When peaceful protests over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray turned into riots in Baltimore, the word “thugs” was used liberally in the media to describe those who had participated. It was also used by law enforcement officials in Maryland, and even President Obama, to identify the rioters, who were reportedly predominantly high school-age students.
And while rioting is an absolutely reprehensible and ineffective tool to implement change, it’s important to understand the frustrations in Baltimore that led to this point. Freddie Gray’s death was the spark, but the fuel has been spilling out for a long time. The Baltimore-Sun conducted an intensive investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, which details some of the horrors the city’s residents have experienced at the hands of their law enforcement agency.
Here’s what they uncovered:
The Numbers Add Up
From 2012 to July 2014, the Baltimore Police Department received 3,048 complaints about police misconduct and investigators were only able to clear 1, 203 of them in court. The city has also faced 317 lawsuits since 2011, from residents who alleged that their civil and constitutional rights were violated by police officers, in infractions raging from assault, to false arrests and false imprisonment.
They settled 102 of those suits at a cost of approximately $5.7 million. According to The Sun, more than 850 officers have been disciplined and 61 have resigned, but many faced no internal punishment, even if they were found to be at fault in court.
Why Don’t We Hear About These Cases?
Although the details of these police assault cases are alarming, many of the incidents don't make the news because of legal restrictions. As the paper put it, "The city’s settlement agreements contain a clause that prohibits injured residents from making any public statement -- or talking to the news media -- about the incidents."
And If It Does Reach A Public Forum ...
If residents do speak about the case, the city is entitled to countersue and take back money from the settlement. And then there's this: "When settlements are placed on the agenda at public meetings involving the mayor and other top officials, the cases are described using excerpts from police reports, with allegations of brutality routinely omitted."
Repeat Offenders Are Still On The Loose
A high percentage of the civil lawsuits were filed against the city’s Violent Crimes Impact Section, which was finally disbanded in December 2012. Those officers operated in plainclothes and usually had “no accountability” for their tactics, according to the report. If they did face lawsuits, the city did not keep track of them, so some officers were involved in “as many as five lawsuits” but still kept their jobs.
The officers’ defenses in these cases typically involved them arguing that they “feared for their safety” or that the subject was “resisting arrest.” If the frequency of that defense is no cause for doubt for you, recall that the South Carolina officer who was charged with murder in the death of Walter Scott also seemed to imply that he feared for his safety. That was before video surfaced of the officer shooting at Scott eight times as he tried to flee with his back to the officer.
Grandmothers Aren’t Off Limits
Venus Green was a retired teacher who spent her later years as a foster parent. In July, 2007, her grandson showed up at home with a gunshot wound, but when they called for help, things got worse. According to 87-year-old Green’s testimony, one officer insisted that her grandson had been shot inside their home and so tried to force his way in. When she asked the officer not to, he used excessive force.
“Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black bitches I have locked up,” she recounted the officer saying. “He pulled me up, pushed me in the dining room over the couch, put his knees in my back, twisted my arms and wrist and put handcuffs on my hands and threw me face down on the couch.” Her shoulder was broken during the incident.
Pregnant Women Aren't Off Limits Either
Starr Brown was pregnant in September 2009, when she saw a group of 20 girls attacking two others on her way home. When the cops showed up and began chastising the victims, she tried to explain to officers what she saw, but that didn’t sit well with them. “He comes and grabs my arms,” Brown recounted. “He’s like, ‘You’re getting arrested. You’re coming with me.’ ” She tried to explain that she was pregnant, but the response, was simply, “[We] hear it all the time.”
“They slammed me down on my face,” Brown added. “The skin was gone on my face. ... I was tossed like a rag doll. He had his knee on my back and neck. She had her knee on my back trying to put handcuffs on me.”
Handcuffs Are Only The Beginning
Salahudeen Abdul-Aziz won a $170,000 settlement after being beaten by police in West Baltimore in 2009. Abdul-Aziz was already handcuffed in a squad car, when he was pulled out and witnesses testified that they saw the officers slam him on the floor and “hit him five or six times with his fist.” The incident left him with a broken nose, a facial fracture, swelling and a hemorrhage in his right eye.
And 'Kidnapping' Teenagers Isn't Out Of The Question
The Sun reports that in 2010, three officers were charged with kidnapping two teenagers and leaving one in a state park without his shoes or cell phone.
But They’re Trying To Fix The Problem?
The city appointed Anthony W. Batts as police commissioner in 2012 and part of Batts’ mission statement was to work to stamp out misconduct within the police force. Batts founded the Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau, which is run by Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, and aims to ensure that Baltimore residents’ constitutional rights are not violated by police officers.
Since then, the city has reportedly began to track more cases of misconduct and punish officers adequately. They’ve also reportedly made trial boards tougher, which has increased punishment for officers.