The Department of Justice released a report on the Baltimore Police Department on Wednesday, and it’s full of statistics and information from interviews that confirm previous allegations of racist policing practices. According to the DOJ investigation, BPD violated residents’ constitutional rights by stopping and searching black residents far more than white residents (even though they found more illegal guns and drugs on the latter), issuing explicit orders of discrimination, and making routine use of excessive force.
Some of the most gut-wrenching anecdotes from the report involve BPD officers who allegedly exploited sex workers, dismissed violence against women, and intimidated survivors of sexual assault. The DOJ has exposed patterns of disturbing behavior that suggest officers were not trained in the best practices of handling allegations of sexual violence and, in some cases, used their positions of power to exploit the very populations that most needed their protection.
Through a review of BPD’s case files and interviews with sexual-assault survivors and victims’ advocates, the DOJ found reason for “serious concern” that gender bias prevents BPD from adequately investigating crimes. The report says officers regularly tell victims that their behavior may have led to the assault and that they should feel bad about the potential repercussions of a sexual assault report on their perpetrator. When a woman reports a sexual assault, officers often ask her, “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?”
A Baltimore victims’ advocate told the DOJ that she or he heard a detective from BPD’s sex crimes unit say at a party that “in homicide, there are real victims; all our cases are bullshit.” When pressed, he revised his statement: “OK, 90 percent.” The DOJ also found an email correspondence in which a BPD officer and a prosecutor agreed that a woman who reported a sexual assault was a “conniving little whore.”
The report also accuses BPD of ignoring sexual-assault reports made by sex workers, who are often targeted by rapists and abusers. In one case, a sex worker reported being threatened by a person with a gun; the perpetrator admitted to the assault and gave an account nearly identical to the victim’s. “Nonetheless, the BPD detective made no attempt to corroborate the victim’s account of the assault with witness interviews or other evidence and told the suspect that he would not be charged with anything other than possession of a gun,” the DOJ report reads.
Some BPD officers may have even committed sexual assaults on the job. Over the past five years, the report says, BPD has received more than 60 complaints of unlawful strip searches. In one case, officers stopped a woman for driving with a missing headlight. They ordered her out of her car and told her to take off her clothes on the sidewalk; the male officer instructed the female officer to strip-search the driver. On the sidewalk, in full view of the street, the officer performed a full search that included an inspection of the woman’s anal cavity. Police found no evidence of contraband or wrongdoing and released the driver with an order to replace her headlight.
DOJ also found evidence of officers extorting sex workers by promising them protection from arrest in exchange for sex. Other officers coerced sex workers into sexual activity with money and drugs. BPD received several tips about these officers from sex workers and other police departments, but either failed to properly investigate the allegations, delayed them, or ignored them altogether. One officer was the subject of three such reports over more than three years, all of them claiming he had frequent sex with sex workers in his patrol car in exchange for cash or promises of immunity. BPD assigned a different detective to investigate each report, kept the alleged offender on the force more than a year after finding incriminating phone records, and finally allowed him to resign without any criminal prosecution.
“This was not the only case in which allegations were made that officers coerced sex in exchange for immunity from arrest,” the report reads. “We found other complaints of this nature were also not properly investigated.”
The patterns of abuse and misconduct detailed in the report illustrate the logical byproduct of a police force that sees itself as a regulator of a community, not a part of it. The DOJ report says BPD trainings encouraged officers to think of themselves as “warriors” instead of “guardians,” the exact opposite of what humane-policing advocates recommend. It continues:
We found a prevalent “us-versus-them” mentality that is incompatible with community policing principles. When asked about community-oriented problem solving, for example, one supervisor responded, “I don’t pander to the public.” Another supervisor conveyed to us that he approaches policing in Baltimore like it is a war zone. A patrol officer, when describing his approach to policing, voiced similar views, commenting, “You’ve got to be the baddest motherfucker out there,” which often requires that one “own the block.” Officers seemed to view themselves as controlling the city rather than as a part of the city. Many others, including high ranking officers in the Department, view themselves as enforcing the will of the “silent majority.”
An organizational ethos that rewards antagonistic machismo and seeks to control rather than protect residents is bound to produce a force that victimizes women—particularly women of color—in an attempt to demonstrate its authority. An organization that fails to hold misogynist, unscrupulous officers accountable is bound to foster abuses of power and lose stand-up employees who become disillusioned by their superiors’ negligence. In Baltimore, as always, the people who have suffered these institutional failings the most are those at the margins, those easiest for the system to ignore.