Black ExperienceEditor's Pick

A Troubled Police Force and Hope for Change

For more than 50 years, the Baltimore Police Department has earned the reputation as a tough, bruising force that leveled most of its rough treatment and casual cruelty on Charm City’s Black residents.

Blacks in their 60s and others in their 30s speak of the brutality visited on them by a police force many came to despise and distrust. They spoke of harassment, beatings, detainment and arrests at the whim of the officers, as well as anger and frustration at having no public official able to force rogue officers to comply with the law and treat Black people humanely.

The Rev. Graylan Hagler, who was born and grew up in Baltimore, recalls the way Black residents were treated.

“I’ve been hearing some stuff (about the changes) on the periphery,” he said. “Historically, the police department was used to enforce segregation even after the Civil Rights Act. We couldn’t go into certain neighborhoods, so they pulled you over on ‘a routine check.’”

Rev. Hagler said his father bought a Lincoln Continental in the late 1960s and he was pulled over regularly. It was also well known in the Black community that initiation for White officers was to snatch a Black person off the street and beat them.

“That was the ‘Blue Code.’ Everyone in the department had to have blood on their hands,” said Rev. Hagler, a veteran civil rights and social justice veteran and senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. “There’s always been this really hostile relationship, especially with poor Black communities. You saw it with Freddie Gray. There’s a high crime rate because the police isn’t engaged, and the city is not engaged with the community either.”

Yet, one particular response by recently appointed Police Commissioner Michael Harrison surprised a number of people and held out hope that the department could possibly change. Media reports indicate that Sgt. Ethan Newberg, a 24-year veteran, was running a warrant check when a man passing by criticized him for placing the suspect on a wet street. Sgt. Newberg chased him down, grabbed him, tackled him, handcuffed him and arrested him. The sergeant filed a report saying the passerby “challenged him and became combative and aggressive.” However, after department officials reviewed Sgt. Newberg’s footage from his body camera, the real story came out.

“From what I saw, he did nothing to provoke Sgt. Newberg, whose actions weren’t just wrong but deeply disturbing and illegal,” said Police Commissioner Michael Harrison in a press conference announcing charges against Sgt. Newberg. “I don’t know how something like this would have been handled in the past, but I knew as soon as I saw this video, I knew how I’d be handling it.”

Sgt. Newberg, the second highest paid city employee in 2018, was arrested on June 6, charged with false imprisonment, misconduct and second-degree assault and suspended without pay.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper said he was heartened by Commissioner Harrison’s decisive action.

“Given its institutional history, that the Baltimore Police Commissioner moved so quickly, and so decisively is a very positive sign,” Chief Stamper told The Final Call. “Let’s hope that as the story unfolds further, we’ll learn that at least some of Newberg’s superiors and/or peers had also come forward with their own observations of his conduct, past and present.”

“This is an example of major systemic (and workplace culture) failure,” Chief Stamper continued. “Supervisors (and peers) have a responsibility to blow the whistle on alleged wrongdoing of the type you describe. And the department or, preferably, an independent investigative body, has an obligation to conduct timely, accurate, and thorough investigations into all instances of alleged misconduct. Failure to do so sends a message throughout the cop culture: brutality, bigotry, corruption will be excused. It sounds like Newberg’s bosses, and peers, did him no favor by not holding him to account long ago. Although, of course, he had an obligation to conduct himself with dignity, respect, and self-discipline.”

Wake Forest Law School Prof. Kami Chavis said Commissioner Harrison’s decision was unexpected.

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “A little justice. When anyone performs a criminal act, he or she should be punished. To have trust for police officers, violence should not go unpunished. You cannot have people operating above the law. This is a very important step.”

“No longer can an officer tell a different story,” added Prof. Chavis, associate provost for Academic Initiatives and director of the Criminal Justice Program. “The officer committed an egregious act and then lied. It almost tells us a little bit about the morality of some of the officers. We have so long operated in this type of culture in Baltimore where this type of behavior was commonplace.”

