Baltimore police, under scrutiny for racial bias, promise changes

Loretta Lynch entering building with official escort (© AP Images)
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch arrives at the University of Baltimore to speak with community activists on May 5, 2015. (© AP Images)

The U.S. Justice Department and the Baltimore Police Department agreed the police need to make reforms after a federal report released August 10 criticized police officers for using excessive force and routinely discriminating against blacks.

The report, the culmination of a yearlong investigation into one of the country’s largest police forces, found that officers made a large number of stops — mostly in poor black neighborhoods — with dubious justification and unlawfully arrested citizens when officers “did not like what those individuals said.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said six officers who committed egregious violations have been fired this year.

“Fighting crime and having a better, more respectful relationship with the community are not mutually exclusive endeavors. We don’t have to choose one or the other. We’re choosing both. It’s 2016,” Davis said.

The commissioner and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake promised the report would serve as a blueprint for sweeping changes.

The court-enforceable directive will force the police agency to commit to improving its procedures to avoid a lawsuit. The decree likely will not be finalized for many months, said Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The Justice Department has undertaken similar wide-reaching investigations into the police in Chicago; Cleveland; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Ferguson, Missouri, among other cities.

Federal investigators spent more than a year interviewing Baltimore residents, police officers, prosecutors, public defenders and elected officials, as well as riding along with officers on duty and reviewing documents and complaints.

“Nearly everyone who spoke to us … agreed the Baltimore Police Department needs sustainable reform,” Gupta said.

State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, the city’s top prosecutor, said she expected the report to “confirm what many in our city already know or have experienced firsthand.”

“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,” she said in a statement.

The federal investigation was launched after the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose neck was broken while he was handcuffed and shackled but left unrestrained in the back of a police van. The death set off protests and the worst riots in the city in decades.

Six officers, three white and three black, were charged in Gray’s death. Three were acquitted, another officer’s trial ended in a mistrial, and the charges against the others were dropped.