Dealer [shoved into police van]: “Hey, we in America!”
Officer: “Nuh-uh. West Baltimore.”
– The Wire
The Department of Justice released its report on the Baltimore Police Department on August 10, and the results are stunning, even for people who are used to reading about police misconduct. Individual cases of brutality make the headlines, but the problem with BPD is not a “few bad apples,” who could be fired to fix the department. It’s the system itself, from top to bottom.
The DoJ report describes a “pattern and practice” in BPD of “making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.”
Investigators found that official policies and BPD supervisors encourage patrol officers to illegally stop people without reasonable suspicion; to search and frisk them without reason to believe they are armed; to arrest people for minor, subjective offenses like “loitering”; to take people into custody without probable cause to fingerprint them and look for outstanding warrants; and to make unconstitutionally vague orders and then arrest people for failing to comply with them.
The report describes, in ways that almost beggar belief, how everyday life in black neighborhoods is subject to constant and unjustified harassment. Involuntary detention, invasive searches, and threats of arrest are common for doing perfectly legal things, like walking on the sidewalk or standing and talking on street corners. The extremely low rate at which these stops and searches turn up anything of value shows how low the bar is for these invasions of constitutional rights.
The DoJ also found that citizens’ failure to show “respect” often results in officers retaliating through excessive force, arrest, or trumped up charges. Offenses for which virtually anyone can be arrested at any time include things like “loitering,” “failure to obey,” “trespassing,” and “hindering.”
The report notes that official policy and training often fails to inform or actively misinforms BPD officers about basic legal requirements for stops, searches, orders, and arrests — things like “probable cause,” “particularized information,” “reasonable suspicion,” and “specific conduct.” BPD does not even attempt to keep track of officers who make unconstitutional arrests.
Here are eleven incredible findings from the DoJ report.
1. Baltimore police make several hundred thousand pedestrian stops a year, in a city of 620,000 people.
Police reported over 300,000 pedestrian stops over four and a half years, but DoJ found that this is a huge underestimation, because most stops are never reported.
DoJ found that, in a sample of 123 investigative stops captured on BPD’s computer dispatch system, officers filed reports for fewer than a third. An audit of gun charges that arose from street stops found that “officers did not complete a stop form in a single one of the 335 cases.” While observing the BPD for the last year, investigators found that “many officers fill out stop reports rarely, if at all.”
The conclusion? “BPD officers likely make several hundred thousand pedestrian stops per year in a city with only 620,000 residents.”
If the DoJ is right, rather than 300,000 stops in 4.5 years, it’s probably closer to 2.7 million stops.
2. Most stops happen in African American districts, and blacks are the vast majority of people stopped in every district, regardless of its demographics.
Stops are not randomly distributed. Nearly half (44 percent) of reported stops happened in two small, predominantly black districts, the Western and Central, which contain just 12 percent of the city’s population.
More than a fifth of stops happened in the smallest district — the Western — with just six percent of the city’s population. In five years, there were 55,000 reported stops in the Western district, with just 37,000 residents, 97 percent of whom are black. Recall that this number counts only reported stops that also have location information — it could understate the true figure by an order of magnitude.
Stops also disproportionately targeted African Americans: “African Americans account for 84 percent of stops despite comprising only 63 percent of the City’s population. Expressed differently, BPD officers made 520 stops for every 1,000 black residents in Baltimore, but only 180 stops for every 1,000 Caucasian residents.”
What’s more, this disparity continues across all districts, despite large differences in district’s racial composition and crime rates. In the Northern district, blacks are barely 40 percent of the population but more than 80 percent of police stops. In the Southeast, blacks made up just 23 percent of the population but 65 percent of stops.
Blacks also made up a hugely disproportionate share of vehicle stops. African Americans made up 82 percent of traffic stops, while constituting only 60 percent of the driving age population in Baltimore.
But this actually exaggerates the true share of black drivers in Baltimore: on average, nearly 20 percent of African Americans live in households with no access to a vehicle. In addition, 25 percent of stops in Baltimore involve drivers from outside Baltimore City, and the greater Baltimore area is less than 28 percent black.