Critics of the department and officer behavior would find a great deal with which to agree with Prof. Chavis.

The department has lurched from crisis to crisis for years, with office-involved shootings, harassment of residents and beatings caught on body cams or videos. The depth and breadth of the corruption that grips the department exploded in 2018 during a trial involving seven of eight members of the elite Gun Trace Taskforce. Witnesses testified taskforce members were supposed to be taking illegal guns off the street. Instead, the officers were reselling seized guns and drugs right back onto city streets.

In a trial where one prosecutor called the officers “gangsters with a badge,” eight cops were indicted, six pled guilty, and four opted to testify in the case as government witnesses. During the trial, Gun Trace Task Force member Detective Maurice Ward testified that officers would use illegal GPS devices to track targets, break into homes to steal money, and keep BB guns in their vehicles “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.”

Mr. Ward, who pled guilty, recounted an incident where cops “took a man’s house keys, ran his name through databases to find his address, went into the home without a warrant and found drugs and a safe. The officers cracked open the safe, which had about $200,000 inside. They took $100,000 out, closed the safe back up, then filmed themselves pretending to open it for the first time.”

This corruption case deepened public suspicion that piqued following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old Black male was chased, detained by police, taken on a rough ride, suffered severe spinal injuries and died in a hospital. His arrest was captured on video as officers dragged him into a police cruiser and Mr. Gray appeared unable to walk.

Mr. Gray’s death triggered civil unrest, the torching of a number of businesses, looting, arrests of many who’d taken to the streets and dozens of officers being injured.

After the trials and acquittals of three of the six police officers who were charged and indicted, public anger, resentment and frustration ratcheted up.

The riots following Mr. Gray’s death crystallized the divide between both sides.

On Pennsylvania Avenue, a major Black thoroughfare, angry residents burned stores, businesses, and vehicles and shattered glass.

Baltimore activist Rev. C.D. Witherspoon echoed the sentiments of several activists, residents who maintain the city’s entire political structure is compromised by corruption, cronyism and greed, adding that the wishes and desires of Blacks are often ignored.

“I think the current commissioner has a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective, but you can’t put individuals in place to reform a system,” he said. “The department isn’t doing what’s in line with what citizens want and need. Corruption is like an in-grown toenail. We’re talking about a system here, a system not just locally but nationally. The police department needs to be dismantled and reconstructed. Needs to revisit what policing looks like.”

Rev. Witherspoon, an elder at The Light Baptist Church and a former Baltimore City chapter president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said city leaders and policy makers need to stop criminalizing health issues like drug addiction and instead treat it for the problem it is, a public health crisis.

“Public safety should not just be policing, there has to be a public health and mental health component that’s fully funded,” he said. “The people need to take control downtown and invest in schools, recreation and public health versus building on the waterfront.”

“A lot of people benefit from this plight. We know about private prisons and people getting rich. Other non-profits, in some instances, are profiting by offering employment and other opportunities. Yet this should always be community-driven, and residents should be in charge.”

Rev. Witherspoon, who lives in the Sandtown neighborhood, as did Freddie Gray, said little has changed since the young man died after an encounter with police.

“The only thing that has come to the community is a new police station,” said Rev. Witherspoon, who led several demonstrations after Mr. Gray’s death. “There are no new developments, jobs or rec centers. I don’t see how peoples’ minds have been changed since Freddie Gray’s death. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said riots are voices of the unheard. Frustrations could rise. It is like a powder keg.”

He said there have been “meeting of minds” and capacity building among and between grassroots communities.

“Grassroots people are talking but there has to be conversations about systemic and structural racism, the role of police in our communities and jobs beyond redevelopment of the Inner Harbor,” Rev. Witherspoon said.

In 2015, the police department began operating under a consent decree. As explained on the web page of the Consent Decree Monitoring Team, “Following an investigation that began in 2015, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) found reasonable cause to believe that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) was engaged in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations, which allegedly included making unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produced severe, unjustified disparities in stops, searches and arrests of African Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression.”

