Overhaul of police in city of The Wire

By Lynh Bui, Peter Hermann

Baltimore Police Department Officer Jordan Distance stands on a street corner during a foot patrol in Baltimore. Photo / AP
Baltimore Police Department Officer Jordan Distance stands on a street corner during a foot patrol in Baltimore. Photo / AP

Baltimore's top law enforcement and political leaders vowed a sweeping overhaul of the police department in the city where The Wire was famously set.

The Justice Department issued a searing rebuke of the agency's practices, which federal authorities say regularly discriminated against black residents in poorer communities.

Officials warned, however, that reforming a department entrenched in a culture of unconstitutional policing would be a slow process and could cost millions.

"Police reform won't happen overnight or by chance," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney-General Vanita Gupta said at a news conference unveiling the findings of the report today. "It's going to take time and it's going to require a focused and sustained effort."

Gupta said there were "long-standing systemic deficiencies" within the Baltimore Police Department and that "sustainable reform" was necessary to keep both officers and the community safe.

The sharp indictment of the agency came in a extensive report the federal Government released after a 14-month "pattern or practice" investigation of the city's police force.

The probe found that a police force rooted in "zero tolerance" enforcement that started in 1999 but ended a decade ago has created a deep divide between police and many members of the community it serves. The city's policing strategy, lack of training and inattention to officer accountability has cultivated an agency that allows and encourages officers to stop, arrest or search black residents with little or no legal justification. The report also found that the police department engaged in unnecessary force against juveniles, people with mental health issues and people who were restrained and presented to no threat.

"BPD deployed a policing strategy that, by its design, led to differential enforcement in African-American communities," the report stated. "But BPD failed to use adequate policy, training and accountability mechanisms to prevent discrimination, despite long-standing notice of concerns about how it polices African-American communities in the City."

In other words, according to the 163-page Justice Department report: "The relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and many of the communities it serves is broken."

The report cited several examples of how the enforcement strategy went wrong: a boy with no criminal record arrested for loitering outside his own home; a black man in his mid-50s stopped 30 times in less than four years; and a police sergeant telling a patrol officer to "make something up" when there was no reason to stop and question a group of black men sitting on a corner.

"These and similar arrests identified by our investigation reflect BPD officers exercising nearly unfettered discretion to criminalise the act of standing on public sidewalks," the report found.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said while the findings of the report are "challenging to hear," the investigation creates a "crucial foundation" that will allow the city to change the department.

"It's so very important that we get this right," Rawlings-Blake said. "The report and its follow up will help to heal the relationship between the police and our communities."

Now that the investigation is complete, city officials will work with the justice department to implement a series of court-mandated reforms outlined in what is known as a "consent decree". The Mayor said it could cost the city anywhere from US$5 million to US$10 million annually to make the suggested changes, which include improved training programmes and new technology and equipment to modernise the police force.

The court-enforced order will be independently monitored and designed to sustain reform regardless of who is the police commissioner or mayor, justice officials said.

City police Commissioner Kevin Davis said that he has already fired some officers as a result of the Justice Department's investigation. Davis also said that he would not tolerate policing that is sexist, racist or discriminatory.

"Change is painful, growth is painful, but nothing is as painful as being stuck in a place that we don't belong," Davis said.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, right, walk to the podium for a news conference at City Hall in response to a Justice Department report. Photo / AP
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, right, walk to the podium for a news conference at City Hall in response to a Justice Department report. Photo / AP

Baltimore has long struggled with strained relations between residents and police, but the need to ease those tensions became more urgent after the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, 25. Gray suffered a fatal spine injury in police custody, triggering demonstrations and riots that flung the city into the national debate over race-based policing and fatal law encounters involving black men.

The same day the governor lifted the state of emergency in Baltimore following unrest over Gray's death, the Mayor requested the civil right's probe from the Justice Department. Her request put Baltimore on the expanding list of cities - including Chicago, Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland - that have sought federal resources to enact law enforcement reform.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby - whose office prosecuted six officers involved in Gray's arrest - said yesterday that the Justice Department's report "will likely confirm what many in our city already know or have experienced first hand".

Mosby said: "While the vast majority of Baltimore City Police officers are good officers, we also know that there are bad officers and that the Department has routinely failed to oversee, train, or hold bad actors accountable."

Mosby's office dropped charges against three of the six officers charged in the Gray case after a judge acquitted the first three officers who went to trial.

Since Gray's death, the city has already enacted a number of reforms, including installing new seat belts and cameras in the back of police vans and accelerating the city's body camera program.

Today's report - which focusing on agencywide, institutional practices - is separate from a specific, ongoing probe into Gray's death.


A CHALLENGE TO ZERO TOLERANCE

The Justice Department explicitly condemned many long-standing discriminatory enforcement practices by Baltimore police that allowed for illegal searches, arrests and stops of African Americans for minor offenses.

But the highly critical report was also an indictment of "zero tolerance" and "broken windows" policing, which seeks to quell crime by targeting minor offenses. Once heralded as ground-breaking crime-fighting strategies, they are now the subject of intense scrutiny amid the national debate over racially biased law enforcement.

"The powerful thing about this report is the way in which it validates what many of us have been saying about zero-tolerance policing in Baltimore for a very long time," said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, who lived in the city for 15 years and now lives in Baltimore County. "There are many of us who recognised that it was making the community less safe."

Often ranked as one of America's deadliest cities, Baltimore has long struggled with racial strife, poverty and high crime. The city's population had dropped significantly by the 1980s, as the crack epidemic drove the homicide rate to among the highest in the US.

As political leaders in Baltimore sought ways to stem bloodshed, City Council member Martin O'Malley won the 1999 mayoral election with a "tough on crime" platform.

Confronting a decade of 300 or more homicides annually, O'Malley adopted the zero-tolerance policing strategy of New York City.

Arrests soared - topping 108,000, prompting lawsuits and forcing judges to free prisoners to avoid overcrowding at the city jail.

Former Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. Photo / AP
Former Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. Photo / AP

Homicides dropped to 261 in O'Malley's first year in office. But the numbers plateaued and crept back up to 282 in the last year before he took office as Maryland Governor in 2007.

In David Simon's The Wire, which aired between 2002 and 2008, the character of Tommy Carcetti is inspired in part by O'Malley. Simon said O'Malley was "one of several inspirations" for the fictional ambitious politician.

A decade ago, with new leadership in the mayor's office, the city abandoned zero-tolerance policing. The new administration concluded that it was not reducing crime and had badly damaged community relations.

The Justice Department, after its 14-month investigation, said despite that change, the old practices persisted.

"The Department's current relationship with certain Baltimore communities is broken," the report stated. "This fractured relationship exists in part because of the Department's legacy of zero tolerance enforcement, the failure of many BPD officers to implement community policing principles, and the Department's lack of vision for engaging with the community."

O'Malley, who made a failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, defended his record. He said the Justice Department's report didn't consider "data and trends on enforcement levels, discourtesy, excessive force, and police involved shootings prior to 2010". The statement also said the report didn't consider efforts by his administration to reform the police department and improve training.

"Such a review would have shown reductions in each of categories of police misconduct even as Baltimore closed down open air drug markets and achieved historic reductions in violent crime," the statement said.

"Make no mistake about it - enforcement levels rose when we started closing down the open air drug markets that had been plaguing our poorest neighbourhoods for years. But after peaking in 2003, arrest levels declined as violent crime was driven down."

The Justice Department found that zero-tolerance policing in Baltimore focused too much on the raw numbers of arrests and stops and that that resulted in disproportionate stops of black residents over petty crimes such as loitering or trespassing.

- Washington Post

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