The Justice Department released on Wednesday a report on racial bias in the Baltimore Police Department. The report shines a spotlight on abuses. Here’s what that means for you and your community.
First, racial bias is real
The 163 page report spotlights gross abuses of African Americans. Blacks made up 84% of all pedestrian stops, 82% of all vehicle stops, 99% of arrest for playing “cards or dice”, and comprised 90% of excessive force violations. Baltimore relied on a “zero tolerance” policy which prioritized making large numbers of stops, searches and arrests. This emphasis encouraged officers to “clear corners” on streets. One officer who challenged the basis of doing this was told “to make something up.”
This emphasis on aggressive policing led to a culture of racial bias. Over the 14 month investigation the Justice Department reviewed five years of data and conducted hundreds of interviews. They found a department with little oversight, loose data collection, and aggressive tactics.
No criminal activity took place in 26 out of 27 stops conducted by police. The impact of this aggressive policing was harassment, not deterrence. Police were provided a template for arresting trespassers in low income housing areas with a pre-populated field for “black male” as the arrestee. The department claimed to have only one racial bias complaint, yet the Justice Department found more than 60 complaints where officers used the word “n***r”, but those were not considered racial slurs.
Some of the most egregious conduct came from regular pat downs and strip searches. Nearly all these cases involved African Americans. One woman stopped for a missing taillight was removed from her vehicle and forced to strip on the public street. The female cop literally probed her for drugs with no cause for suspicion. She was released without any citation. The report gave numerous stories of such degrading conduct.
Police routinely approached African Americans simply standing on a corner, pushed to disperse them, and any resistance or comments were deemed “failure to obey”, “obstruction” or some similar charge. In one case the police actually used a helicopter to see where people were hanging out playing dice so they could radio a dispatch team to arrest them.
Second, poverty and lack of access to justice exacerbate the problem.
The report spotlights the systemic racial problems that create poverty, unemployment, lack of quality education and housing. 24.2% of people in Baltimore live below the poverty line and 75% of them are black. Unemployment is 7%. Median incomes are more than 20% lower than the national average. These circumstances are ripe for abuse. A major lawsuit against Wells Fargo is just one example of predatory lending which targeted African Americans for subprime loans in Baltimore. Harassment becomes a way of life for too many. Like Ferguson, many of the police offenses were minor charges for which no free attorneys were available. Several African Americans were stopped more than 10 times, a few as many as 30 times, without being charged.
And Baltimore exploited other vulnerabilities such as those with mental health issues and victims of sexual assault. The police used aggression toward mentally ill. They cast aspersions on victims of assault. “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?” And victims of human trafficking were spotlighted as being arrested and harassed as criminals. Sadly, without access to justice there is no way to redress these wrongs.
Third, blindness is no excuse.
The reports from Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities spotlight two core issues. The first, is individual responsibility and the second is community response.
First, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Jesus told a story of a man who was abused and two good men (a priest and a levite) did nothing. You gotta do something. You gotta stop.
For my friends who are good police officers, you have to stand up for what you know is right. These reports continually reveal how good people are silent. Reports are not completed, details are left out. Just turn a blind eye. Whatever happened to: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves…speak up and judge fairly” Prov. 31: 8-9a. Don’t cut corners or ‘clear corners.’ Being silent is shouting your affirmation. Stand up for your neighbors. Serve and protect.
Second, for my non-officer friends, we have to build bridges with our officers. Do we want to solve problems? Or do we want to cast blame? I want a better world for my kids and that won’t happen unless I join with others to make a difference. No one needed the Baltimore report to spotlight the obvious – “The relationship between the police and the community is broken.” Freddie Gray’s family could have told them that.
But Baltimore is not alone. So what do we do about it?
Last, it takes a village.
That is not a political statement, but a reality. We cannot solve this problem alone. The report correctly notes the importance of community policing. That’s all of us. Community policing depends on building relationships with all of the communities that a police department serves, and then jointly solving problems to ensure public safety and confidence.
I appreciate how Justice Department officials intentionally met with churches in the community. Churches need to be more involved. We have to come together to address issues of poverty, employment, race, housing and mental health. We need to stop turning a blind eye like the priest and the Levite and be the Samaritan who stops to serve and protect his wounded neighbor. One place to start is by joining the New York Times race discussion. Consider adding your voice.
Another way to spotlight racial bias is to review the seven ways to overcome racial divides, I posted a few weeks ago.
Finally, if you want to make a difference consider building a justice community. Lawyers can be very helpful in the process. I have established community organizations to address systemic issues. I have worked with government, police, churches and businesses to problem solve. We can do this if we come together.
We are willing to help if you want to explore establishing a justice center in your community. You don’t need us, but you do need to be involved. You need to be the Good Samaritan. You need to go and do likewise.