The illegal arrest by a Baltimore City cop has lead to charges of false imprisonment and misconduct, but also reveals a deep-rooted reason why police seek to silence critics
TAYA GRAHAM Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network. In this show, we take another critical look at the critical role money plays in police malfeasance by examining the actions of this officer caught on body cam making an unlawful arrest. The officer has been charged, but shortly after he was arrested, details emerged of how much he was getting paid, which has raised new questions about how policing and money mix. We will also be revisiting a story that raises vexing questions about the idea of police investigating themselves and how far one woman had to go to hold an officer accountable for pulling a gun on her unarmed teenage son. And finally, we’ll take a closer look at the squeegee kids who make a living washing windows, but who have recently become the target of City Hall, and what that says about the psyche of a city addicted to punishment. Now, just a quick reminder, The Police Accountability Report is intended to hold one of the most powerful political institutions in the country accountable– policing. To do so, myself and my reporting partner and Real News producer, Stephen Janis, use this forum to provide more context to our on-the-ground reporting on policing and law enforcement problems across the country. So, Stephen.
STEPHEN JANIS Oh, yeah. Well, you know, the thing is I think a lot of times, policing actions are viewed without any sort of context as to sort of the underlying imperative that make them function. So what we want to do today is look at some of those underlying imperatives in the stories that we’re talking about– specifically, the role of money and also the role of failed efforts of reforms and how intrinsically some of these organizations, some of these police organizations, are built around sort of a faulty idea of holding themselves accountable, and then ultimately, what policing means in the context of how it invades our civic discussion and in some ways, constrains our imagination.
TAYA GRAHAM So let’s start the show with a story. It’s a story about a city, Baltimore, that has been putting most of its resources into policing. So much so, that amenities like recreation centers and schools are crumbling while cops are earning millions, but that dedication of communal cash is apparently not enough. In fact, in the past five years, police officers have claimed roughly $200 million in overtime pay on top of their already hefty budget. That’s despite record high crime, and the fact that Baltimore is one of the poorest jurisdictions in the state. Stephen?
STEPHEN JANIS Yeah. I mean, the thing that’s interesting about this case that we’re going to be telling you about is the behavior of this officer. One of the things that came out during the Department of Justice report was that Baltimore City Police would retaliate against people exercising their First Amendment rights and this case is crux to that. Why? One of the reasons was because you can’t take $50 million-worth of overtime from a community, you can’t basically ransack the city’s civic and communal cash, unless you are willing to suppress any sort of, you know, civic pushback. I think this case illustrates quite clearly how that process works. What makes it even more, I think, incredible is that it occurred after the Department of Justice report came out and after the city entered a federal consent decree.
TAYA GRAHAM So to demonstrate why the city keeps shelling out overtime, despite serious questions about what taxpayers are getting out of it and dozens of examples of outright theft, we’re going to show you some body camera footage. The video is from the camera of Sgt. Ethan Newberg, 49 years old and a 24-year veteran with the Baltimore City Police Department. The footage shows Newberg responding to a passing comment from a bystander, an encounter that led to this brutal arrest.
STEPHEN JANIS Yeah. I think this body cam footage is really critical to understanding, sort of, the nexus about how this type of retaliation works. We’re going to put it on the screen right now and you can watch. A bystander walks by and makes a comment about having a man sitting on, you know, a sidewalk because it was wet, and then you see seconds later, you know, the sergeant running after him and brutally throwing him to the ground–for what he said. There was no crime committed. There was no, nothing done wrong. It was just he expressed an opinion and I think that’s quite illustrative of what we’re talking about today.
TAYA GRAHAM Absolutely. Just out of curiosity, were any charges set against this man? Was this man charged with anything? The man who said, hey, you shouldn’t be putting someone on wet ground– was he charged with anything?
STEPHEN JANIS I think he was charged with disturbing the peace or a failure to obey an order, but that was, of course, immediately dropped once prosecutors got to the body cam footage and saw had happened.
TAYA GRAHAM Prosecutors alleged the arrest was illegal. The footage shows Newberg taking the man to the ground after he makes an offhand comment. Now, Stephen, the officer was charged for making an illegal arrest, right?
