God, the Baltimore Police, and Everytown

By Rev. Steven D. Martin and Keith Swartzendruber, National Council of Churches

Over a year ago, Baltimore erupted into violence after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young man who died in police custody.  At the time, Gray’s death was considered to be the fault of “a few bad apples” in the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). The egregious facts surrounding the situation revealed a more far-reaching problem, so much so that Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, requested a thorough civil rights investigation of the BPD by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).

Last week, the DOJ released a scathing report concluding “that there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.”  The findings were alarming and revealed systemic racial bias, profiling and abuse inflicted upon the African American community.  

This 164-page report was very thorough, citing specific incidences and patterns of practices of the BPD that included:

  • Failure to sufficiently supervise officer’s enforcement activities
  • Failure to hold officers accountable for misconduct
  • Failure to coordinate with other agencies
  • Failure to implement community policing principles.

Many of the incidents cited in the report included involvement of higher-ups such as sergeants, lieutenants, and majors. In one instance, a shift commander emailed a template to use for trespassing arrests at public housing complexes. Rather than leaving space to indicate the race of the individual being arrested, it is filled out with “black male”, prejudging that only black men would be arrested.

Clearly, the people of Baltimore should be concerned about this.  But if you don’t live in Baltimore, or are not a part of an affected community, is this something Christians should be concerned about?

Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, shared the findings of the report at a news conference on Wednesday, saying that “Baltimore police had embarked on “a quest to produce large numbers of enforcement actions — pedestrian stops in particular — often without enough consideration of their limited impact on solving crime and their caustic damage to community relationships.”  Among the DOJ’s findings detailed in this 164-page report are:

  • African Americans account for 84% of stops, even though they only make up 63% of the population.
  • The percentage of African Americans stopped and arrested multiple times was far higher than the population proportion. From 2010-15, 410 people were stopped 10 or more times, of which 95% were African American. One African American man reported being stopped 30 times in four years, none of which resulted in any charges.
  • Multiple reports of unconstitutional strip-searches on street corners in full public view. In one such incident detailed in the report, an officer “publicly strip-searched a woman following a routine traffic stop for a missing headlight. Officers ordered the woman to exit her vehicle, remove her clothes, and stand on the sidewalk to be searched. The woman asked the male officer in charge ‘I really gotta take all my clothes off?’ The male officer replied ‘yeah’ and ordered a female officer to strip search the woman. The female officer then put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra. Finding no weapons or contraband around the woman’s chest, the officer then pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity. This search again found no evidence of wrongdoing and the officers released the woman without charges (page 32).”
  • 90% of excessive force incidents involved force used against African Americans
  • BPD recorded 2818 incidents of excessive force. Only ten were investigated further, and only one was determined to be excessive.
  • BPD frequently responded with force to individuals with mental health issues, usually detaining them as a first response.

The report cited that the city’s “Zero Tolerance” Policy, which began in the late 1990s, utilized “stop and frisk” which resulted in arrests on charges that were later dropped due to lack of evidence. Most persons arrested in this arbitrary manner were released, having no probable cause for an arrest. There were 11,000 such instances between 2010-15. The primary focus was solely on the number of arrests made.

When a community is shown over and over again that the police reserve justice and protection for some and abuse their power against others, this is the very definition of injustice and violence. Injustice and violence breeds more injustice and violence.  Incidents that have taken place across the nation show that this problem doesn’t just exist in Baltimore.  These problems exist nearly everywhere. The final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended actions that should be taken on a national level, not just in a city or two, to make sure individuals rights’ are protected and offer best practices to police to reduce crime and restore public trust.

Many Christians would choose to look away from investigations like this one.  But when repeatedly asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus repeatedly answered with the Great Commandment: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Loving one’s neighbor means wanting for others what you would want for yourself.  When faced with difficult facts like those presented the Baltimore Police Department investigation, it behooves us to want, and work for, justice for those we might otherwise be unconcerned about.

“In this nation, in which our creed states that we believe in liberty and justice for all, it’s clear that the system is serving some while brutalizing others,” said Jim Winkler, President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. “This has got to stop.  It’s time for people of faith to join together across the whole country — in big cities and small towns — to demand reform of our policing, courts, and prisons. We can, and must, do better.”

Comments are closed.