Baltimore Attorney Kenneth Thompson heads the Consent Decree Monitoring Team which is working to help the police department adopt a number of reforms aimed at ensuring effective, safe and constitutional policing. The team’s work is mandated by U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar.

“This (consent decree) is driven by decades of perceived mistreatment. Folks have felt police has always gotten a free pass,” Mr. Thompson said. “Sometimes there are officers with problems. They may have issues, problems at home and domestic problems. The proper technology would red flag officers who need help to supervisors.”

Mr. Thompson said his team is comprised of former police chiefs, other experts in policing and police reform, members of the civil rights community, and academics versed in psychology, social science, organizational change, data and technology and community engagement.

“The personnel in DOJ, to their credit, have been good stewards,” he said. “This is a lawsuit. The plaintiffs are kicking ass. They want change. It’s possible that the department resents us coming in. I don’t know. The city and police department have been true partners. The will is there. They want to save culture. The question is whether they will have money and capacity to do the job but I’m confident we’ll do it.”

He identified three of the biggest challenges that hinder successful implementation of the reforms. They are strengthening Internal Affairs so that the department properly investigates instances of misconduct or other deleterious behavior by police officers; outdated technology and staffing issues.

“The old unit had to be disbanded. It was so dysfunctional,” he said of the Internal Affairs Unit, which has been renamed the Police Integrity Unit. “In the old days, it wasn’t a very hospitable environment. It’s clear that there was favorable environment for those doing wrong. The DOJ saw minimization of charges. Now, it’s easier to file complaints and we’re making sure offenses were filed properly.”

Mr. Thompson said the team is putting in place a classification manual and is revamping the investigation manual.

“The unit is short-staffed and the technology is not up to par,” he said. “And it’s difficult to follow data. We’re making sure that the investigators are trained properly. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress but we’re still dealing with challenges. The department has indicated a really strong desire to change. But we still have a lot of things to do.”

Dr. Natasha C. Pratt-Harris is the principal investigator collecting data from a survey on community experiences and perceptions of city police that she and her colleagues conducted at the behest of the Consent Decree Monitoring Team.

After plumbing the community’s thoughts over a two-month period, she said she believes that significant and sustained change is coming to Baltimore City. But, she added, a prevailing sentiment from residents’ comments is the feeling that nothing will change. A major finding from the 640 people polled is that the community wants to see the police engaging and engaged with the community, said Dr. Pratt-Harris, an associate professor and coordinator of the Criminal Justice program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology with Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Chief Stamper and Capt. Joseph Perez said it’s going to be very difficult to transform a department with entrenched bias, suspicion of the people they’re purported to serve and a sense of entitlement that makes certain officers act with impunity.

“The biggest challenge is dealing with the public, mostly because there’s a lack of trust and a lack of community on our part,” Capt. Perez said. “The biggest thing is building that trust. Traditionally, in police departments across the country, they like the heavy-handed officers. You almost never see officers recognized for work in the community. We have to go back to basics, go back to the community. I’m not talking about optics. We have to go into the community, build trust.”

Capt. Lopez, a New Yorker who has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, said it’s a good move by Commissioner Harrison who has said police officers should go into the community for 20 minutes a shift.

“(But) many officers are resistant. It’s culture and begins in the academy. You can absolutely guarantee that every single person will say they want to help people, serve. But the academy fosters an ‘us vs them’ mentality. They see the community is a threat and they’ve got to have each other’s back. It’s the thin blue line, not reporting each other.”

Rev. Hagler, Prof. Pratt-Harris and longtime Baltimore City resident Nick Dorsey each noted problems in the department reflect problems in the city and the country.

“As with individuals, issues of race and what it means to strive and struggle are playing out. The problems found in BPD are found in the system, every school system, hospitals and elsewhere. The police department is mimicking larger society. We have to accept, acknowledge and address these issues,” argued Dr. Pratt Harris.

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