Baltimore Sun journalist Mark Puente discusses his investigation into police brutality cases that have cost the city $5.7 million
ANGEL ELLIOTT, TRNN PRODUCER: I’m Angel Elliott for The Real News.
Joining us to discuss his much talked about and seemingly movement-catalyzing Sun investigative piece “Undue Force”, a story about how did the City of Baltimore has payed $5.7 million since 2011 settling police brutality cases, many of which are committed by repeat offenders, is Mark Puente. Mark Puente is a Baltimore Sun journalist that has been twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and before joining The Sun, covered St. Petersburg City Hall for the Tampa Bay Times. He was a crime and investigations reporter for the The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and is the recipient of the Al Nakkula awards, the only national journalism award devoted to the police reporting.
Thanks for joining us, Mark.
MARK PUENTE, JOURNALIST, THE BALTIMORE SUN: Thanks for having me.
ELLIOTT: So what was the catalyst for this report? What caused you to investigate police brutality in Baltimore?
PUENTE: The catalyst was The Baltimore Sun recruited me from Florida and they give me an assignment: go look at police lawsuits, see what you find. We don’t know what’s there. Spend as much time as you can combing through court files, and let’s see if we can find a story. It took about six weeks of going through a hundred or so files. I spent another four or five weeks going through a couple of hundred files. And then, after about two months, we realized what the story would show and what course we were headed on.
ELLIOTT: Were you surprised by your findings?
PUENTE: I had heard about Baltimore’s history with the troubles with the police department, and, actually, The Wire–everybody knows about that. I didn’t know what I would find. What surprised me, being a newcomer to Maryland, is the amount of money that was paid out and the allegations that were in every file, that people were arrested for the same four charges–assault on a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct, obstruction. And all the charges in nearly every case were dismissed. And then you add the racial component to that. And that was a big deal, I thought.
ELLIOTT: And that’s interesting. Nearly all of the cases, they were arrested for assault on a police officer. But did it ever say what precipitated that interaction?
PUENTE: Most of the charging documents and the court documents said that the suspect/plaintiff provoked the incident, became combative, and they suffered their injuries while resisting arrest, either falling down or tripping or struggling with an officer somehow.
ELLIOTT: Right. Did you find that there were similar demographics in the people that were arrested? Were they mainly black? Did they come from poor neighborhoods?
PUENTE: Of the 43 highest payouts, $35,000 and above, nearly every individual was African-American. One individual was white. In most cases, but not all cases, the officers were white, and the incidents did occur in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
ELLIOTT: What has the response from the community been? People in Baltimore have long just taken it as an everyday thing that police brutality occurs. A lot of people that I’ve spoken to have said they consider the Baltimore Police Department almost like their own separate gang. What has the response been from the community?
PUENTE: The response overall has been outrage from activists, regular community members who I’ve heard from. Some public officials said they weren’t aware that the city paid this much money out. The mayor said she knew it was going on, she had worked to step these incidents. Some pastor said, hey, finally somebody listening to us; we had heard about this stuff for years; it’s been documented; now is the time for change.
ELLIOTT: Speaking of the mayor, you reached out to the mayor during the course of your investigation.
PUENTE: We did. I met with her assistants. I met with the top police officials back in June. I was up front with them the entire time, said, here’s what the story will probably say, we have some more reporting to do. They knew the nuts and bolts of what was going to be in the story. From that point, I did some more reporting. Then it took a little bit of time to meet with the top officials. So they knew for some time the stories were coming. We didn’t keep it secret.
ELLIOTT: Right. You know, coincidentally or not, she started these public safety forums and town halls a couple of months ago. And you were at the press conference yesterday. They released the “Preventing Harm” 41 page document stating these supposedly huge changes that they were going to make to the BPD and ways in which they were going to stymie police brutality in Baltimore. And do you think this was as a result of your report? It seems reactionary to someone on the outside of what’s going on.
