Corrupt Gun Unit Shows Why Policing Can’t Be Reformed
Dr. Lawrence Brown, professor of public health at Morgan State University, says the new revelations from the Gun Trace Task Force corruption trial make it clear that we must dismantle the current law enforcement system and construct new health-driven models for keeping communities safe
STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. With the revelations of corruption in the Gun Trace Task Force, we talked to Dr. Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University about the future of policing. Despite new and troubling allegations of corruption, from the recent trial of two members of the now notorious Gun Trace Task Force, the business of policing in Baltimore goes on. During the trial, witnesses, some of them former members who had pled guilty, alleged that departments, command staff, was well aware of overtime abuse and false reports. Those allegations only added to the already historic levels of malfeasance from a unit that dealt drugs, stole cash from residents and overtime from the city. But even as doubts grow, recently appointed Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa announced a new command staff structure, an overhaul of an institution that is already under federal consent decree for practicing unconstitutional policing.
Unike other developments, this move was not without controversy, including the transfer of Alicia White, one of the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, to internal affairs, which has been put on hold. As part of our ongoing, in-depth series, focused around the intractable problem of policing in Baltimore and beyond, we spoke to Lawrence Brown, assistant professor of community health at Morgan State University, who says the recent series of scandals reveals the underlying imperative of the real roots of American policing and that it’s time to look for different solutions.
The Gun Trace Task Force, some people seem surprised, I don’t think you were, but what was your impression of what has transpired since the trial began and the things that we’ve heard?
LAWRENCE BROWN: Well, I think the first thing is just realizing that all of this being revealed now is on the heels of a DOJ investigation a couple of years ago, a 164 page report that revealed a pattern and practice of racist policing. And not since Baltimore Police Department, but even the school police department, and how they worked hand-in-hand. And so, what’s being revealed now is sort of on top of all of that, the systemic institution. Now we’re seeing the gross, the nitty-gritty, ugly abuses, and planting things on people, and shooting, and robbing people. I mean, it’s grotesque.
It really is a reflection of the way that we have 80 to 90% of our police officer that don’t live in Baltimore City, 10% of whom are commuting from places like Pennsylvania and Delaware. So, they’re coming from the basically green line, suburban, those same segregated white spaces that I talked about earlier. Now, they’re coming to police disinvested redline communities that they don’t have a sense of or context for other than perhaps the images that are proliferated in popular media. They’re bringing in these racial biases. They’re bringing in the stereotypes about entire areas in our city, where they paint the people in those communities one way, as hostiles.
Then we have this language in the police department that says that they have a war room. When they go to work, they’re working a tour of duty. They’re using technology like stingray to capture cell phones for an entire area. They’re coming into a war zone. That’s the mindset of these police are coming into these communities with, and it’s reflected in their actions of the Gun Trace Task Force. They were coming in to win a war. And I think that’s what happens when you have a hyper segregated city.
You are concentrating lower income African-Americans into one space, where now they can be policed a certain way, legally, according to Supreme Court case law, like Illinois versus Wardlow, which is why Freddie Gray, when he was arrested, his arrest was legal because police can chase somebody differently. Or they can say someone in a high crime area legally, in a way that they couldn’t in a Roland Park, Guilford, or a Homeland type of community. So, this differential policing, in a hyper segregated environment. What we see with think Gun Trace Task Force is an outgrowth of what we allow America legally. We allow lower income black communities to be policed a certain way. So, this was inevitable.
I mean, once you look at the context, this is what America produces. This is what our laws and the ways in which we set up our urban areas, that it would produce. You see it in New York, stop and frisk. You see across America where police come in and they police black communities in a disproportionate, with excessive force.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s really interesting because when you say war zone, you kind of conjure burnt out outbuildings, and what you’re talking about before about economic disinvestment, that’s what you see when you drive in neighborhoods like the Western District. Doesn’t it kind of look like a war zone? Because it’s been burnt out, but also, as you said, the marrow has been sucked out of it. This is one of the ways they do it, with policing. They take the wealth out of the community. Does police play a role in that, taking the wealth out of a community?
