encounter with a young African-American male he had stopped for “loitering.” The officer’s partner, who was African American, filed the complaint after witnessing the incident. The complaint was initially categorized as a “racial slur” complaint. Before issuing an investigative finding sustaining the allegation, however, the lead BPD investigator changed the categorization in BPD’s internal affairs database from “racial slur” to “inappropriate comments, profanity, or gestures to a departmental member.” This change in classification, shortly before the allegation was sustained, indicates an intent to disguise and excuse the racial motivation for the enforcement action. The incident resulted in minimal discipline against the offending officer.

5) Even the one investigation into a racial slur resulted in no discipline

BPD supervisors repeatedly fail to seek evidence that could corroborate bias allegations and result in officer discipline. For example, a 2011 complaint described an incident in which two white officers told an African-American man who had double-parked his car and was blocking the street to “move this car, n****r!” The man was double parked in order to assist his aunt into her home in Northeast Baltimore and was not charged with any offense. The man’s complaint — the one complaint BPD correctly categorized as a “racial slur” in the more than six years of data we examined — was assigned to be investigated at the command level and administratively closed six months later. The file BPD provided has no record of the investigation or any attempt to identify the officers involved.

6) “What brings your black ass here?”

In another incident from 2010, an African-American man stated that he witnessed officers use excessive force during an arrest and punch a fourteen-year-old boy who attempted to film the arrest on his cell phone. The African-American man recounted that the officers used “the word ‘n****r’ frequently” and asked him if he “take[s] it up the ass by Allah.” When the man went to the district headquarters to report the misconduct, he was met by the same officers who told him, “what brings your black ass back here?” and “you can take your black ass down to Kirk Avenue before the bus leaves because you know how you black people like the bus.” Despite the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that the complaint identified two witnesses, BPD never investigated the incident’s alleged racial motivation. Instead, detectives categorized the allegations as “misconduct,” “excessive force,” and “unwarranted action,” and administratively closed the case without conducting a single interview.

7) Pushing around black grandmas

The City paid $95,000 in 2012 to settle a lawsuit brought by an 87-year-old African-American grandmother who alleged that she was shoved against a wall after she refused to allow an officer to enter her basement to conduct a warrantless search. After shoving the woman to the floor, the officer allegedly stood over her and said, “Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black bitches I have locked up.”

8) A beating and racial slurs — and no consequences

BPD conducted a similarly inadequate investigation in a 2010 case that also alleged race motivated misconduct. There, an African-American man alleged that while being held in a cell at the Southwest District, several officers called him a “monkey” and a “n****r” while beating him. The investigative file, which consisted solely of a few summary paragraphs about the incident, revealed that the investigating officer administratively closed the case without even reading a related incident report because “it was locked in the report box at the time of my investigation.”

9) An officer warned that a car “might do voodoo on you”

In a complaint from August 2011, an African-American man alleged that during a vehicle stop, an officer warned a second officer to “be careful” because the occupants of the car “might do voodoo on you” — an apparent reference to their heritage and accents. A second officer made monkey noises throughout the encounter. BPD closed the complaint without making an investigative finding.

10) An inherently racist arrest template

A shift commander for one of BPD’s districts emailed a template for describing trespassing arrests to a sergeant and a patrol officer. The template provides a blueprint for arresting an individual standing on or near a public housing development who cannot give a “valid reason” for being there — a facially unconstitutional detention. Equally troubling is the fact that the template contains blanks to be filled in for details of the arrest, including the arrest data and location and the suspect’s name and address, but does not include a prompt to fill in the race or gender of the arrestee. Rather, the words “black male” are automatically included in the description of the arrest. The supervisor’s template thus presumes that individuals arrested for trespassing will be African American.

11) “Put a hoodie on and come to my neighborhood, you will see”

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.

12) “Lock up all the black hoodies”

A sergeant told us that in 2011 her lieutenant — a commander in charge of setting enforcement priorities for an entire police district during the shift — ordered the sergeant to instruct officers under her command to “lock up all the black hoodies” in her district. When the sergeant objected and refused to follow this order, she received an “unsatisfactory” performance evaluation and was transferred to a different unit. The sergeant filed a successful complaint about her performance evaluation with BPD’s Equal Opportunity and Diversity Section, but BPD never took action against the lieutenant for giving the order to target “black hoodies” for enforcement.

13) Profiling in front of federal officials

During a ride-along with Justice Department officials, a BPD sergeant instructed a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American males on a street corner, question them, and order them to disperse. When the patrol officer protested that he had no valid reason to stop the group, the sergeant replied “Then make something up.”

14) “Turn them hoses on them”

One Baltimore firefighter and an emergency medical technician told us that, prior to a march led by a prominent African-American pastor in 2015, a BPD officer told the firefighters “they’re going marching and there’s going to be a problem. What y’all should do is turn them hoses on them.”

For more on the Justice Department’s investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, read Vox’s explainer.


Watch: Why recording the police is so important

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.