There is the woman being publicly strip-searched after being stopped for a missing headlight. There are the officers coercing sex from prostitutes in exchange for avoiding arrest, planting drugs on people they stopped, cursing “shut the fuck up bitch” because they are “the fucking law.” There is the supervisor telling officers “to arrest ‘all the black hoodies’ in a neighborhood.” There are officers using templates for arrests where they only had to fill in dates and names — the words “black male” were already inked in.
Running to 163 pages, the Department of Justice report on the ongoing abuse inflicted upon African Americans by the Baltimore police is full of stories like these.
The investigation was started shortly after Freddie Gray died of a severed spine after officers tossed him into a police van following a possibly illegal stop. Just last month, prosecutors dropped all charges against the remaining officers facing trial for Gray’s death after the first cases ended in acquittals.
In the report released Wednesday, Justice Department investigators concluded that over five years, Baltimore officers made 10,163 unlawful arrests, and that the more than 300,000 pedestrian stops during that period were concentrated in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and often lacked reasonable suspicion.
To Baltimore’s black residents, the findings were hardly news.
“It’s sad that we need an official report to verify things Black citizens have been saying for decades,” Ralikh Hayes, a coordinator with the grassroots Baltimore BLOC, which denounces police abuse in Baltimore on a daily basis, wrote in a message to The Intercept.
“You’re just saying what this community has been saying for the last 200 years,” echoed Michael Wood Jr., a former Baltimore police officer who turned to activism after blowing the whistle on the department’s abuse. “There’s cameras now, so you can’t deny it.”
And as pattern and practice investigations of police departments have multiplied in recent years, skepticism is rising about what they can actually achieve. In Baltimore, quite possibly, it’s not much.
Wood said many residents were skeptical even before the report came out. “The vast majority would be like, it doesn’t matter, nothing’s going to come of it, nothing ever comes of it, so what’s the point in even making the reports?”
Some activists have lost faith in promises of reform, pushing instead for more radical transformations like civilian oversight and the defunding of abusive departments.
“We think any DOJ investigation is useless unless we are talking about divesting and demilitarizing as a solution, because they don’t cause transformative change but Band-Aid solutions and Band-Aids can’t solve cancer,” said Hayes. “The culture of policing in this city is extremely corrupt and little things like policy reforms won’t fix it.”
A DOJ “pattern and practice” report, if nothing else, settled arguments about whether there is a problem or not — and usually sets in motion processes for reform like consent decrees between cities and the department.
“They have tremendous value, without that documentation you’re really operating off a news story here and an anecdote there,” Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project, told The Intercept. “In many of these places, particularly among police departments and officials, there is a denial that there’s a systemic problem and the DOJ comes in and successfully breaks that wall of silence and exposes those denials for what they are.”
The investigations establish a record and can be used by communities over time to “hold officials’ feet to the fire” and demand accountability and progress, Edwards said. But, he acknowledged, they are “a limited remedy.”
“They cannot be the be-all end-all of reforming local police departments, ultimately that reform has to come locally,” Edwards said. “The DOJ can help push departments and communities and provide a blueprint for reforms but the DOJ is ultimately not going to stay in these places and the DOJ doesn’t ‘live’ there. If you don’t have real commitment by police departments, police chiefs, city councils, it’s going to be ultimately quite unsatisfying.”
That sets the stage for frustration and cynicism around these DOJ investigations —particularly when coupled with the fact that practice and pattern reports don’t hold individual officers accountable. The reports describe multitudes of constitutional violations, but don’t typically lead to criminal charges because DOJ’s criminal investigations into individual misconduct face a much higher bar in terms of proving civil rights violations.
For instance, after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago this week, the DOJ’s pattern and practice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found violations similar to those found in Baltimore, which helped explain the policing context that led to Brown’s killing in the first place. In Ferguson, the DOJ also ended up suing the city after officials there walked back on a settlement they had agreed to. But no individuals were held accountable.
Even in cities that do claim to embrace the DOJ’s findings and to want to work on their recommendations — as Baltimore seems to have done so far — change can be so slow and insufficient that the DOJ will actually need to return after a number of years and start a new investigation.
“The urgency of consent decrees tends to fade over time especially after cities spend millions of dollars implementing required reforms; a complacency sets in and because law enforcement institutions tend to either be inherently racist or police communities of color in ways that are discriminatory due to structural biases, police departments begin to slip back into old habits,” said Imani Gandy, a legal analyst and activist who writes for the website Rewire News. “That’s why certain cities subject to consent decrees — Cleveland, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh come to mind — will find themselves under DOJ investigation within a decade after the prior consent decree was lifted.”
Cleveland, for instance, first entered into an agreement with the DOJ in 2004, after an investigation into its police department’s use-of-force record. Ten years later, the department was back, finding ongoing use-of-force issues — and last year the city once again adopted a consent decree and is currently in the process of discussing reform — though community advocates have already expressed frustration at officials’ refusal to implement their recommendations.
Lynn Hampton, a Cleveland detective and the president of the local black police association, expressed skepticism at the DOJ’s ability to bring genuine change to what was ultimately a police culture problem — calling instead on more diverse recruitment and substantial repercussions for officer misconduct.
“People are doing it reluctantly because the DOJ and others are forcing them to talk about it, but they’re not doing it on their own,” he told The Intercept, referring to proposed reform in Cleveland. “The question is, without the DOJ, would we be having these conversations? Probably not.”