DOJ’s Startling Baltimore Report Proves It: We Need More Data on Cops
In the Department of Justice’s newly released report about discrimination within the Baltimore Police Department, every data point is more damning than the next.
Of the 410 people who were stopped by police at least 10 times over a five and a half year period, 95 percent were black.
Of all vehicle stops that occurred during that time, 82 percent of them involved black drivers, though just 60 percent of the driving age population in Baltimore is black.
While research shows people of all races use drugs at roughly the same rate, in Baltimore, black citizens were arrested for drug possession at five times the rate of others. And black citizens were more likely to be charged for low-level offenses. They made up 91 percent of people charged solely with a “failure to obey,” 89 percent of the people charged with making a false statement to an officer, and 84 percent of the people arrested for “disorderly conduct.”
“These violations have deeply eroded the mutual trust between BPD and the community it serves, trust that is essential to effective policing as well as officer and public safety.” said Vanita Gupta, deputy assistant US attorney general, during a press conference in Baltimore today.
The 163-page report is the result of an investigation that began in May 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man who died from spinal injuries while in police custody. His death sparked protests about racial injustice throughout Baltimore and the United States. The investigation looked at police activity between 2010 and 2015 and unearthed rampant misconduct and bias within the police department.
While there have been heated debates about the circumstances of Gray’s death—and the deaths of so many other black men and women at the hands of police—the Justice Department was unambiguous in condemning a culture of undue force and discrimination within the Baltimore Police Department, and there’s one reason for that: Now, they have the numbers to prove it.
There are so many startling civil rights violations listed in the Justice Department’s report, from a line about one man who was stopped 30 times in less than four years, without ever being arrested, to the revelation that some police supervisors ordered their officers to specifically target black people for stops. Most of these are cultural problems stemming from the era of so-called “zero tolerance policing” that began in Baltimore in the late ’90s. And yet, these stories could easily be explained away as anecdotal without the hard data to prove it. That’s what makes it so startling that the Department of Justice found an utter lack of comprehensive data within the Baltimore Police Department, which could help identify bad actors and patterns. That data would include such basic statistics as who is arrested, who is pulled over, for what, how often, and when and why police use force.
“The agency fails to provide officers with sufficient policy guidance and training, to collect and analyze data for officer activities and hold officers account for misconduct,” Gupta said.
Filling the Data Gap
Surprising as this gap may be in 2016, when data drives everything from our businesses to our politics, it is a pervasive problem throughout the country’s police departments, a problem the White House is very much trying to fix. This summer, the Obama administration launched the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, which aims to use data to reduce the country’s prison population. And last year, it launched the Police Data Initiative, which encourages police departments to use data to cut down on their use of force.
Meanwhile, some Black Lives Matter activists have begun taking these data-finding missions into their own hands. The group Campaign Zero, started by Deray McKesson, Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett, and Samuel Sinyangwe, has compiled its own reports about police use of force and the implementation of body cameras in all 50 states. “It’s incredibly important,” McKesson, who ran for Mayor of Baltimore this year, says. “The framing for Campaign Zero is that there should be no public servants that operate above the law.”
But he hastens to add that data collection means little if it doesn’t directly impact police accountability. “The police were operating with very little oversight and accountability that allows the type of abuses to exist and to fester,” he says, of the Justice Department’s report. “Is tech important? Yes. But I think the technology pales in comparison of importance when I think about the deep lack of accountability and oversight the police department has.”
During her address at today’s press conference, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that transparency would be key to rebuilding trust between police and the community, and of course, data will be key to that transparency. She also noted that some changes are already underway in the city, including new training and data management systems, though she provided no details n what those new systems would do. It will also take funding. According to the Mayor, the city estimates spending between $5 million and $10 million the revamp its police system.
“We have not been standing still while this inquiry was underway,” she said. “Indeed some of these reforms began before.”
This report is only the first step in healing Baltimore’s wounds. Now, the Department of Justice and the city will work together to solicit responses from the public and agree on changes Baltimore Police Department must make, which it will outline in what’s known as a consent decree, which is court-enforceable.
For McKesson, this is an important step in addressing the inherent injustices that he and other Baltimore residents are all too familiar with. But valuable as this investigation has been, he says, “These investigations shouldn’t only be used on the heels of a tragedy.”
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