PUENTE: It wasn’t reactionary. The mayor had started the forums long before I got here. I even went to one of them in my first couple of weeks on the job to see what happens at these forums. A lot of stuff in that 41 page report was detailed in their strategic plan in an internal affairs audit I wrote about a few weeks ago. The new stuff in that report to me was that the commissioner wants more authority to discipline officers, and how the state law prevents that, and the union contract needs to be renegotiated. So, no, it wasn’t reactionary. They did give The Sun credit and said that they detailed these cases. But no, they’ve been working on that for quite some time.
ELLIOTT: Speaking of the police union, did they react to your article?
PUENTE: They did. They knew what was going to be in the story. After the story was published, they were critical of it in my meetings with them. They said I took a one-sided approach to it. I disagreed and said they can speak to my editor, write a letter to the editor. They felt that it didn’t distinguish enough between brutality and use of force.
We tried getting other numbers from the city about how many lawsuits were dismissed or deemed frivolous. The city doesn’t have any numbers like that to back up what the union guys were saying.
ELLIOTT: Do you think that’s a problem, that they don’t have better records of what’s going on?
PUENTE: That is a problem. They’ve admitted it’s a problem, and they’ve admitted it’s one of the things they’re going to change. They didn’t track these lawsuits. They had no idea that one officer was battling two lawsuits at the same time–altogether it was his fifth lawsuit and settlement. I went to them in July and said, hey, you just approved a settlement for this officer in April. Why didn’t you tell the Board of Estimates about the fifth one? And they said, well, we didn’t know till two days ago.
ELLIOTT: Is that police officer still on the streets?
PUENTE: As of Friday, he was suspended. We obtained in a video late in the 11th hour of the second story that contradicts everything officer Michael McSpadden said in his prior incident. He had said that he arrested this individual. He put him on a stool. The individual jumped off the stool with his fist clenched. To defend himself, he had hit him. He knocked him down, then handcuffed him without further incident. The video from the parking authority clearly shows he handcuffed the individual. You can’t see him hitting the individual because of when he stepped outside the camera view, but you see this guy fall off the stool, knocked out cold. But the camera is clear as day: his hands were already handcuffed. I told the city late Friday this would be–it would have been online Sunday, and they had said they became aware of it and was suspending him.
ELLIOTT: Where does this attitude come from? I mean, as a journalist, you have to be surprised that police who are charged with protecting or more or less serving the residents in Baltimore are so seemingly apathetic toward its citizens where they can just do this. Is part of the problem that they aren’t held accountable as much?
PUENTE: Well, even the department said in their strategic plan last year, when they released it, that discipline has never been a priority in the Baltimore Police Department. It depends who you ask where this culture comes from. Longtime officers say it was taught to them. Current officers say they’re taught to write reports that way, to put the blame back on the individual. If you talk to sociologists or criminologists, they say part of the problem stems from officers not living in the city: they come here to work, they don’t have a stake in the community, and they go home to another county. So that question’s kind of complicated. Depends who you ask.
ELLIOTT: They’re super complicated, because you see police officers that are from Baltimore still committing some of the acts of ones that aren’t from, you know? And Baltimore is unique because even though a lot of the police officers who committed these things are white, there are black officers who are doing the same thing. Were you shocked at the sheer amount of police brutality cases that were settled? And do you think that there were more that could have gone undocumented that you weren’t privy to?
PUENTE: One of the questions that was discussed with my editor–we documented the highest payouts and looked at them closely. They weren’t men or women on the corner selling drugs. They weren’t people breaking into houses or having a gunfight. Eighty-seven-year-old lady calls police because her grandson was shot. A pregnant accountant calls because she witnessed a beating. So you’ve really got to wonder, are those cases not being reported if something happens to those folks? In talking to different defense attorneys for this project, they had said they repeatedly get dozens of calls each week from people who make accusations they were beat up by the police, and they said the only cases they’re taking are the ones where there’s visible injuries.
ELLIOTT: What was one of the most shocking stories that you came across in your investigation?
