During the recent presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump pledged to make African-American neighborhoods “safe.” As part of this campaign rhetoric, Trump promised to give the police more power to make these neighborhoods “safe.”
Abuse of Power, Stop and Frisk, Racial Profiling
Our concern is this: we have already seen too much abuse of power in African-American neighborhoods. Public speculation is that Rudy Giuliani will be appointed Attorney General of the United States. He was the author of “stop and frisk” that was overwhelmingly used to target African Americans and Latinos for arrest and detention. He has a history of being friendly to police abuses of power.
Trump Administration and Police Abuse
So how will a Trump administration Justice Department deal with police departments that abuse the citizens they pledge to “protect and serve”?
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department (CDDOJ) has the authority under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (42 U.S.C. § 14141) to investigate state and local law enforcement agencies when there is reasonable evidence that an agency has systematically deprived people of their civil rights. There must be more than harm to a single individual or an isolated action before the CDDOJ can launch such an investigation.
Texans Give Police “F”
A 2015 study revealed that 47 percent of Americans have a negative perception of their police department. In Texas, the study found that residents gave three of the state’s largest police departments—San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth—an “F” rating while the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) received a “D” rating.
Police Abuse Costs Millions
The near failing grade of the BPD is not surprising. The department has a long history of official corruption and systematically abusing the residents of the city it is supposed to protect and serve.
A 2014 report in the Washington Post found that the city had shelled out $5.7 million in settlements and awards and another $5.8 million in legal fees connected to lawsuits brought by people abused by the BPD. That does not include the $6.4 million settlement in the Freddie Gray case—a case that triggered riots across the city in 2014. The Baltimore Sun reported that the Gray settlement exceeded what the city paid out to settle 120 previous lawsuits against BPD.
Tragedy of Freddie Gray
The 25-year-old Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury in BPD custody either while being arrested or during a “rough” police van ride following his arrest. Six officers involved in Gray’s arrest and the transport in the police van were charged with crimes ranging from assault to murder. After three of the officers were acquitted following bench trials, state prosecutors dismissed charges against the remaining three officers indicted in the case.
It was Freddie Gray’s unfortunate death that prompted the CDDOJ to conduct a civil rights inquiry into hundreds, if not thousands, of citizen complaints about misconduct by the BPD.
DOJ Reports BPD Engaged in Illegal Conduct, Excessive Force and Retaliation
On August 10, 2016, the CDDOJ released the findings of its investigation which found that there is “reasonable cause” to believe the BPD engages in practices that violate either the Constitution or federal law. These practices were identified in four categories:
- Making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
- Using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities of the rates of stops, searches, and arrests of African Americans;
- Using excessive force; and
- Retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression.
Police Stops Without Reasonable Suspicion
Specifically, the report found that of the more than 300,000 stops initiated by the BPD from January 2010 to May 2015, most were concentrated in African American neighborhoods and were undertaken without “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing by the individuals stopped.
Overly Aggressive Use of Force Against Little or No Threat
With respect to the use of force, the report found the following recurring problems with the BPD’s use of force practices:
- First, BPD uses overly aggressive tactics that unnecessarily escalate encounters, increase tensions, and lead to unnecessary force, or fails to de-escalate encounters when it would be reasonable to do so. Officers frequently resort to physical force when a subject does not immediately respond to verbal commands, even where the subject poses no immediate threat to the officer or others. These tactics result from BPD’s training and guidance.
- Second, BPD’s uses excessive force against individuals with mental health disabilities or in crises. Due to a lack of training and improper tactics BPD officers end up in unnecessarily violent confrontations with these vulnerable individuals. BPD provides less effective services to people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities by failing to account for these disabilities in officers’ enforcement actions, leading to unnecessary and excessive force being used against them. BPD has failed to make reasonable modifications in its policies, practices, and procedures to avoid discriminating against people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities.
- Third, BPD uses unreasonable force against juveniles. These incidents arise from BPS’s failure to use widely accepted tactics for communicating and interacting with youth. Instead, officers interacting with youth rely on the same aggressive tactics they use with adults, leading to unnecessary conflicts.
- Fourth, BPD uses unreasonable force against people who present little or no threat to officers. Specifically, BPD uses excessive force against (1) individuals who are already restrained or under officers’ control and (2) individuals who are fleeing from officers and are not suspected of serious criminal offenses.
Historical Abuse of African American Males
Historically, the police in this country have always viewed African Americans, especially black males, as being more violent and dangerous than other ethnic groups. This perception, more often than not fueled by racial bias, is the root source of the adversarial relationship between the police and African Americans which does not exist between the police and Caucasians.
African Americans do commit more homicides (52% of all homicides) and other violent crime than Whites, most of which are committed against other African Americans. But, the massive advantages whites enjoy in employment, education, housing, wealth, social status, and every other socio-economic factor that contributes to a successful, law-abiding life easily account for the disparity in the crime rates between the two races. The dominant class in any society is always more law-abiding than the oppressed classes because they control the wealth, set the moral values, and enact the laws that distinguish the law-abiding from the lawless.
Inner Cities, Occupied Territories
African Americans as a race are not any more violent or dangerous than Whites. By and large, the only people who think blacks are more violent and dangerous than whites are white people—and it is their racial fears, whose origins can eventually be traced to the horrific institution of slavery, that have produced militarized police forces that view virtually all black people through one lens: the enemy. Police departments nationwide, like the BPD, have assumed a license to think of predominantly African American inner-city communities as “occupied territories” they must patrol, control, and force into submission and compliance by any means necessary.
Philosophy of Policing Does Not Protect and Serve Equally
And that’s where we, as a society, have gone wrong in policing in this country. The job of the police is to equally protect and serve every ethnic community in this country—not to shield one community from another based on unfounded fears and blatant racism. The police cannot, and should not, impose their law-and-order definitions, moral values, and manufactured cultural superiority over targeted communities based on race.
Militarized Police “Forces” Occupy Communities of Color
The police have two parallel purposes: serve the community by helping those in need or distress, and protect the community from those who pose a real danger to others or themselves. The police are not an occupying force. People have become so accustomed to calling police departments “police forces” that many departments now provide military-style training and equipment, not to keep the country safe from crime but rather to control, even suppress, racial minorities, especially African-Americans.
Whether or not the CDDOJ’s indictment of the BPD will affect any measurable changes in its police practices and policies remains to be seen. It seems unlikely under the Trump administration.