Mayor: DOJ findings “challenging” to hear | WYPR

Mayor: DOJ findings “challenging” to hear

Aug 10, 2016

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake discuss a report from the Justice Department that said Baltimore Police have regularly discriminated against African-Americans.
Credit P. Kenneth Burns

Editor's note: The full DOJ report is posted at the bottom of this story.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday she was committed to implementing police reforms after the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department.

The mayor said “the findings are challenging to hear” but that her administration did not wait around for the Justice Department to issue its 163-page report.

“The city has taken first steps in a long path to reform and we’ve begun to see real benefits,” she said.

Among what she called “26 key reforms” already implemented were putting body cameras on police officers to record encounters with civilians, updating the use of force policy and putting cameras in the back of police transport vans. That issue came up in the Freddie Gray case.

Gray died from an injury sustained in the back of a police van while he was being transported to the Western District police station. But it’s not clear how, or when, that injury occurred.

The mayor did not say who was responsible for the long term pattern of discrimination.  But when pressed, Rawlings-Blake said no one person is at fault.

“A system is not an individual,” she said.  “That being said, I’m responsible for ushering in the meaningful reforms that have taken place thus far.  And I am certainly committed to making the meaningful reforms moving forward.”

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the city Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement that the findings are “a clear indictment of the failed leadership at all levels of city government” and that “[he] will not allow the Department of Justice to lay blame on the shoulders of the dedicated men and women of the Baltimore Police Department.”

“The FOP is prepared to continue to demand the reforms we called for in our 2012 Blueprint for Improved Policing that is cited in the Department of Justice’s findings,” Ryan said.

Investigators in the report said while everyone they’ve spoken with agrees BPD needs reform, not everyone agrees on the remedy.

“Although they may disagree about the nature, scope and solutions to the challenges, many have also made efforts to address them,” the report continued.

Report: BPD conduct violates the constitution

The report, leaked late Tuesday and officially released Wednesday, describes a systematic pattern of civil rights violations and discrimination by Baltimore police officers.

It says police made unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests.  They used excessive force and they retaliated against people exercising their first amendment rights.

And African Americans were stopped at disproportionate rates; 82 percent of all vehicle stops, for example.

“BPD officers recorded over 300,000 pedestrian stops from January 2010-May 2015, and the true number of BPD’s stops during this period is likely far higher due to under-reporting,” the report stated.

Nearly half of those stops occurred in two small, predominantly African-American districts that make up a small percentage of the city’s population.

The report also noted that officers used the same aggressive tactics for adults on the city’s youth.

The report also said zero-tolerance policies of former Mayor Martin O’Malley eroded the trust between communities and the police, and that legacy continues to drive policing in certain neighborhoods.

At the same time, the report recognized that Baltimore police officers have a hard job; especially in neighborhoods where officers deal with “complex social problems rooted in poverty, racial segregation and deficient educational employment and housing opportunities.”

No one is surprised

City Councilman Brand Scott said he was not surprised by the report, and no one else should be either.

“For me, I didn’t need the report to tell me this,” he said. “I’m a young black man in Baltimore; this is where I grew up; especially growing up with zero tolerance policing.”

Meanwhile, Councilman Nick Mosby said he was only surprised at the degree of the discrimination.  He called the statistics in the report “real glaring.”

Senator Ben Cardin issued a statement calling the report “disturbing.”  And he said the city owes it to Freddie Gray’s family to have “his tragic death provide the catalyst for an overhaul of BPD that rebuilds the trust between the police and the communities they serve.”

Congressman Elijah Cummings called the statistics “astounding” in a statement. And he said the report validates what many city residents already know; that trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve has been “repeatedly violated and is in desperate need of repair.”

David Rocah, the senior staff attorney at ACLU Maryland, said the report validates what people have been saying for a long time but that he retains “some measure of hope that it will be the necessary catalyst for long overdue reform.”

Residents of Sandtown, Freddie Gray’s old neighborhood, shrugged at the report.

Khalil Muhammed said he has been stopped by officers on numerous occasions “for no reason.”

They “ran my pockets and harassed without provocation,” he said.  “This is something that us - as black inner city people - have been living with for a long time.”

Muhammed said the report is valuable only if it leads to changes in the police department.

“If they ain’t going to be no changes behind it, what’s the use,” he asked.

Robert Gaddy, a Towson resident who grew up in Sandtown, said the problems in city neighborhoods are compounded by a lack of jobs and educational opportunities.

“A lot of people’s arrest record and level of education won’t allow them to enter opportunity,” he said. “First you have to have to opportunity and have someone believe in you and say ‘well, I’m a give this guy – this young man or this young lady – a chance.  And that’s not happening.  Not even with the previous mayors; going back to Kurt Schmoke.”

Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she has and will continue to deal with social problems while her administration works on police reform.

“I’m not sitting around and nobody’s sitting around till we solve poverty before we make police reforms,” the mayor said.

She said her administration is working to bring more jobs to the city and remove blight and that officials are optimistic about the new leadership of Sonja Santelises over the city school system.

“No one is sitting around before we solve the issues of discrimination or poor housing or any of the challenges Baltimore face along with other cities,” she said. “We’re not going to solve all these problems before we address the needed reforms.”

Experience with compliance

The report and the call for change is not new territory for Police Commissioner Kevin Davis.

He was a Deputy Chief in Prince George’s County when that police department entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department in 2004.

Prince George’s County, like Baltimore City, is a majority black jurisdiction that faced similar problems with its police force.

“What I know is that we came out of that consent decree a better and stronger agency,” Davis said

He said he has moved to help the Baltimore department move forward, faster; hiring two people familiar with Justice Department investigations and consent decrees to help the city police through the investigation and the reforms. 

He also said the department has established a team to make sure the department is compliant with the federal government; “something that is historically done after the findings.”

Davis did not say whether he was surprised by the findings; just that he is “very, very concerned” by some of the information in the report.

“I have no tolerance for any person who is privileged enough to wear this uniform if they choose to engage in racist, sexist, discriminatory or biased based policing,” he said.

Davis didn’t say whether he plans to clean house.  But he made it clear he is willing to hold his officers accountable.

“I’ve fired six police officers in 2016 alone; that’s a small number,” he said. “But those who have left this agency deserve to leave this agency.”

Next steps

City officials and the Justice Department have entered into an agreement that guides the negotiations for a consent decree that will be enforced by a federal court.

The decree will include federal monitoring of the police department.

The negotiators will seek input from residents, community groups, city leaders, local businesses and officers as they craft the decree.

Negotiations are expected to be complete by November 1.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she anticipates the city will have to spend $5 million to $10 million annually to implement the reforms.

That number is based on what other cities in similar situations had to pay.

WYPR’s Mary Rose Madden, Rachel Baye and Jonna McKone contributed to this report.   

DOJ Investigation of the Baltimore Police Department