The Justice Department’s blistering report on the Baltimore Police Department’s practices has brought national attention to the ways officers systematically violated the rights of citizens.
But for attorneys representing those citizens in civil lawsuits against police, the conclusions were not surprising.
“The findings are extensive and it really puts an exclamation point on the issues that we’ve been complaining about, in my case, for 20 years,” said J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore solo practitioner. “It is a reaffirmation of what we’ve been saying and the voices of the citizens who decried the injustice of overly aggressive policing.”
The report follows a 14-month patterns and practices investigation by the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, that found officers disproportionately stop black residents in poorer neighborhoods and often lack a constitutional basis to do so. Investigators also concluded officers routinely use unreasonable and excessive force.
NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill, a former University of Maryland law professor, said the findings in the report are devastating.
“Taken together, the findings lay bare the harsh reality of discriminatory policing in a major American city — from discriminatory stops, arrests and searches to the use of excessive force,” she said in a prepared statement.
A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore civil rights attorney, said he provided more than two dozen of his active cases against police to the Justice Department during their investigation as examples.
“I was not surprised and in fact I’m in the process of digesting the report,” he said. “A lot of this is repeating the history of Baltimore that we all knew anyway.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had touted the steps already taken by the police department while awaiting the report, from rolling out the body camera program to revising use of force policies, and reiterated how the city was being proactive during a news conference Wednesday.
Pettit acknowledged all of the positive steps but was skeptical about the city’s motives.
“It shines a light but it doesn’t bring any relief to people who have already been injured and damaged,” Pettit said of the report.
Pending, future litigation
The city has a history of rigorously defending police brutality lawsuits and making it difficult to access documents and reports, he added.
“Instead of saying we were wrong let’s resolve it, the city is still fighting everything,” Pettit said.
Gordon said he does not criticize the city’s right to defend cases but wishes they would offer reasonable and expeditious settlements when an officer has clearly “crossed the line.”
“It shouldn’t take years and years to get to the settlement table when you know that you’re going to get there anyway,” he said.
The report also noted a lack of accountability for police misconduct that “fails to curb unconstitutional policing.”
“It addresses the reason why a lot of police misconduct claims are under-reported,” Gordon said. “Because you don’t get any results for making a complaint.”
Though the Justice Department’s 163-page report is limited to policies and practices within the police department and does not extend to the administration and treatment of lawsuits against police, Pettit said he hopes reforms in those areas can be part of the process going forward.
“I just hope that the consent decree and the people participating will make sure that attention is brought on these things that are just outstanding,” he said. “I don’t expect the city to be able to step in and cure all but I think these tragedies need to be acknowledged.”
Gordon also said he is already trying to determine how the report can be used in litigation.
“The report is incredibly relevant and it’s going to be incredibly helpful in the future in patterns and practices cases because they’ve been caught red-handed,” he said. “The trick is, how do we make this document useful?”
In announcing the findings, Justice Department attorney Vanita Gupta said everyone the department spoke with agreed the police need sustainable reform.
The Justice Department announced an agreement in principle was reached with the city which provides a framework for negotiating reforms. A court-enforceable consent decree is expected by Nov. 1 and implementation of reforms will be overseen by a monitoring team.
Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminology professor at University of Baltimore, said the report is a vindication of what people and organizations have been saying all along and also explores some of the reform attempts and why they faltered.
“There are elements inside the BPD who do want to make those kinds of changes,” he said. “There’s not widespread opposition to making those changes but I think there’s lots of reasons why those changes have not been made.”
Gupta said the decree would be “impervious” to administration changes and allow for a lawsuit if reforms are not properly implemented.