Investigation of the Baltimore Police Department Reveals More Than Racial Bias

The DOJ's yearlong investigation reveals Baltimore police bias against trans women, sex workers, and those who report sexual assault.

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More than a year after opening investigations following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray under the supervision of Baltimore Police, the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on its probe of the BPD has been released. The Baltimore Police Department, like many police departments across the country, is unconstitutionally biased against Black citizens, as well as people suffering from mental illness, trans women, sex workers, and those who come forward to report sexual assault or harassment.

In what many are calling a scathing review of BPD practices, instances of systematically reinforced biases and outright bigotry have been documented during the year-long probe conducted by the DOJ. 

Racism in BPD policing is rampant; there is no arguing with the racial bias shown in the arrest patterns studied: the report hones in on "zero tolerance" enforcement practices like stops, searches, and arrests, which disproportionately targeted Black citizens. Forty-four percent of these stops occurred in two small, predominantly Black neighborhoods that contain only 11 percent of the city’s population, and hundreds of individuals were stopped at least 10 times during this period, with seven individuals who were stopped more than 30 times; of those individuals, 95 percent were Black. One man in his fifties was “stopped 30 times in less than four years, none of the stops resulted in a citation or criminal charge.” 

Additional instances of systematized sexism, mistreatment of mentally ill citizens, and refusal to help or respect trans women in the DOJ's report paints a picture of how far-reaching and entrenched bigotry is in our police practices. In one email, an officer and prosecutor expressed disbelief over a survivor's story by reportedly calling her a "conniving little whore." During interviews, officers routinely asked questions or made statements that placed blame on them; for example, "Why are you messing that guy's life up?" Backing up this sexist behavior are numbers: Detectives requested less than one in five rape kits to be tested in adult sexual assault cases.

Among sexual assault cases, the DOJ also found that the BPD was less likely to take sex workers’ accounts of rape or assault seriously, reinforcing the concept that sex workers do not have the right to consent or not consent because of their line of work—a fundamental misunderstanding of consent.

Police also showed bias against trans women, often refusing to recognize their gender identity in interactions and policing. Trans women, and especially black trans women, face exponentially more instances of discrimination and violence, including sexual assault and murder. Experiencing systematic discrimination at the hands of police leaves trans women even more vulnerable members of society. 

The BPD also showed a lack of training and awareness when it came to interacting with people who are mentally ill, often responding with excessive violence during interactions that could have been de-escalated or not escalated at all with the correct training. The DOJ's probe found an incredible lack of training and accountability: “Numerous members of the BPD, from line officers to command staff to training personnel, conveyed to us that training is not a priority within the Department.” According to the report, the department either fails to collect and record important data, or not using the data even when it is recorded.

One example of this lack of accountability was shown in the analysis of the last 6 years of citizen complaints against the BPD: Only one incident was classified by police as a racial slur. But the DOJ's investigation found 60 additional complaints against officers who used the N-word—all of these reports were improperly classified by police as lesser offenses.

The comprehensive report reveals what amounts to a humanitarian crisis, one that is playing out in more places than Baltimore: the more intersections of marginalization you experience, the less likely you are to get help from police, and the more likely you are to be discriminated against and even endangered by police activities.

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