3. BPD stopped one man 30 times in less than four years; no charges were ever filed.
The DoJ also found that “African Americans are far more likely to be subjected to multiple stops within relatively short periods of time. African Americans accounted for 95 percent of the 410 individuals stopped at least ten times.”
In one case, an “African-American man in his mid-fifties was stopped 30 times in less than four years. The only reasons provided for these stops were officers’ suspicion that the man was ‘loitering’ or ‘trespassing,’ or as part of a ‘[Controlled Substance] investigation.’ On at least 15 occasions, officers detained the man while they checked to see if he had outstanding warrants. Despite these repeated intrusions, none of the 30 stops resulted in a citation or criminal charge.”
4. Over 96% of reported stops did not result in a citation or arrest.
Pedestrian stops are only constitutional when officers have “reasonable suspicion” that there is illegal activity. But how reasonable is that suspicion when the vast, vast majority of cases fail to turn up anything?
DoJ: “In a sample of over 7,200 pedestrian stops reviewed by the Justice Department, only 271 — or 3.7 percent — resulted in officers issuing a criminal citation or arrest.”
Bear in mind, this is just out of the stops that were reported, which may be 5-10 times fewer than the real number of stops.
5. Police are more likely to search blacks but less likely to find contraband when they do.
The Fourth Amendment requires that police have reasonable suspicion to stop someone on the street. To search a vehicle, police must have identifiable “probable cause,” an even higher standard. In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is only permissible to “frisk” or pat down someone when there is additional, specific evidence that suggests they may be armed and dangerous.
Baltimore police seem to routinely disregard these requirements and use much lower standards when deciding whether to stop or search African Americans.
BPD reported such ridiculously low search rates (1.5 percent of pedestrian stops and 0.5 percent of vehicle stops) that the DoJ became suspicious; they decided to recreate the database from scratch using 14,000 paper incident reports.
What they found was remarkable:
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. …
During vehicle stops, BPD officers reported finding some type of contraband less than half as often when searching African Americans — in only 3.9 percent of searches of African Americans, compared to 8.5 percent of other searches.
Search hit rates during pedestrian stops also exhibited large disparities, with officers finding contraband in only 2.6 percent of African American searches compared to 3.9 percent for other searches — a 50 percent difference.
Black people in Baltimore are far, far more likely to be stopped, and they are also more likely to be searched after being stopped — but these searches find contraband 33 to 55 percent less often than searches of people of other races.
This strongly suggests that the “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause” thresholds for searching African Americans are less reasonable and less probable than those for other people.
6. Police arrested 79 people solely for “resisting arrest.”
In a throwaway line that somehow says both too much and too little, DoJ mentions that BPD “charged 79 people solely with ‘resisting arrest,’ despite not arresting them for any other crime.”
7. BPD used a police helicopter to arrest people for “playing dice.”
In Baltimore, “playing dice” is illegal. However, DoJ notes, this is the type of minor offense that is enforced “almost exclusively against African Americans.”
BPD charged 657 people with “gaming” or playing “cards or dice,” of whom 652 — over 99 percent — were African Americans. Although we are not aware of any data tracking the precise rate at which people of different races play cards or dice, it is extremely unlikely that African Americans comprise 99 percent of those doing so.
Investigators also mention that “BPD has used a helicopter unit known as ‘Foxtrot,’ which typically coordinates officers’ response to shootings and other serious crimes, to enforce misdemeanor gambling offenses… In early 2016, a Foxtrot unit alerted patrol officers that a group of young African-American men were playing dice on a street corner. Officers on the ground responded to this intelligence by confronting the group and arresting one of the men, who was charged solely with ‘playing dice.’”
8. Baltimore police arrest blacks for drug possession way, way more often than makes sense.
Pretty much everyone knows that African Americans are way more likely to be arrested for drug possession. But Baltimore is an outlier even in this general trend.
Over four and a half years, about 100,000 people were charged with drug possession offenses, and 89 percent were African Americans. Put another way, “BPD made 254 drug arrests for every 1,000 African-American Baltimore residents while making only 52 drug arrests per 1,000 residents of other races.”