LAWRENCE BROWN: Well, I think it’s sort of understanding, framing what happens with our structures, and systems, and policies, and budgets in the proper way. What happens with redlining, subprime, predatory lending, that’s structural violence. The war that the police are coming into is at the tail end of what happens when banks redline, when our city government is basically investing in places like the White L, but not in a Black Butterfly. These structures create the bombed out look, the sort of disinvested environment in many of these lower income black communities.
So, I think, and the other thing is to realize historically, there is this language in the 1920s, in the 19-teens, you see in Baltimore where in the Baltimore Sun at the time, that these articles really talk about the fear of the negro invasion. And so, a large part of segregation is built on this premise that if black people move into our community, that they’re going to damage our property values, therefore we have to create laws, systems, policies, and practices, that will exclude them. So, that was a thinking, that was a mindset of war right there.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, the police come in to kind of finish the deal is what you’re saying?
LAWRENCE BROWN: I’m saying, right, that the hyper policing comes at the tail end. Or the hyper policing we see now, is coming on the aftermath because the criminal behavior, the antisocial behavior, that is festering in this type of construct. Crime and antisocial behavior based on the environment in which people live in. People are committing these type of crimes are, they’re not engaged in violence in Roland Park. Why would they be? They have everything they need. But in Sandtown, people are struggling to survive. People have resources, don’t have jobs. They’re in a transit desert, a resource desert, a bank desert. So, people don’t have opportunities. That’s why people turn to crime.
So,I think then hyper policing comes in on the back of that. Instead of saying, “Wait a minute, it was the structural violence that was the original crime.” That the structural violence is the crime. It’s the primary crime that’s being committed in those communities. If you stop the structural violence, then you stop structural criminality, structural looting, you stop these things that are extracting wealth from black communities, that allows people to thrive, and sort of be able to live in a decent way. So, I think that is the way we have to think about it.
STEPHEN JANIS And the Gun Trace Task Force, from your perspective, was acting like they’d won the war, because they basically, that makes total sense because they were the victors and to the victors go the spoils, which is why they were kind of, am I getting this right? That they were just kind of like, “We can take whatever we want because we won this war against the African-American community?”
LAWRENCE BROWN: Right. Or, I think that’s largely right, but also, the notion that what we’re doing, no one will care because this is what’s been going on in these communities all this time. The structural crime being committed against black communities disempowers people so much so, that who is going to listen when the police come in and they conduct these type of egregious activities against black communities? People allowed the stingray to be deployed against black communities.
STEPHEN JANIS: Please explain, the stingray is-
LAWRENCE BROWN: The device that allows police to snatch up cell phone signals for an entire area.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right, without a warrant.
LAWRENCE BROWN: Right, without a warrant, and everybody, criminal or not. Their messages and phone signals are being intercepted. You look at, not the Gun Trace Task Force, you look at the Baltimore Community Foundation-
STEPHEN JANIS: Right, giving money-
LAWRENCE BROWN: … which funded, or accepted funding for the secret aerial surveillance.
STEPHEN JANIS: Sorry to be laughing, but it’s crazy-
LAWRENCE BROWN: Yeah, this whole thing was laid out in sort of a way that-
STEPHEN JANIS: Without any knowledge of the city council, or any approval from the public.
LAWRENCE BROWN: Absolutely.
STEPHEN JANIS: One big warrantless surveillance.
LAWRENCE BROWN: War.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.
LAWRENCE BROWN: The Baltimore police department has been at war with the residents of Baltimore city in redlined black communities.
STEPHEN JANIS: We had talked about before we’ve done this series, Why Policing Can’t Be Reformed. You kind of agree with the concept. Talk a little about why you think that and what you think should be done in that sense.
LAWRENCE BROWN: Well, you know, the other thing is look at the history of policing. Policing in America really starts on a foundation of catching enslaved people who are running away. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that allowed police to deputize citizens, to catch fugitive slaves-
STEPHEN JANIS: And sometimes they did it for free-
LAWRENCE BROWN: Right, and to put them back in bondage. This was a congressional measure that really kicked off, put the nation on a trajectory for Civil War because the northern states felt strongly in the abolitionist communities, that they shouldn’t have to help return human beings back to their masters. And hat people shouldn’t be considered as property anyway. That’s where policing starts in America. So, I think what we see now in the way that, again, it’s been strengthen through these Supreme Court case laws; Illinois vs. Wardlow, Terry vs. Ohio, which authorized the Terry stops. These cases which allow, legally, police to police black communities in a different way.
