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What’s missing from the DoJ Civil Rights Division’s police investigations

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The US Justice Department, Civil Rights Division released a scathing, 163 page report on Wednesday detailing their investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD), concluding that BPD exhibits systematic racial bias against African-Americans. The report concludes the civil rights investigation launched last year after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old suspect taken into custody following a bicycle pursuit, suffered a fatal neck injury while in Baltimore police custody. The officers were charged criminally following the Baltimore riots, but have since had all charges against them dropped or have been acquitted in a court of law.

This DoJ report is quite similar to the one written following investigations in Ferguson, Mo. and Albuquerque, N.M. following controversial police uses of force.  In each instance, following the findings, the Justice Department and police departments entered into a consent decree, opening all data on stops, arrests and uses of force to the Civil Rights Division.

{mosads}However, in reviewing the report’s findings, one is left to wonder what elements are missing from these scathing reports that seem very quick to cite race as the pivotal factor in their conclusions. As the last report comes from Baltimore City, in where 63% of the population is African-American and the city police department has almost mirrored racial equality in its ranks, it’s very hard to adhere to a belief that racism is driving police activity. The report contains anecdotal evidence in combination with arrest statistics that paint a negative picture of the department. However, the excerpt of stories in the report are often taken in places like West Baltimore, where over 85% of residents are African American, and also has one of the highest crime rates. Just as in Ferguson and other cities where the DoJ issued scathing reports, one has to ask the age old “chicken and the egg” question:

Are the police conducting aggressive patrol and enforcement operations in African American communities because of bias or are high crime statistics and calls for service from the community causing them to be there?

Another valuable question to ask is whether recent changes in policing bringing these issues to bear? After William Bratton and Rudolph Giuliani were successful in New York’s record-breaking crime reductions of the 1990s, a myriad of other police agencies, including Baltimore, started using COMPSTAT (computer-based crime analysis) in deploying officers.  However, while the NYPD had over 35,000 members to deploy, this was luxury afforded to no other agency. This meant that to prioritize manpower, Commanders place an emphasis on uniformed patrol and quick, low-level narcotics operations, which limits the quality of arrests and ability to get convictions.  This would address the disparity in stops/arrests vs. convictions also highlighted in the DoJ report. 

At the end of the day, the nature of these DoJ reports can beg the question of their effectiveness.  A better use of governmental resources can easily be directed at the reason crime is so high in the very communities where these DoJ reports are focused.  If we, as a collective, recognize the job of the police, in responding to and preventing crime in the context of the high-crime areas where these investigations are conducted; then we can understand these statistics much better. 

As someone who has experienced these issues from both sides of the criminal justice equation, as a civilian and law enforcement officer, the effectiveness of these civil rights investigations and subsequent consent decrees is questionable.  I can, however, speak to a negative lasting effect of these consent decrees, since their first use in the post 1992-riot LAPD, which is a tarnish on the morale and reputation of the rank-and-file officers on the job who actually work in these communities at personal risk every day. 

Instead, our legislators should be directing the focus on the lack of education, stable parental support, and rising poverty in the communities where rising crime is driving a more aggressive police response.  Once you start looking at the contributors to crime, then you can begin to work on an actual solution to the problem that doesn’t polarize citizens from their fellow citizens charged with their protection.

A. Benjamin Mannes (@PublicSafetySME) is a national subject matter expert in public safety. He serves as a member of the Peirce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection.  

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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