STEPHEN JANIS Yeah. False imprisonment, assault, and misconduct in office. Yeah. So he was charged with three crimes, but that wasn’t the end of the story. And so, after the officer was arrested, you know, and when we were writing about this story, a lot of people in the media looked into his salary, which is publicly available information. It turns out that this police officer makes roughly $250,000 a year, one of the highest paid people in the city, and much of that is overtime, so it just raises questions. What are we paying for? When you watch the video, you see a police officer who feels like he has the time and wherewithal to arrest a man for expressing his opinion, but he’s also the most highest-compensated people in the city, which again shows his nexus and this link between money and the power to suppress civic dissent. I think it’s pretty clear in this video that that’s what’s operating here.
TAYA GRAHAM So here’s the bottom line. This officer who made this at best dubious, if not outright criminal arrest, is one of the highest paid employees in the city. But what I think is even more interesting, is how the bad arrest and the good pay are connected.
STEPHEN JANIS I mean, the point is here, Taya, that I think is really essential to us understanding is that you have what is absolutely incompetent, unconstitutional, and illegal policing. What it is basically focused on is the expression of dissent or dissatisfaction and the point being that you can’t commit an overarching injustice without suppressing the mechanism for justice, which means keeping people quiet. The fact that this officer reflexively responded to a very mild critique from a passerby shows how ingrained that idea of suppression is in policing and how closely tied it is to the money.
TAYA GRAHAM Now, Stephen, it is worth noting that the Department of Justice investigation into the department found it routinely retaliated against critics, and sometimes with arrests.
STEPHEN JANIS Yeah, I mean, it was a big section in the report that said specifically that the police department retaliated against protesters, against people expressing their First Amendment rights, against people photographing police. It was systemic and it’s almost like that’s where they expend their energy. Let’s think about this in context. You arrest a guy, you gotta trump up charges, you gotta take him to central booking, you got to prosecute him–I mean, that’s a big process that involves a lot of people. You have to be pretty confident in your ability to control the narrative and to control the legal system to initiate that kind of process.
TAYA GRAHAM And, of course, this money gets recycled back into organizations like the FOP, the city police union. It’s money that is used to lobby and beat back any sort of reforms or civilian oversight, and it’s a process we witnessed first-hand as legislators actually asked permission of police lobbyists to water down a bill that would have given families of loved ones shot and killed by police, access to the officers’ disciplinary record. A bill, that ended up being watered down to simply allowing the public to purchase transcripts from internal disciplinary hearings. The influence of the FOP on our state legislator is obvious, right?
STEPHEN JANIS Yeah. I mean, you know, this is where the political economy of policing comes in because you have a political organization profiting off of human misery that then is allowed to influence the political process with the same bounty from that human misery that they inflict. It’s pretty sick, but it’s also shows how those two intertwine. Because we literally saw the power of policing in a legislative process where they were saying, is it okay if we change this? I mean, how many citizens are afforded that kind of, you know, control over a legislative process? That is really axiomatic of the political economy of policing, and how this overtime and all this money gets circulated back into a system that actually accentuates injustice.
TAYA GRAHAM And speaking of internal discipline, a big development in a case we covered here for quite some time, reveals just how problematic police policing themselves really is. A Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge this week threw out serious administrative charges against 12 officers for use of force because– now, wait for it– city investigators have waited too long to try the case. In other words, they were unaware of the statute of limitations on the case. One of those cases was a case we followed very closely involving Officer Damond Durant. Officer Durant pulled a gun on two teens waiting for a bus in November of 2017. One of those teens, Jawone Nicholson, spoke to us about that terrifying encounter last year.
And, perhaps, that’s where this case would have ended if not for the efforts of his mother, Erica Hamlett, to hold Officer Durant accountable. She filed complaints and followed up with internal affairs. She tried to attend an internal disciplinary board hearing that was canceled without notice, and managed to get a protection order, a peace order, against Durant without a lawyer, representing herself. But now, all those efforts were set aside due to the statute of limitations. We spoke with Erica Hamlett to get her reaction to what happened.
