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DOJ Report Finds Biased Law Enforcement Tactics In Baltimore

ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:

We're going to start today's show looking at a story we've been following out of Baltimore. Earlier this week, the Justice Department released a lengthy report after a yearlong review of the Baltimore Police Department. It found a longstanding practice of discrimination against African-Americans. The report comes just weeks after charges were dropped against officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray. Joining us now to talk about it is Vanita Gupta. She's the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division which conducted the review. Vanita, thanks for talking to us.

VANITA GUPTA: Thank you. Pleased to be here.

AUBREY: So the investigation found that the Baltimore Police Department has used unconstitutional practices. Can you give us some examples?

GUPTA: Sure. Well, we found a police department that was engaging in a pattern of practice of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests. And an example of that is that we found that one African-American man who had stopped 30 times in less than four years with none of the stops resulting in a citation or a criminal charge.

We found a pattern of practice of BPD using enforcement strategies that were producing severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of those stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans. And that was a very important problem. We also found a pattern of practice of use of excessive force and then of retaliating against people engaging in constitutional protected expression.

AUBREY: Give us a sense of the scope. I mean, I understand that there is a disproportionate rate of, you know, stops, searches, arrests of African-Americans. Give us a sense of the scale.

GUPTA: You know, one of the things that I think was surprising was that the Baltimore Police Department's pedestrian stops were concentrated really on a small portion of Baltimore residents. And the police department made roughly 44 percent of its stops in two small, predominantly African-American districts that contain only 11 percent of the city's population. We also, I think, notably found that too many - you know, their stops were often lacking reasonable suspicion.

We reviewed a lot of incident reports and did interviews with officers and community members and looked at a lot of data and found that only 3.7 percent of the pedestrian stops that the Baltimore Police Department was conducting were resulting in officers issuing a citation or making an arrest.

AUBREY: So the other 96 percent of the time the person was doing nothing wrong.

GUPTA: That's right. But I also think that goes to the effectiveness of the policing and what law enforcement and police officers are spending their time on. And we heard from police officers who did not want to be engaging in this kind of behavior but who were responding to orders from above. And that's the kind of thing that now with the leadership at the police department and of the city, we need to make sure changes.

AUBREY: So this report comes just weeks after charges were dropped against officers involved in the Freddie Gray case. And this city is still reeling from this. We've interviewed people on our network who feel hopeless, who say, you know, this keeps happening - officers being acquitted or not charged after questionable policing practices. So does this report offer anything specific to address their concerns?

GUPTA: This report, I think, really validates the experiences of a lot of people in Baltimore. But I think there's reason to be optimistic. We now have a - you know, we're working with the city and the police department that is eager for reform. And, you know, in the course of our investigation, there really wasn't any entity, or body or person that we talked to who didn't seem to agree that the Baltimore Police Department needed sustainable reform.

AUBREY: One of the findings that's gotten quite a bit of attention is how the Baltimore Police Department has treated victims of sexual assault. There were findings of hostility towards, not just women, but also the LGBT community. The Baltimore police commissioner, as I understand it, Kevin Davis, has said he's going to assign an LGBT liaison. Do you think this is an effective approach?

GUPTA: We found problems related to statements that BPD officers were making that reflect a kind of an insensitivity to the approach. We found problems with untested rape kits, with issues with investigative techniques that weren't kind of victim-centered and trauma-informed.

And so there isn't a silver bullet to this. I do think that, certainly, being aware of the issue and putting in place training and investigative best practices and the like are going to be critical towards addressing and ensuring that all victims in Baltimore feel adequately protected and to ensure that they feel like they can have access to justice in the long term.

AUBREY: So if the policing violations were so egregious, as you've just spelled out, why do you think it took so long to initiate an investigation of the Baltimore police?

GUPTA: Well, the reality is that in a lot of places in this country - and I don't think this is just related to where the Justice Department goes but - people start to focus on systemic reform only in the aftermath of seemingly extraordinary events and tragedies. And I think that in Baltimore what's different about that is a lot of people had been writing reports and documenting problems, from community groups to the Fraternal Order of Police to others, who had recognized the need for reform.

But what is happening here is that the Justice Department came in to do this pattern of practice investigation and now we have the opportunity, through a court-enforceable consent decree, which we hope to reach in a cooperative way with the city. And so I think that this is a process that is just starting out. We still have to negotiate the agreement. But it's one that, in the long haul, really could see a transformation between the Baltimore Police Department and the communities it serves.

AUBREY: Vanita Gupta heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Thanks so much for talking with us.

GUPTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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