This difference can’t be explained by different rates of drug use. According to the CDC, “In 2013, 8.7 percent of African Americans over age 12 had used drugs within the past month, compared to 7.7 percent of Caucasians.”
And Baltimore doesn’t have atypical drug use. Marijuana use “averaged 8.2 percent in Baltimore, compared to a national average of 7.0 percent. For drugs other than marijuana … usage in Baltimore averaged 3.3 percent … compared to a national average of 3.4 percent.”
And this is not merely an “urban environment” problem, either. Baltimore arrests blacks for drug possession at way, way higher rates than similar cities with comparable demographics, crime rates, and drug usage.
9. Baltimore police arrest a lot of people for bogus and trivial reasons — especially African Americans.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping finding of the report: “From 2010–2015, supervisors at Baltimore’s Central Booking and local prosecutors rejected over 11,000 charges made by BPD officers because they lacked probable cause or otherwise did not merit prosecution.”
This means that on the very first examination by authorities, prosecutors or police supervisors found that the officer’s report did not even allege a good reason to charge this person. In other words, officers charged over 11,000 people for facially unconstitutional or unnecessary reasons.
This doesn’t even count charges that were later dropped or dismissed in court. It also doesn’t count the common BPD practice of detaining people in custody, sometimes for hours at time — and even transporting them to police stations for fingerprinting and questioning — and then later “unarresting” them if they find nothing: essentially, releasing them without officially acknowledging an arrest.
BPD also arrests a lot of people for minor offenses that are “highly discretionary” — meaning the offense is so subjective, it’s really up to the officer to decide if the action constitutes a crime:
More than 25,000 arrests were for non-violent misdemeanor offenses…. BPD arrested approximately 6,500 people for disorderly conduct, 4,000 for failing to obey a police officer, 6,500 for trespassing, 1,000 for “hindering” or impeding, 3,200 for “interference,” 760 for being “rogue and vagabond,” and 650 for playing cards or dice.
These arrests are so often trivial or completely unwarranted that nearly one in six are dismissed immediately by supervisors and prosecutors. Between 20 and 24 percent of charges for “disorderly conduct,” “disturbing the peace,” “failure to obey,” and “hindering” are dismissed instantly on initial review.
Trespassing charges are also highly subject to abuse — perhaps surprisingly, to those who live in the suburbs with nice, neatly defined lots. Rather, DoJ found, officers’ own reports show that police often “arrest individuals for ‘trespassing’ where the person arrested was standing on a public street that bordered property owned by the City or a private party. Such conduct is not criminal.”
Officers also routinely arrest people for things like “loitering” and “trespassing” without first warning them (as is constitutionally required) that their specific conduct is illegal and giving them an opportunity to leave. Even worse, police will often issue vague commands, like “don’t stand on the sidewalk,” that are virtually impossible to follow, and then arrest people for “failure to obey.”
African Americans made up between 83 and 99 percent of those charged for these discretionary misdemeanors, and “these disparities are even more pronounced where officers arrest individuals solely for a misdemeanor street offense, unconnected to a more serious charge.”
Not only are discretionary charges disproportionately brought against blacks, they are also disproportionately likely to be dismissed against blacks.
Officials dismissed charges against African Americans for trespassing at a rate 52 percent higher than the rate at which they dismissed other trespassing arrests; dismissed African American resisting arrest charges at a 57 percent higher rate; failure to obey charges at a 33 percent higher rate; false statement charges at a 231 percent higher rate; disorderly conduct charges at a 17 percent higher rate; and disturbing the peace charges at a 370 percent higher rate.
This is not, as you might think at first, a good sign. Rather, it shows that police are using vague and subjective laws to arrest blacks for dubious reasons.
This is not some kind of bleeding heart affirmative action by prosecutors and police supervisors, either:
Notably, the racial disparities in outcomes for these highly discretionary, non-violent offenses are not present for less discretionary felony offenses. We found that reviewing officials’ initial review resulted in dismissal of charges for first degree assault, burglary, and robbery at nearly identical rates across racial groups.
