Baltimore’s “Big Government” In Blue Uniforms

Terrance Heath

The lack of convictions in Freddie Gray’s death was not a vindication of Baltimore police. The Department of Justice’s scathing report of its probe of the Baltimore police force laid bare the structural racism that poisoned policing in the city, and ultimately led to Gray’s death.

Freddie Gray knew what he was running from that April morning last year, when he made eye contact with a police officer, and started to flee. A resident of the Gilmor Homes housing project in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood, Gray, 25, had already been arrested multiple times on charges ranging from drug possession to playing dice at a public housing project. The charges were almost always dismissed.

But Gray’s luck was destined to run out. Living in an area that has suffered from blight, gun violence, and drugs since the 1990s increased Gray’s chances of encountering police — and the likelihood that one of those encounters would be violent and end tragically.

The medical examiner ruled Gray’s death from a spinal cord injury — one week after his “rough ride” — a homicide, not an accident and not a suicide. Gray was a homicide victim, but the justice system decided that no one killed him. None of the officers involved will bear any legal responsibility for his death.

After one mistrial and two acquittals, news that charges would be dropped against the remaining officers involved in Gray’s death may have left the city’s black residents with little hope for justice, but it was followed closely by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s report of its 14-month investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. The courts acquitted the cops who arrested Gray, handcuffed him, shackled him, and left him unsecured in the back of a police van while they drove him around for nearly 45 minutes, ignoring his repeated requests for medical attention. However, the Justice Department indicted all of the Baltimore Police Department.

After hearing from many Baltimore residents in public forums, and observing the Baltimore police directly, the Justice Department found that the city’s police officers, as a matter of policy, discriminated against black residents, too often used excessive force, and faced little in the way of discipline for their actions.

● Black residents account for 63 percent of Baltimore’s population, but 84 percent of stops initiated by the police.
● About 44 percent of 300,000 stops between 2010 and 2015 were concentrated in two small black neighborhoods, that contain just 11 percent of the city’s population of approximately 623,000.
● From 2010 to 2014, at least 95 percent of those stopped at least 10 times were black.
● Police stopped 34 black residents 20 times, and stopped seven black men 20 times or more.

Baltimore officers made numerous stops, most in poor, black neighborhoods like Sandtown, and often made unwarranted arrests for things like “trespassing” for standing on the sidewalk in front of public housing, or simply using language that individual officers deemed offensive or disrespectful. In one egregious example, during a ride along with a Justice Department observer, a supervisor told a patrol officer to stop and question a group of young black men. When the officer said he lacked a valid reason to stop the young men, the sergeant replied, “Then make something up.”

The officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death didn’t need to make up a reason to arrest him. Walking down the streets of his own neighborhood, making eye contact with a cop, and running away was enough. The Supreme Court, in its 2000 Illinois v. Wardlaw decision, ruled that police had the right to stop people for fleeing at the site of officers, so long as other suspicious factors — like being in a high-crime area — are in play. High-crime areas tend to be impoverished, and the people in them tend to be black and/or Latino.

Baltimore’s historically black Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood was once known as “Baltimore’s Harlem”, home to such notable residents as Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Thurgood Marshall. In the late 20th century it experienced economic downturn, abandonment, crime, and race rioting. At the time of Gray’s death, a third of its housing stood abandoned, 20 percent of its working-age residents were unemployed, a third lived in poverty, and 3 percent were incarcerated — more than any other Baltimore neighborhood.

Sandtown sounds a lot like Milwaukee, Wis., where police shot and killed a black man, reportedly armed, after stopping a car with two African-American men, for “suspicion.” Rev. Jesse Jackson writes that Milwaukee is “the most segregated city in the United States,” where blacks are segregated into “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty with declining prospects.” Black household income has declined 30 percent since 1979. Nearly 40 percent of African Americans are unemployed, up from 15 percent in 1970. For young black men ages 20 to 24, the unemployment rate is 68.4 percent, compared to 25.3 percent in 1970.

Sandtown had help getting that way. About 73 pages into the Justice Department report on Baltimore is a “redlining” map from 1937, in which the government decided which neighborhoods would be subsidized with government funding and which ones wouldn’t. The same government policies that shaped Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, restricted black people to segregated neighborhoods and later excluded them from homeownership in the suburbs — and as wealth-building equity. In cities like Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Ferguson, police violence against black communities accompanies economic violence committed by individuals or groups preying on the economically disadvantaged.

Justice for Freddie Davis is beyond the scope of the Justice Department report on Baltimore, and may be beyond the reach of our justice system. But that report, and others like it, hold out the possibility of reform and relief for black communities across the country. Baltimore is just one of seven cities undergoing Justice Department civil rights investigations. Under President Obama, the department has prioritized investigating misconduct and unconstitutional behavior in police departments.

The Obama administration has opened twice as many investigations into police departments as the Bush administration, when investigations slowed to a halt. Under a Donald Trump presidency, these investigations would not only cease altogether, but the impact of Trump’s “bully pulpit” could embolden police to act with even more impunity.

Conservatives’ zeal for reining in government turns into something else when marginalized groups, or groups they disdain — people of color, women, LGBT Americans, low-income Americans — suffer under the only form of “big government” conservatives don’t seem to mind. In Baltimore and other cities, the police are essentially “big government in a blue uniform,” engaging in unchecked, arbitrary use of power against black citizens, without fear of punishment, and with the full authority of government behind them.

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