Jack Young: Justice Department must investigate Baltimore police

City Council president says misconduct must end

October 03, 2014|By Bernard C. "Jack" Young

As I view the constant protesting by residents of Ferguson, Mo., nearly two months after a police officer fatally shot an unarmed teenager, I know that it's only a matter of time before the streets of Baltimore are filled with the same sustained clarion call for justice that has rocked the once inconspicuous Midwestern city.

On the surface, the city of Baltimore and Ferguson are worlds apart.

With a population nearly 30 times larger than Ferguson, Baltimore is a major American city and cultural hub. From Francis Scott Key to H.L. Mencken to Thurgood Marshall, Baltimore has produced more than its fair share of American icons. While African Americans make up the majority in both cities, Ferguson's elected representatives remain overwhelmingly white. In Baltimore, the majority of elected officials and our appointed police commissioner are African American.

But look below the surface and it quickly becomes clear that the two cities have more in common than might appear at first glance.

Like Ferguson, residents of Baltimore City have long complained of a strained relationship with police officers. In 2010, the Baltimore City Police Department settled a lawsuit stemming from a pattern of unlawful arrests. The settlement included an award of $870,000 for the 13 plaintiffs, some of whom were illegally detained and strip searched. And the zero tolerance policing policies of the early to mid-2000s resulted in record numbers of African Americans arrested for quality of life infractions.

But the changes promised as a result of these and other violations have failed to produce the type of reforms that would allow citizens to form true partnerships with local officers.

Rarely does a week go by without the City of Baltimore paying tens of thousands of dollars in settlements to victims of police misconduct. On September 24, the city's five-member spending panel, of which the mayor and I are members, approved a $49,000 payment to a man who testified that a Baltimore City police officer struck him in the face and broke his jaw during an arrest in September 2010. And a recent investigative report in The Baltimore Sun detailed how allegations of police brutality have cost the city of Baltimore nearly $6 million in settlements to victims since 2011.

As an 18-year member of the City Council, I have participated in countless oversight hearings related to improving relations between the police department and citizens. I have even volunteered to personally talk to incoming police recruits about the importance of practicing great customer service during their many encounters with the public.

But the cases of alleged police misconduct continue to grow.

In October 2012 the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled 46-year-old Anthony Anderson's death in police custody a homicide. Although charges were never filed against the arresting officer, a number of witnesses said that Anderson became unresponsive after being grabbed from behind and violently slammed to the ground. And a second in-custody death in July 2013, which was subjected to an independent review, found that officers failed to follow a number of "guidelines during several aspects of this incident; there were also several tactical errors in their attempts to control the situation." The independent review resulted in nearly three dozen recommendations for reform. And the recent release of video appearing to show an unarmed man being repeatedly punched in the face by a police officer has sparked outrage and familiar calls for fixes to the department.

It is a cry that, sadly, has become all too familiar in Baltimore. That's why on Oct. 1 I took the step of formally requesting that the U.S. Department of Justice conduct a comprehensive review of the Baltimore City Police Department's policies, procedures and practices. I am looking forward to working with federal officials to achieve measurable reforms that would go a long way toward repairing the compact between our citizens and local police.

I know our police force is filled with many men and women who take seriously their oaths to protect and preserve life. There remains, however, a stubborn minority whose actions violate the civil liberties of far too many Baltimoreans.

Similar to Ferguson, the horrific incidents of police misconduct in Baltimore have sparked an honest dialogue about how discrimination and bias factor into the daily lives of many of our city's African Americans.

Bernard C. "Jack" Young is president of the Baltimore City Council. His email is councilpresident@baltimorecity.gov. Twitter: PrezJackYoung.

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