The Department of Justice released an extensive report Wednesday describing a culture of lawlessness, racism, and secrecy within the Baltimore Police Department. Baltimore policing practices attracted national scrutiny after police killed Freddie Gray last year. Prosecutors dropped charges against the officers involved in Gray’s death after a slew of acquittals, but the police department as a whole is now facing tougher federal oversight known as a consent decree.
The federal crackdown will try to achieve what department leaders themselves could not in recent years. Baltimore has theoretically been walking back its longstanding “zero tolerance” policies toward low-level offenses since about 2010. Leaders specifically instructed officers to shift from arrests to citations for various minor offenses in 2015.
But the DOJ finds those top-down efforts have failed because veteran officers in leadership positions remain committed to the old model of escalation, confrontation, harassment, and physical intimidation. Supervisors routinely cover up misconduct and pressure officers to maintain the old, hardcore mode of policing.
Here are some of the most egregious practices those leaders have allowed to flourish:
Officers harass, abuse, and arrest people for standing around on public property
DOJ investigators found that officers routinely harass, tase and arrest minors for no reason. A BPD officer tased an 85 pound girl simply for walking away and ignoring commands. Another officer apparently picked a fight with a brother and sister standing on the sidewalk outside their house, ultimately macing them and arresting them:
Officers also habitually arrest people for trespassing when they are standing on public property. The investigation found that one department supervisor distributed a template for reporting such arrests which presumed the arrestee would be a black man. 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.”
Several BPD districts also display a flyer depicting three Violent Crime Impact Division (VCID) officers leading a handcuffed man in a hoodie toward a police transport van:
Police strip search people in public, face no consequences
Baltimore officers routinely strip search people not under arrest, in full public view. Officers have been reported for such illegal strip searches dozens of times in the past five years.
In one case, officers performed a cavity search on a woman while she stood on the sidewalk after being pulled over because one of her car’s headlights was out:
In one of these incidents — memorialized in a complaint that the Department sustained — officers in BPD’s Eastern District publicly strip-searched a woman following a routine traffic stop for a missing headlight. Officers ordered the woman to exit her vehicle, remove her clothes, and stand on the sidewalk to be searched. The woman asked the male officer in charge “I really gotta take all my clothes off?” The male officer replied “yeah” and ordered a female officer to strip search the woman. The female officer then put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra. Finding no weapons or contraband around the woman’s chest, the officer then pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity. This search again found no evidence of wrongdoing and the officers released the woman without charges. Indeed, the woman received only a repair order for her headlight.
The male officer who ordered the search was reprimanded but not fired, the report says. Such searches violate explicit department policy as well as the Constitution. But DOJ investigators found more than 60 complaints about illegal strip searches in the department’s Internal Affairs records for the past six years.
Just one out of 60 of those complaints was sustained. Internal Affairs routinely dismisses such complaints after minimal investigation, or brushes them under the rug, the report says. In one case where an officer allegedly stole money after a strip search, IA deemed the case closed without actually interviewing the citizen involved:
For example, in 2015 an African American man filed a complaint stating that he was strip-searched by an officer whom BPD eventually fired in 2016 after numerous allegations of misconduct. The man stated that the officer ordered him out of his vehicle during a traffic stop and searched the vehicle without the man’s consent. When the stop of the vehicle did not uncover contraband, the officer pulled down the man’s pants and underwear, exposing his genitals on the side of a public street, and then stripsearched him. The officer seized marijuana and cash during the strip search and allegedly told the man that the officer would return his money and drugs if the man provided information about more serious crimes. The complaint stated that when the man did not provide this information, the officer arrested him and turned over only part of the confiscated money, keeping more than $500. Despite the serious charges in this complaint and the officer’s lengthy record of alleged misconduct, IA deemed it “administratively closed” without interviewing the complainant.
Officers retaliate against people they feel are being disrespectful
BPD officers frequently violate residents’ First Amendment rights to free speech. The DOJ report found many cases where people were tased or arrested simply because the officer felt they were being disrespectful:
In one reported use of force, an officer described the arrest of a man who approached him during a traffic stop to ask why the officer had stopped his friend. The proffered justification for the arrest was that the man refused to leave the area when ordered to do so by the officer. Nothing in the officer’s report indicates that the man physically interfered with the officer’s duty or was otherwise committing a crime. He was arrested merely because he continued to stand “near” the officer.
In another incident, an officer used his taser on a man and later filed a report citing the man’s “aggressive behavior” as the main justification. The man’s “mouth” was listed as the weapon:
As the DOJ report notes, the officer’s direct supervisor approved this excuse and a review concluded his use of force was justified.
Rape investigators say rape claims “are bullshit”
The BPD’s overall treatment of sexual assault victims seems to have shocked DOJ investigators. Rape cases are allowed to stagnate with little followup investigation, if any, while officers and prosecutors mock women who report assault:
One victim advocate told us about a detective in the BPD Sex Offense Unit making comments at a party, in the company of BPD officers and victim advocates, that, “in homicide, there are real victims; all our cases are bullshit.” When another person suggested the detective soften the statement, the detective added, “Ok, 90 percent.” We also reviewed e-mail correspondence between a BPD officer and a prosecutor in which they openly expressed their contempt for and disbelief of a woman who had reported a sexual assault: the prosecutor wrote that “this case is crazy. . . I am not excited about charging it. This victim seems like a conniving little whore. (pardon my language).”; the BPD officer replied, “Lmao! I feel the same.”