The implication of these findings is that there are no underlying conditions that cause officials to dismiss African-American charges at higher rates. Instead, the large racial differences in the proportion of dismissed charges for misdemeanor street offenses demonstrate that, where officers have wider discretion to make arrests, they exercise it in a discriminatory manner.
10. A BPD shift commander created a template for trespassing arrests based on a flatly unconstitutional justification — and with the suspect description “black male” automatically filled in.
A shift commander for one of BPD’s districts emailed a template for describing trespassing arrests to a sergeant and a patrol officer. The template provides a blueprint for arresting an individual standing on or near a public housing development who cannot give a “valid reason” for being there — a facially unconstitutional detention.
Equally troubling is the fact that the template contains blanks to be filled in for details of the arrest, including the arrest data and location and the suspect’s name and address, but does not include a prompt to fill in the race or gender of the arrestee. Rather, the words “black male” are automatically included in the description of the arrest.
This is essentially just a script you can rehearse any time you want to arrest a black male near public housing without cause.
11. While riding with observers from the DoJ, a BPD sergeant ordered a patrolman to “make something up” in order to justify a stop.
Throughout the report, you realize the problems with BPD are not a “few bad apples” or even a whole lot of bad apples. It’s not about the apples; it’s the barrel. It is the culture, policies, practices, norms, incentives, supervision, strategy, training, and accountability structures of the entire institution that are the problem.
One anecdote perfectly captures how ingrained the trouble is:
During a ride-along with Justice Department officials, a BPD sergeant instructed a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American males on a street corner, question them, and order them to disperse.
When the patrol officer protested that he had no valid reason to stop the group, the sergeant replied “Then make something up.”
This incident is far from anomalous.
Make something up. Clear the corner. Repeat.
Are cops in Baltimore racist? If you’re on the right, you probably instinctively roll your eyes at such questions; if you’re the on the left, you probably take it as a given. That’s not something statistics can tell us. Probably some are, but it’s not clear how many (42 percent of BPD is African American) or how big a role that plays in the systemic problems in Baltimore. This is surely a problem worth considering, but it’s easy to get lost in it, to the point that we forget about all the other problems that we can fix, regardless of people’s personal motivations.
We can’t know what’s going on in people’s hearts or heads, but the brutal truth is that police officers don’t need to hate African Americans to disproportionately target them or their communities. Policies like “zero tolerance,” “broken windows,” “clearing corners,” “three strikes,” “stop and frisk,” and the War on Drugs don’t need be enforced by bigots in order to devastate black neighborhoods.
Perhaps the worst part, ultimately, is that these practices have not made Baltimore safer, haven’t stopped drug abuse, and haven’t broken up gang activity. What they have done (besides massively violate civil liberties) is alienate a huge part of the community from law enforcement, which makes stopping and solving crime ever more difficult, which results in more fear, frustration, and doubling down on failed policies.
This list hardly scratches the surface. The report is the size of a small book, over 160 pages. I didn’t get into the extensive section on brutality and excessive force, or the invasive, poorly justified, and often public strip searches, or how BPD routinely detains and arrests people to retaliate against criticism or perceived “disrespect.” Even more serious is its systematic failure to keep track of problem officers, to support officers who need more training, to properly equip officers, or to seriously investigate itself.
In all, the report paints a picture of life in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods of nearly constant harassment, intimidation, and intrusion. In many places, it is virtually impossible for young men simply to be in public without opening themselves up to aggressive, hostile encounters with police.
One line from the report captures the basic problem: “BPD disproportionately stops African Americans standing, walking, or driving on Baltimore streets.” Well, that rather narrows the list of places and activities where you’re safe from detention, search, or generally being ordered around for no reason. Resistance to illegal orders is not merely futile: as the report documents in case after case, it’s a good way to get punched, or kicked, or tased, or handcuffed, or thrown to the ground, or arrested.
This is not an America that most of us recognize, but make no mistake: it isn’t news to anyone in Baltimore.