It would be one thing if allegations of police abuse were focused on one city, state, or region, but multiple investigations by the media and the US Department of Justice have uncovered patterns of abuse and excessive use of force — particularly against black residents — all over the country.
In Baltimore, a September 2014 report by the Baltimore Sun’s Mark Puente found that the city had paid about $5.7 million since 2011 to more than 100 people — most of whom were black — who claimed that officers had beaten them. Vox’s Ezra Klein explained some of the allegations after Freddie Gray died of a fatal spinal cord injury he suffered while in police custody:
Before Freddie Gray, there was Starr Brown, who was pregnant and walking up the front steps of her home when two girls were attacked on the street. By the time the cops came, the attackers were gone — but Brown, inside her home, could hear the police berating the women who had been attacked.
Brown, angry, demanded the cops chase down the attackers rather than yelling at the victims. An argument began, and the police tried to arrest Brown. She grabbed a nearby railing, screaming that she was pregnant. “They slammed me down on my face,” Brown later said. “The skin was gone on my face.” The city paid Brown $125,000.
The Justice Department verified many of the concerns surrounding the Baltimore Police Department with its own investigation and report released in 2016. It concluded, “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.”
A Justice Department report released in December 2014, meanwhile, found Cleveland police officers used excessive deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons; unnecessary, excessive, and retaliatory force, including Tasers, chemical sprays, and their fists; and excessive force against people with mental illness or in crisis, including one situation in which officers were called exclusively to check up on someone’s well-being.
In one case, a police officer shot at an unarmed man wearing only boxer shorts as he was fleeing from armed assailants, which the Justice Department called unreasonable and unnecessary:
An incident from 2013 in which a sergeant shot at a victim as he ran from a house where he was being held against his will is just one illustration of this problem. “Anthony” was being held against his will inside a house by armed assailants. When officers arrived on scene, they had information that two armed assailants were holding several people inside the home. After officers surrounded the house, Anthony escaped from his captors and ran from the house, wearing only boxer shorts. An officer ordered Anthony to stop, but Anthony continued to run toward the officers. One sergeant fired two shots at him, missing. According to the sergeant, when Anthony escaped from the house, the sergeant believed Anthony had a weapon because he elevated his arm and pointed his hand toward the sergeant. No other officers at the scene reported seeing Anthony point anything at the sergeant.
In another investigation released after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the Justice Department found a pattern of racial bias at the Ferguson Police Department — typically in an effort to ticket as many low-income black residents as possible in an attempt to raise local budget revenue through fines and court fees. Police encounters could get downright abusive, the Justice Department explained:
We spoke with one African-American man who, in August 2014, had an argument in his apartment to which FPD officers responded, and was immediately pulled out of the apartment by force. After telling the officer, “you don’t have a reason to lock me up,” he claims the officer responded: “N*****, I can find something to lock you up on.” When the man responded, “good luck with that,” the officer slammed his face into the wall, and after the man fell to the floor, the officer said, “don’t pass out motherf****r because I’m not carrying you to my car.”
Another Justice Department report from 2017, looking at the Chicago Police Department, found that police officers there often treated people, particularly minorities, “as animals or subhuman.”
Reports with similar findings have been filed by the Justice Department all over the country, including Los Angeles; New Orleans; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Portland, Oregon.
By itself, each report exposed deeply troubling problems at an individual police department. But taken altogether, the reports point to a troubling trend nationwide.