STEPHEN JANIS This is a prime example of why police cannot police themselves. You know, the allegations against Officer Durant were extremely serious. He pulled a gun when he was in plain clothes or just not even as a cop, and threatened these young men who were waiting for a bus, so it’s extremely, extremely, extremely serious. This is the kind of thing that could lead to a shooting and another dead young African American man for absolutely no reason. So, what happens? The police internal disciplinary process completely breaks down. And this is one of the main criticisms, another main criticism of the Department of Justice report, that internal disciplinary process was not just flawed, but totally corrupted. It doesn’t work and this is a prime example of how and why it doesn’t.
TAYA GRAHAM And what this ultimately means for Baltimore is that an officer who pulled a gun while off-duty on a teen for no apparent reason, is just back on the streets. A cop who had a problematic history before this. A cop who seems to have a less-than-cautious approach to brandishing his firearm and can use it again at his discretion. Even more astounding, the internal disciplinary process that was supposed to hold him accountable, seemed to do the opposite. All of this maneuvering was done while the department is supposed to be under federal consent decree, which is designed to fix these exact sorts of problems. It’s a development that I think calls into question any claims that the police can be reformed. In fact, Stephen, we gave a series of talks here at several colleges on the topic of how these, sort of, incremental reforms of police aren’t getting the job done.
STEPHEN JANIS Yeah. Well, we we did an investigative series called Why Policing Can’t Be Reformed, kind of, posing the provocative question. Like, this can’t work. You cannot reform a system that is inherently flawed and I think that’s what we’re seeing here. We know the city’s expended millions of dollars, entered a federal consent decree, and was supposed to fix these core problems– you know, retaliation for expressing your First Amendment opinion, and a disciplinary process internally that’s completely corrupt. And yet, they’re perpetuating themselves well past, you know, the implementation of the consent decree. So, policing can’t be reformed unless there’s systemic change to the whole idea and the philosophy that underlies it.
TAYA GRAHAM So for our final segment, we will take a look at how all this deference to policing can at times overwhelm our ability to have a meaningful civic dialogue. No better topic illustrates this phenomena than the squeegee kids, teens who work busy intersections in cities like Baltimore, earning cash by washing windows.
STEPHEN JANIS But like many cities, Baltimore has turned to the criminal justice system to deal with this issue. Just recently, the mayor has said that these kids are committing criminal acts, and said they will be dealt with by police, which again, of course, is the city’s reflexive answer to many complex social problems including poverty, which is why these kids are out there.
TAYA GRAHAM So we heard the mayor’s point of view, and it sounds like he finds the kids to be impeding traffic, and it sounds like that they’re on their way to being criminalized, but we decided to talk to the squeegee kids themselves and get their perspective and what they told us was revealing. Let’s listen to it.
STEPHEN JANIS And what these kids told us is something that we know, but isn’t really paid too much attention to, which is the fact that, you know, poverty and the desperate situation they find themselves in, forces them to do something to earn a living. And instead of the city understanding that message and understanding why they’re out there, they have chosen to criminalize and which only perpetuates the cycle and the imposition of poverty that makes so many of these problems in this city so acute. So, it kind of is a perfect example of how the city takes a very complex social problem, and tries to simplify it through criminality.
TAYA GRAHAM But yet, it will be the police who will ultimately mediate this. Meaning, it will be force and violence and state-sanctioned punishment, not a nuanced conversation about opportunity and poverty. And so, as we’ve discussed throughout this show, it’s not just about the power granted to police through the law, but also how our political leaders defer complex problems to cops because they simply lack imagination and courage to deal with it. It’s a concept that gets less attention but deserves more.