I think policing can’t be reformed because it’s designed to do the type of egregious, differential, discriminatory policing that we see. That’s why it can’t be reformed. It has to be dismantled. It has to be restructured and reconstituted, in my mind, into a peace building framework. Combining what we think of in terms of crime control with health at the center. With public health, with mental health and thinking about what is it that is actually inducing people to commit crime in the first place? And Resolving whether it’s issues of trauma, especially issues of lead poisoning. Which is why you see, lead poisoning is one that it’s a neurotoxin that increases people’s violent behavior. It causes them to not be able to focus well, so they don’t perform well in school, right, and so lack of control of their emotions.
So, in Baltimore, we are in a lead poisoning crisis in this city. The same way Flint declared a state of emergency, we should be declaring a state of emergency. So, it’s these type of factors that are helping drive crime. We’re not dealing with the root causes of that. We’re not addressing those factors, extreme poverty. We’re not addressing those type of factors that are actually pushing people to commit criminal activity. I think that’s why we have to put health at the center of crime control. We have to put helping people deal with posttraumatic stress disorder. We have to help them find a way to get lead out of the blood of children and young adults who have already been led poisoned.
These are the type of things that are actually pushing people in the wrong direction. It’s in the brain, the neurotoxin, or the negative effect of stress, prolonged toxic stress on the brain that impairs decision-making. That’s the way we have to think when we go into communities to deal with crime.
STEPHEN JANIS: You talk about the violence of economic disinvestment. Do you think that kind of stress can also precipitate violence and have a lot to do with the violence in the city?
LAWRENCE BROWN: I think any type of toxic stress pushes people to the edge. You see Grandmaster Flash, “Don’t push me ‘cus I’m close to the edge,” and that’s what’s driving people, being under extreme duress for long periods of time, that chronic stress. Chronic stress is a killer.
STEPHEN JANIS: With little hope.
LAWRENCE BROWN: Exactly. So, I mean, I think you take many people that live in Roland Park and you away their resources, you take away their advantages, their opportunity, their access, watch what type of behavior they begin to engage in. It’s a matter of what type of environment people are placed in, the stress that they’re put under, the toxins they’re exposed to, that then alters brain chemistry, and different type of behaviors emerge. That’s why it’s not an indictment on people living in the Black Butterfly. It’s an indictment on the structural crime, the structural violence that’s been inflicted on these communities, that then allow the type of tragedies and violence that we see on the street, to really emerge.
STEPHEN JANIS: Now even though almost everything I’ve heard you say has been proven right in some way or form, are people, I mean, my last question would be, given the severity of the crimes of The Gun Trace Task Force, is there any possibility your ideas, that some politically will be embraced? I mean, even with how bad we see it, will people wake up and say, “Oh yeah, he’s right about this.” Not that you just want to win a war…
LAWRENCE BROWN: Mm-hmm.
STEPHEN JANIS: … but do you think that’s possible?
LAWRENCE BROWN: It’s improbably, I think in many ways, under the current political construct, the Republicans surely won’t do it. Baltimore Democrats won’t do it. Baltimore Democrats have helped create Baltimore Apartheid. It was democratic mayors that created it and it’s democratic mayors that maintain it. They’re invested in this system because they’re been in power for so long. It’s almost like a monopoly power. So, I think it’s going to take, really sort of a third, or a fourth, or an external party push, or mobilization, that will put power back in the hands of the people. That sort of mobilizing across systems that I talked about earlier. Cross-sectorial mobilizing, people organizing to really change the way, fundamentally, this city operates. That’s the only way because right now, there’s too much corporate control. There’s too much investment in maintaining the status quo. I think people are going to have to understand that even though their allegiance may lie with the democratic party, that in local areas, often times, the democratic party does not have the best interest of black communities in mind.
STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore.