By Julia Craven
It’s a shame no one believed their truths about how law and order
Baltimore told y’all.
They said it during West Wednesday rallies in memory of Tyrone West, a black man who died during a 2013 traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore. They said it when victims who had been paid to keep quiet still chose to speak out about police violence. They screamed it at the top of their lungs after unarmed Keith Davis Jr. was shot in the face by a city cop in June 2015. Maybe you heard when they burned police cars after Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015. Or maybe when they talked about their certainty that no officer would be punished in Gray’s death.
On Monday, a federal jury actually found two former Baltimore police officers guilty in a major corruption case. Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, former members of the city’s now-disbanded Gun Trace Task Force, had been charged with racketeering and robbery.
Six other officers on that task force had already pleaded guilty on similar charges. Four of them had testified against Hersl and Taylor, proving once again what many black folks in Baltimore had known for decades: The Baltimore Police Department is a disgustingly corrupt example of how law and order falls on the heads of black citizens.
Testimony in the corruption case revealed that officers would drive their patrol cars toward groups of people, provoking them to flee, in order to justify unwarranted searches. They carried toy guns in case they killed an unarmed person and needed to plant something. They planted drugs. They tracked some of their targets with illegal GPS tracking devices. They robbed civilians. They sold drugs and guns. They put in for overtime hours even when they weren’t working and pocketed hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. They levied “taxes” on local drug dealers.
“Yes, cops take money from drug dealers. Cops rape. Cops lie in their reports,” University of Baltimore professor and Baltimore native D. Watkins wrote last month for Salon. “Cops beat people. Cops sell drugs. Cops threaten citizens. Cops intimidate other cops. Cops are gang-affiliated; they’ll snatch a blunt out of your hand and smoke it, hide extra guns in the dope house, aim their pistol at you for fun, plant drugs on you, make you sell drugs for them or with them, make you rob and steal, and then expect to be called ‘hero’ no matter what they’ve done. Politicians from every side — from those as progressive as Obama to those as racist as Trump — break their necks to co-sign their hero status.”
In light of the latest revelations, a Maryland state lawmaker has even called for disbanding the city’s police force, citing the dissolution of the Camden, New Jersey, police department in 2013. “The decision came in the wake of record high murder rates and an extremely inefficient police budget ― both of which are problems that Baltimore City currently faces. It was a bold, nearly unprecedented decision, but it worked,” said Del. Bilal Ali, who represents part of Baltimore.
A 2016 Justice Department report described how officers in the Baltimore Police Department routinely abused residents’ civil rights, targeted black individuals, performed unconstitutional searches, retaliated against individuals and failed to hold cops accountable for misconduct. The report said that the department was racist “at every stage of [its] enforcement actions” and that these practices “erode[d] the community trust that is critical to effective policing.”
In 2016, the No Boundaries Commission and the West Baltimore Commission on Police Misconduct, two local advocacy groups, released their own report detailing the abuse inflicted on residents of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood by police. Fear of law enforcement’s retaliation was so great that only 39 of the 450 residents who spoke with researchers were willing to be quoted, even under a pseudonym.
“It used to be that if you did something illegal, they patted you down, they arrested you, and they locked you up,” one resident told researchers. “Now, they don’t even arrest you; they just take you in the alley and they beat you up. It doesn’t matter what you do.”
Another resident said that one “officer picked me up and slammed me on my face, took my backpack off, and threw all my books out, and when they didn’t find anything kicked me in my stomach. I was just happy they didn’t lock me up and bounced.” (If this sounds crazy, please note that according to testimony in the corruption case, Gun Trace Task Force supervisor Sgt. Wayne Jenkins thought men over the age of 18 with bookbags looked suspicious.)
The report also took statements from people had witnessed officers robbing drug dealers.
But it shouldn’t take a federal trial, a federal report, a new local report or really any institutional confirmation to convince people of the way that many police departments ― including those outside Baltimore ― take advantage of the most vulnerable citizens. The people of Baltimore have been saying this stuff for decades. Yet it required a Justice Department investigation and a trial involving almost cinematic incidents of corruption for other folks to believe them. That itself is part of the problem.
Maybe, Watkins suggested, Freddie Gray’s death might not have gone unpunished in a country that wholly accepted the premise that cops are not always heroes, but often damaged individuals who readily harm black (and Latino, LGBTQ and other marginalized) citizens.
“How might a case like this have changed public perception around Gray’s death?” Watkins wrote, referring to the corruption trial. “Even though they stopped Gray for no reason and then he died while in their custody, people still saw them, at worst, as heroes who made a mistake. Because if all cops are heroes, those cops couldn’t have done anything intentionally malicious to cause Freddie Gray’s death, right?”