Eric Frazier

Baltimore’s troubles: More evidence of our police problem

By Eric Frazier

People clasped hands and sang "Amazing Grace" in Baltimore in the aftermath of rioting in April 2015 following the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died in police custody.
People clasped hands and sang "Amazing Grace" in Baltimore in the aftermath of rioting in April 2015 following the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. AP

If the new federal report on abusive policing practices in Baltimore didn’t leave you outraged, you need to have your head checked.

Or, better yet, your heart.

The year-long probe by the U.S. Department of Justice, launched in the wake of the turmoil surrounding the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, includes these sickening details:

▪ An African American man in his 50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years on suspicion of loitering or trespassing. None of the stops resulted in a citation or a criminal charge.

▪ Officers publicly strip-searched a woman following a routine traffic stop for a missing headlight. Despite having no evidence of a possible criminal offense or contraband, they forced her to pull down her underwear in full view of male officers while a female officer did an anal cavity search. The woman received only a repair order for the headlight.

What happened to the officer who ordered the search? He got a “simple reprimand” and the news that he could not supervise again until “properly trained.”

▪ A sergeant told a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American males, question them, and order them to disperse. When the patrol officer said he had no valid legal reason to do so, the sergeant replied, “Then make something up.”

This happened in front of justice department investigators.

Baltimore wasn’t plagued by a few “bad apples,” the report found. The city’s police department sent its officers out as badge-wearing street bullies rather than dispassionate upholders of the law.

I get that officers can’t always be as polite as Boy Scouts. The shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge underscored just how dangerous their jobs can be.

But you can’t keep law and order by breaking the law.

I know some of you won’t agree with federal officials’ critique of Baltimore’s police. You will, I’m sure, note that no cops were convicted in Gray’s death.

You see what Baltimore cops did as just “busting a few heads” in tough neighborhoods, letting the punks know who’s boss. If a few innocent people get stopped, searched, harassed or even – God forbid – shot, well, that’s part of the price we pay to keep the “criminal element” in check, right?

Wrong. There’s no such clause in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Those documents plainly give people the right to stand on a public street corner minding their own business.

They plainly give people freedom of speech, even if an officer finds their speaking “disrespectful.” And they forbid officers from strip-searching people just because they happen to be in the “wrong part of town.”

Charlotte’s police department is working hard to head off conflict between officers and citizens. It is assisting researchers in developing early-warning analytics to predict which officers might be at risk for potential misbehavior.

But what happened in Baltimore is no aberration. The Justice Department is enforcing reform-driving consent decrees on police agencies in 14 cities, including Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland.

The kind of lawless freelancing that went on in Baltimore erodes respect for the rule of law. It helps explain – if not excuse – the violent protests that erupted after Gray’s death.

We’ve dismissed and downplayed this problem for too long. Now we’ve got crazy vigilantes trying to take matters into their own hands.

We need stronger training in de-escalation and national standards on the use of force. If Congress wants to prove it can still lead on a critical issue, this is a good place to start.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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