Last week’s oversight hearing for the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) consent decree fell just two days after the seventh anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray, but the focus was on “progress.”
“The problems at BPD were many years in the making and we are pleased with the progress that has been made since the consent decree was put in place,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division said.
That progress, all parties involved boasted, includes technocratic reforms such as changes to policies regarding use of force and other policing practices, a stronger internal affairs unit, better training facilities, and better record keeping. Much less attention was given to discriminatory policing.
Five years ago BPD was put under a federal consent decree, a response to the police killing of Freddie Gray in 2015 and a subsequent civil rights investigation into the department by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which revealed patterns of racist policing. That investigation resulted in an August 2016 compendium of police malfeasance and misconduct and, in 2017, BPD entering into the consent decree’s ongoing process of reform overseen by the federal government.
“We are not the same department we were five years ago,” Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said during the oversight hearing.
One of Harrison’s examples of how BPD isn’t the same department it once was: The police are no longer unconstitutionally shutting down entire neighborhoods the way they did back in 2017. Harrison, who has been commissioner since 2019, was referring to the illegal lockdown of the Black West Baltimore neighborhood of Harlem Park that followed the death of police detective Sean Suiter in November 2017. In contrast, Harrison noted, when Baltimore Police Det. Keona Holley was killed this year, police didn’t shut down the whole neighborhood; instead, they investigated the homicide and soon made two arrests.
The bar for progress within the police department is quite low in Baltimore City. Earlier this week, a study by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights was released. The study shows that Baltimore police were “vastly undercounting police uses of force” in the years leading up to the consent decree.
According to the report, in 2011, there was one reported use of force by a police officer. In 2013, there were three, and in 2014, there were five. In 2015, that number increased to 891. (The report notes that these low numbers are “implausible”).
In 2016, that number increased to 5,030 and then to 8,254 in 2017.
The report notes that in 2017, when police reported 8,254 uses of force, the police made 29,042 arrests, “suggesting use of force is as common as 1 in 4 arrests.” That year, when the consent decree was enacted, “is the first full accounting of Baltimore Use of Force,” the authors of the report note. Since 2017, reports of use of force have decreased: In 2018, there were 5,189 reported uses of force, and in 2019, 3,461.
Use of force was one of the 16 key provisions in the consent decree that needed to be improved.
During a consent decree public forum held on April 18 (an hour-long Facebook live event in which people could submit questions but not actually comment), member of the Consent Decree Monitoring Team Roberto Villaseñor noted this decrease in reported use of force.
“We have seen continued decreases and use of force year over year since the new policies have been put in place. What we’ve concentrated on now in the past two years is the review in the assessment of use of force incidents,” Villaseñor said.
As the report notes, however, these numbers were, until 2017, almost entirely unreliable, so progress is difficult to determine. A 2021 American Civil Liberties Union Maryland report about Baltimore police violence noted that, between 2015 and 2019, more than 90% of reported use of force was against Black Baltimoreans.
One key provision of the consent decree is discriminatory policing—or, as the consent decree calls it, “impartial policing.” One marker of “impartial policing” is racially disproportionate traffic stops. With data provided to us by City Councilperson Ryan Dorsey, Battleground Baltimore has reported on traffic stops in Baltimore City by council district. And what that data consistently shows is that the poor, majority-Black neighborhoods endure the most traffic stops.
“There is no discernible benefit to what is being done, and yet it is happening in flagrant disregard for the consent decree that resulted from doing exactly this: intentionally targeting Black communities with disproportionately aggressive policing efforts,” Dorsey told Battleground Baltimore last year. “The greatest mystery is why it seems to be of no concern to Judge Bredar or anybody else involved in monitoring implementation and compliance with the consent decree.”
Judge James Bredar, who oversees the consent decree, has primarily focused on the side of the consent decree that affords the police more money and technology, and he has called for the hiring of more police. The consent decree, many activists have stressed, pretty much prevents the city from attempting any kind of defunding of the police. BPD already spends more on policing per capita than any other city in the country. The current police budget is $555 million. The proposed budget gives them $4 million more.
At this week’s consent decree hearing, Judge Bredar complained about how Baltimore Police appear to the public and are portrayed by the press, who come “running at every opportunity,” he said. He wondered aloud why there wasn’t more “attention [on] the accomplishments” of the consent decree.
BPD, however, continues to provide ample “opportunity” for people to question their authority and competency.
The day before this hearing, a recently-hired Baltimore Police Department employee was fired after it was revealed that the Baltimore police believed he was a person of interest in a murder and that he had a 2018 gun charge. Dana Hayes, the fired employee, spoke to the Baltimore Sun and it seems that the story is more complicated and actually makes the BPD look even worse: Hayes’ gun charge never led to a conviction and he had the charge expunged, so it shouldn’t be listed anywhere anymore, which makes Harrison mentioning it to the press a major violation. Hayes’ stepfather was murdered in 2020 and Hayes told the Sun that the police have continued to focus on him as a “person of interest”—a not-surprising claim in a city with homicide detectives known for aggressive, questionable, and illegal investigative tactics.
Earlier this month, another group of federally-indicted Baltimore cops got on the witness stand and testified under oath that, for years, they lied on police reports and warrants, stole drugs, guns, and cash, and planted evidence.
Meanwhile, the February police killing of 18-year-old Donnell Rochester continues to gain attention. Rochester, whom police say they followed after the license plate of the car he was driving came up as having an open warrant, was shot through the windshield of his car. Rochester fell out of the car, bleeding, telling the officers, “I can’t breathe.” They handcuffed him immediately. He died not long after.
Malcolm Ruff, a lawyer for the Rochester family, told Huffington Post that he sees the shooting as “unconstitutional,” adding that “If officers properly trained [and] followed the policies that were put in place for them, then Donnell would still be alive today.”
Another key provision of the consent decree is improving “interactions with youth.”
This quarterly consent decree hearing was held on April 21. Seven years ago on April 21, 2015, hundreds took to the streets of West Baltimore, calling attention to the 25-year-old’s death at the hands of the cops. People in Gilmor Homes, where Gray lived, had been organizing while Gray was still alive—in a coma, after he was chased, grabbed, and thrown into a police van—but his death a week after he was brutalized moved many more outside of his neighborhood to come out.
“All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray,” hundreds of people chanted that night.
A group of protesters gathered in front of the Western District police station, faced by angry and scared cops lined up in front of the building, some of them recording the march.
“I’m scared for my babies,” someone with a megaphone announced at one point that night. “A mother is about to bury her child—as a mother, that’s the worst thing you can imagine. We gotta stand up for him. We gotta stand up for ourselves.”
It is hard to imagine anyone there that night would have imagined that, seven years after Gray’s death, “progress” would look like a judge and a group of lawyers and police officers telling each other they’re all doing a great job.
“Much has changed in the last five years,” DOJ’s Timothy Mygatt said at the quarterly hearing. “Much has changed at the Baltimore Police Department.”