Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A Department of Justice audit of the city's police department shows a disturbing culture of racism among the force.
One of the most painful aspects of Freddie Gray’s death is the fact that we still don’t know what exactly he did wrong that caused Baltimore police to pursue him in the first place. Gray’s fatal injuries happened while he was in the custody of at least six police officers, three of whom chased Gray for no reason other than he looked at them. Reading the new U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, triggered by urban unrest in response to police actions, it’s not hard to understand why Gray ran from them.
One of the Justice Department’s key findings showed that 44 percent of the stops Baltimore police made between 2010 and 2014 were in just two districts—the city’s least populated, but which hold high concentrations of black residents. From the report:
In these districts, police recorded nearly 1.5 stops per resident over a four-year period. This data reveals that certain Baltimore residents have repeated encounters with the police on public streets and sidewalks. Indeed, the data show that one African-American man was stopped 34 times during this period in the Central and Western Districts alone, and several hundred residents were stopped at least 10 times. Countless individuals—including Freddie Gray—were stopped multiple times in the same week without being charged with a crime.
Much like the Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson police department, the report on Baltimore reveals a culture of excessive force and the racially discriminatory application of unconstitutional policing practices like “stop and frisk.” And much like in Ferguson, in Baltimore it is African Americans who’ve suffered the brunt of the more putrescible aspects of policing.
And it’s not an economic or class issue, for those who believe crime correlates with poverty, so it would be logical to find more aggressive policing in high-poverty and high-crime areas. In Baltimore:
Indeed the proportion of African-American stops exceeds the share of African-American population in each of BPD’s nine police districts, despite significant variation in the districts’ racial, socioeconomic, and geographic composition. For example, African Americans accounted for: … 83 percent of stops in the Northern District (compared to 41 percent of the population), which includes many affluent, suburban neighborhoods. Even in the Southeast District—with an African-American population of only 23 percent—two out of three BPD stops involved African-American subjects.
In other words, while living in low-poverty, so-called high-opportunity areas might increase African Americans’ chances for upward mobility, it doesn’t protect them from being harassed by police. This is a problem that white Baltimoreans do not have to worry about as much as their black peers: The report states that BPD officers made 520 stops for every 1,000 black residents in Baltimore, but only 180 stops for every 1,000 Caucasian residents. That’s an enormous disparity, and it can’t be explained away as “class privilege.” No, this is just plain, old-fashioned racism.
More evidence of racism in the Baltimore police department, as stated in the Justice Department report:
- Nearly 90 percent of the excessive-force incidents identified by the Justice Department review involve force used against African Americans.
- African Americans accounted for 95 percent of the 410 individuals stopped at least 10 times by BPD officers from 2010–2015. During this period, BPD stopped 34 African Americans at least 20 times and seven other African Americans at least 30 times. No person of any other race was stopped more than 12 times.
- African Americans accounted for 80 percent of vehicle stops in the Northern District despite making up only 41 percent of the district’s population, and made up 56 percent of stops in the Southeast District despite making up only 23 percent of the population living there.
- During pedestrian stops, officers searched 13 percent of African Americans compared to only 9.5 percent of other people—making African Americans 37 percent more likely to be searched when stopped than other residents. Similarly, officers were 23 percent more likely to search African Americans during vehicle stops.
- Baltimore police disproportionately searched African Americans during vehicle stops, even though searches of African Americans were less likely to yield 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.
These are pretty much the same racial-discrimination findings that audits of “stop and frisk” practices revealed in New York City, where hardly anyone is even pretending such practices worked anymore. And lest one think the racial disparities evident in these practices are simply incidental, in Baltimore, the Justice Department says to think again:
BPD’s disproportionate enforcement against African Americans is suggestive of intentional discrimination because the racial disparities are greatest for enforcement activities that involve higher degrees of officer discretion. In the five years of arrest data we reviewed, African Americans accounted for a larger share of charges for highly discretionary misdemeanor offenses than for other offenses, including: 91 percent of those charged solely with trespassing, 91 percent of charges for failing to obey an officer’s orders, 88 percent of those arrested solely for “impeding” and 84 percent of people charged with disorderly conduct. As noted above, booking supervisors and prosecutors dismissed a significantly higher portion of charges made against African Americans for each of these charges. This pattern indicates that, where BPD officers have more discretion to make arrests, they exercise that discretion to arrest African Americans disproportionately. Moreover, the racial disparities in dismissal rates exist only for highly discretionary misdemeanor arrests, not felony arrests. That is, booking officials and prosecutors dismissed charges at nearly identical rates across racial groups for felony charges like first degree assault, burglary, and robbery for which there is little officer discretion about whether to arrest suspects. For every discretionary misdemeanor offense that we examined, however, officials dismissed charges against African Americans at significantly higher rates—indicating that officers apply a lower standard when arresting African Americans for these offenses.
The officers who were charged with Freddie Gray’s death have been let off the hook by courts. But one thing is clear from this report: What happened on April 12, 2015, wasn’t just some random accident. Rather, as the Justice Department report shows, it was the logical outcome of years of reckless policing, where no officer had much reason to believe they’d ever be held accountable for any violation of people’s rights, let alone their bodies or lives.