A Justice Department investigation has concluded that Baltimore police routinely stop, search, and even arrest the city’s black residents without provocation, destroying the community’s trust in local law enforcement.
Launched after last year’s unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the investigation reviewed more than six years of records, concluding on Tuesday that Baltimore police make groundless stops and use excessive force, especially in the city’s minority communities.
It found deficiencies in training, policies, and supervision “that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of federal law.”
The Civil Rights Division report traced much of the problem to a decision in the 1990’s to pursue “zero tolerance” enforcement, encouraging officers to make large numbers of stops, searches, and arrests with minimal training.
One result, it said, was over 300,000 pedestrian stops in a roughly five-year period for minor offenses and with minimal or no suspicion of lawbreaking, concentrated in African-American neighborhoods.
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One African-American man in his mid-50’s was stopped 30 times in less than four years, the report found, but none of the encounters resulted in a criminal charge — or even a ticket.
Hundreds of others were stopped at least ten times.
During many of those sidewalk stops, police patted down or frisked pedestrians. The report said some were even strip-searched in public. But of all those stops, less than four percent resulted in arrests.
“Racially disparate impact is present at every stage” of the Baltimore Police Department’s enforcement action, the report said, adding that such disparities “erode the community trust that is critical to effective policing.”
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Black people were also disproportionately pulled over for traffic stops and searched for illegal drugs, even though officers found contraband twice as often when searching white residents.
The report said Baltimore’s police too often resort to physical force when it’s not needed, such as when a subject does not immediately respond to commands but poses no threat, and against juveniles and people with mental health problems.
But it said the police department does far too little to investigate complaints alleging use of excessive force.
The Civil Rights investigation was undertaken at the request of Baltimore officials, and the Justice Department said the city has agreed to undertake reforms to remedy widespread civil rights violations.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the findings will help him continue improvements already underway. “We have begun this journey to reform long-standing issues in many real, tangible ways.”