PUENTE: I wouldn’t say shocking. The first story, titled “Undue Force”, the opening to that was an individual who walked into a carry-out one afternoon in 2009, bought some food. He turned around. Some people in jeans and hoodies were there, demanded his ID. He thought he was being robbed because they blocked the door. And then they get into a confrontation. He doesn’t want to sit on the floor as he was told to. They identify themselves as officers. And then he says that somebody struck him hard. That blow was so heavy his nose was broke, blood was pouring down. Then these individuals took off. And they were police officers. He sued them. The officer David Greene got on the stand and testified and said he didn’t know how this individual sustained the injuries. He said maybe he poked himself the face. And the jury awarded that individual $200,000.
ELLIOTT: And that’s the cap in Maryland that–.
PUENTE: There was a cap. Correct.
ELLIOTT: Do you think it’s a problem if there is a cap? It seems kind of low, because a lot of the payouts that I saw in your investigation seemed low for–I’m no doctor or psychologist, but you have–it’s not just physical injury that these people are sustaining; it’s probably mental injury that also feeds into this contentious relationship that Baltimore residents already have with the police.
PUENTE: Well, I think that’s the biggest problem with these lawsuits and the perception that it feeds into the community is even the mayor and the police commissioner said they need to rebuild the trust with the community. And when people read about officers doing this kind of stuff, there’s no trust. They need help solving crimes. When anybody gets shot or high-profile cases come up, they can’t get feedback from the community. So that’s a factor that nobody can really put a price tag on.
But there are a lot of injuries, the anguish that the people suffer. The 87-year-old grandmother we documented in the story, she said she suffered in misery after her injuries. They awarded her $95,000.
ELLIOTT: Do you believe that restoring the trust with the community is an answer? Because it seems like there are other systemic issues that Baltimore residents are facing, which is why they are getting into these situations. You know, this is happening in poorer neighborhoods, not affluent neighborhoods. You know?
PUENTE: According to the mayor and the commissioner, no matter who you talk to at City Hall or the police department, restoring the public trust is the number one goal. They’ve reiterated that through this time I reported on the story. In the press conferences they’ve had since then, anytime these latest videos surface showing police officers beating people, they come up. They reacted pretty swiftly and said this will not be tolerated. And they went a step further by asking the Department of Justice to come in and do an investigation.
ELLIOTT: Two weeks ago in one of the mayor’s weekly Wednesday addresses, she said something like, I can’t buy body cams with coupons, you know, basically saying, where’s the money going to come from? And yesterday in the press conference I heard her say that she was in the final stages of suggesting that body cams are put on every police officer. Is this a change of heart?
PUENTE: No, I don’t think it’s a change of heart. She said she supported the use of cameras, but she didn’t want to rush out and buy the first thing she could find. She was concerned about privacy issues, which is a natural concern for everybody, and how they would be implemented. So I don’t think it was a change of heart at all. She’s going to appoint this panel to look at it and study it and to find the best way to recommend it for the department.
ELLIOTT: What will your followup to your investigative piece be?
PUENTE: A number of things. I can’t pinpoint one thing, but we’ll keep following the daily stories on when the federal Department of Justice will come in and what they’re going to look at. And we’re trying to track that down now.
ELLIOTT: Have they contacted you at all as a reference to use your piece?
PUENTE: No, but I’m assuming they know about the piece. I’m sure the mayor or the police commissioner told them. No. They confirmed the investigation will take place. It could be a few weeks before we hear anything on the parameters, when it’ll start, what it’ll encompass. But looking back at two other cities–they did one in Las Vegas. It took them about ten months, I believe, to study everything. They looked at everything and they issued a 155 page report in May finding 75 shortcomings in the Las Vegas Police Department. But their issues were police officers involved in shootings, not beatings.
ELLIOTT: And a last question: what did you hope to come out of this investigative piece? I mean, it was assigned to you, but as a journalist, over the course of working on something, it kind of–it doesn’t become personal, but you take it in and it becomes really important to you in a different way. What did you hope to come out of it?
PUENTE: To get the facts right and to get on the front page. There’s nothing more gratifying for me then being on the front page of the paper. It’s–and that happened. And there’ll be more stories that come out of this.
ELLIOTT: And it did.
PUENTE: It did.
ELLIOTT: Yeah. Thank you so much.
PUENTE: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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