STEPHEN JANIS You know I think, Taya, too it’s like we see here the mythology of policing at work. That somehow everything is boiled down to a good and evil, or lawful or unlawful, and that the, sort of, nuances of what these kids are doing and who they are and their agency, right? I mean, Jack Young is going to send police in before he sends himself. He should be out on the corner, doing the squeegee, and maybe learning. And through that process, you know, we’ve talked before about the dead zone of imagination, right. You know, the fact that using force and violence to enact any sort of policy deadens the imagination of a community. Well, here’s a perfect example. These kids are a wealth of information about what’s really happening in the city. They are the, sort of, symbols of what’s wrong with things like the job program. And yet, the mayor never takes a second out of his day to talk to them. Rather, he sends in a cop. Yeah. We know it’s against the law, but is that really what this is about?
TAYA GRAHAM And these kids have their pulse on the finger of the city. They meet more people in a day than most people ever meet in a lifetime. They go by–The thousands and thousands of cars go by them. They try to have positive retail interactions with them. Sometimes they don’t go great, but they always try to approach people with respect. One thing that really stood out to me is that some of these kids get up at 7:30 in the morning to start their job, and work all day. Also these kids too, when they work in the groups, they share the money, so that way you don’t have one kid who is trying to get all the cars. They all go out and work together and then at the end of the day, they share the money they made. So, they’re already, kind of, turning things on its head. You know, it’s not your typical capitalism that they’re embarking on here. They’re a collective and they’re also entrepreneurs and small business owners. I think if that could be nurtured, I think we could see something really positive.
STEPHEN JANIS Because we rely almost wholly on law enforcement to address complex social issues it becomes, sort of, you know, an orthodoxy that consumes all of our imagination. We’re just gonna arrest him, or we’ll send some cops out there to deal with it, not address these kids in their complexity and where they are. I think that’s why policing, sort of, becomes a psychological buffer to other possibilities to our communal potential. It is the most destructive social force that should not be addressing these issues and nor should it be–But we see here in all these cases, the cop chasing the guy who says something, right? The police officer who pulls a gun, but doesn’t get hold accountable. All these things aren’t about solving burglaries, right?
TAYA GRAHAM Right.
STEPHEN JANIS This is not like solving a homicide. This is all about social control, imposing boundaries, and creating a social fabric where you criminalize someone based on the color of their skin. All, that’s what this is operative about. If you put together, you see it as a big picture. That’s what they do. And so long as that’s really the imperative of policing here, we’re going to end up with dysfunctional solutions.
TAYA GRAHAM You know, it’s interesting you talked about social boundaries because one of the things that Marion mentioned– he said, “They’re scaring the tourists.”
STEPHEN JANIS Exactly.
TAYA GRAHAM And once again, that points to well, who are the important people in Baltimore City? Is it residents here, the residents who need services, or is it the people who come from out of town to come visit the Inner Harbor? So–
STEPHEN JANIS And I think it is clear. You make a great point. It was clear who his priority was– not the children and their families who are suffering, but you have the people who drive in and just have one uncomfortable moment in their entire lives where they have to confront the poverty that they’ve created.
TAYA GRAHAM Right.
STEPHEN JANIS Sorry.
TAYA GRAHAM Exactly. And how many kids dis we speak to say, “I’m trying to help support my mom. I live in subsidized housing.”
STEPHEN JANIS Almost all three of them. All three of them said that. The three of the main interviews we did.
TAYA GRAHAM “I have to buy my own clothes. I have to buy food for the family.”
STEPHEN JANIS Yup. Yeah. Absolutely true.
TAYA GRAHAM These are kids who are trying to support their families.
STEPHEN JANIS But let’s send the police in. That’s what we do.
TAYA GRAHAM Exactly. Just so you know, we are committed to continuing these stories, and others of malfeasance by police, so that we can hold them all accountable. If there’s a story you think we should cover, please contact either myself on Twitter @tayasbaltimore or on Facebook @tayasbaltimore or Stephen. Stephen, what’s your Twitter?
STEPHEN JANIS Oh. @InvestigativeV.
TAYA GRAHAM Okay, @InvestigativeV.
STEPHEN JANIS Yeah.
TAYA GRAHAM If stories like these are important to you, please consider donating to the Real News Network and please share with us your stories of police accountability and hopefully you’ll see us talk about it right here. And thank you for joining us for the Police Accountability Report.