Useless searches, bad arrests, quick dismissals
The BPD makes hundreds of thousands of pedestrian stops and searches — many of them seemingly unconstitutional — each year. Yet almost none of them turn up actual contraband:
The lack of sufficient justification for many of BPD’s pedestrian stops is underscored by the extremely low rate at which stops uncover evidence of criminal activity. 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. Expressed a different way, BPD officers did not find and charge criminal activity in 26 out of every 27 pedestrian stops.
African Americans are disproportionately targeted in these stops:
The department’s proclivity for making unconstitutional arrests and aggressively policing so-called quality-of-life laws makes for lousy cases. Booking officials and prosecutors immediately abandon a huge number of cases that BPD officers bring them — roughly 200 arrests per month, the report found:
Analysis of this data reveals that, from November 2010–July 2015, supervisors at Central Booking released 6,736 arrestees without charge. Prosecutors from the State’s Attorney’s Office declined to charge an additional 3,427 cases, explicitly finding that 1,983 of the underlying arrests lacked probable cause. In sum, BPD officers made 10,163 arrests that authorities immediately determined did not merit prosecution — an average of roughly 200 arrests per month.
Department insiders sabotage investigations of police killings…
Investigators who are supposed to hold officers accountable often bungle the investigations by waiting too long or by doing “pre-interviews” off-camera that give an offending officer the chance to get his story straight:
We also found that BPD has a practice of conducting “preinterviews” with officers before turning on the recording device; at times, investigators stated that they had done a “pre-interview” on the record. For example, in another 2013 officer-involved shooting, an investigator from Internal Affairs stated, “Sir, please just as we did before we went on the tape, just tell us what happen [sic].”
Additionally, investigators barely question the officer, while they grill civilian witnesses:
In a lethal 2013 shooting, the Internal Affairs detective’s interview of the shooting officer lasted only five minutes, which included form questions about the nature of the interview which were not particular to the facts of that case. The actual substantive interview of the officer lasted three minutes. BPD’s interviews of civilian witnesses, on the other hand, often last hours, and the investigators ask specific, probing questions, demonstrating their ability to be thorough and exacting.
…and help cover up officer misconduct
The report includes numerous examples of supervisors approving of illegal conduct by cops. Even in a case where DOJ officials were present, a sergeant ordered a patrol officer to stop a group of young black men on a street corner. When the patrol officer raised the concern he had no legitimate reason to stop them, the sergeant replied, “Then make something up.”
In another case, officers beat, tased, and hospitalized a man who they initially approached because he was wearing a hoodie in a high-crime area. They filed no charges against the man they beat, and their sergeant praised their actions:
The officer lacked any specific reason to believe the man was engaged in criminal activity, but, according to the incident report prepared by the supervisory officer on the scene, the officer “thought it could be possible that the individual could be out seeking a victim of opportunity.” When the man asked the officers to return his knife, the officers ordered the man to sit down and then forced him to the ground when the man “persisted to ask for his knife.” The man yelled “you can’t arrest me” and resisted his detention. Although there was no basis to detain the man, two officers attempted to handcuff and shackle him, while one officer struck him “in the face, ribs, and back” with fists. The man continued to resist being shackled as additional officers arrived, one of whom tased the man twice to prevent him from “escap[ing] the scene.” After officers handcuffed the man, they transported him to Union Memorial Hospital for medical care. The man was not charged with any offense. The sergeant who responded to the scene confirmed that the involved officers tased the man twice and hit him in the face with their fists, yet the sergeant’s report of the incident concluded that the “officers showed great restraint and professionalism.”
DOJ investigators also describe an incident where a lone officer decided to try to disperse a crowd of people eating outside a late-night restaurant, for fear that his supervisor “would not be happy if he saw the area had not been cleared.” The encounter went sideways, the officer shot two people, and his supervisors signed off on the whole thing:
None of the people appeared to be committing any crimes. But rather than monitoring the group or calling for backup in case of trouble, the officer decided to attempt to disperse the gathering alone. The officer reported that he decided to do this because he believed his supervisor would not be happy if he saw the area had not been cleared. As a result of his decision to clear the corner, the officer ended up in a physical altercation with a man who refused to leave. Alone and surrounded by an unfriendly crowd, the officer fired his service weapon at a man he feared was about to kick him. The bullet struck two people, at least one of whom was not involved in the incident. Despite the officer’s serious tactical mistakes, reviewing supervisors did not report any errors and concluded that the officer had acted appropriately.
Since BPD refuses to discipline or fire repeat offenders, the State’s Attorney’s office has compiled their own “Do Not Call” list of untrustworthy officers who prosecutors should not put on the stand. Yet the officers on that list have stayed on the job, “making arrests that could not be credibly prosecuted.”
BPD was aware of the list — the State’s Attorney’s office regularly discussed the officers on the list with the Chief of BPD’s Office of Professional Responsibility — but failed to take action on the information. Instead, the officers listed remained on the streets, making arrests that could not be credibly prosecuted. At one point, we were told, an entire squad’s members were on the list, leading to a number of cases being dismissed.