Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
The Justice Department issues an incriminating report on institutional racism in the Baltimore Police Department.
Peniel Joseph: Report provides evidence the police serve more as an occupying army than as a protective force.
The Department of Justice’s explosive report on institutional racism in the Baltimore Police Department represents a devastating indictment of the criminal justice system. Over half a century after the modern civil rights movement, this system continues to denigrate black lives and deny African-American citizenship.
It further proves, through documentary evidence, what Charm City’s black residents have always known: that the police department serves as more of an occupying army designed to arbitrarily punish, humiliate and even kill than as a protective forced designed to defend and honor.
The report specifically chronicles the systemic abuse of black residents that culminated in the death of Freddie Gray in a police van and the subsequent urban rebellion that rocked the nation last year. African-Americans were – and continue to be – disproportionately stopped, searched and approached by city police, often without being charged with any crime. One heartbreaking example depicts a black man, well into middle age, who police stopped a staggering 30 times in a span of fewer than four years without ever formally charging him.
But the report doesn’t stop there. It notes that racial profiling in Baltimore has reached tragic-comic levels, with prosecutors declining to pursue more than 11,000 arrests made by their own local officers. One police supervisor even created a new template, “A BLACK MALE,” to make filing police reports easier since black men were disproportionately detained and arrested.
Worse yet, much of Baltimore’s black community found itself targeted by the largest surveillance net in the city’s history, one that focused on harassing black people for so called “quality of life” crimes, minor violations that are designed to net bigger criminal fish. Over 90% of people arrested with “failure to obey” police orders were black – and this in a city that is only 63% black.
In addition to documenting a pattern of unjustified stops based on racial profiling, the report illustrates how Baltimore police consistently used “excessive force” and “retaliation for activities protected by the First Amendment.” In other words, not only did police routinely brutalize African-Americans, they frequently arrested innocent bystanders for “talking back,” in direct violation of their constitutional right to voice dissent.
Taken together, the investigation reveals a widespread pattern of racial discrimination that has resulted in thousands of illegal arrests, searches and seizures, vehicle stops and use of excessive force against black citizens, mentally unstable individuals and juveniles. To add insult to injury, the police arrested, harassed and detained innocent citizens who spoke up in defense of their own rights or the rights of others being illegally detained.
Over the past two years, Black Lives Matter activists have highlighted many of these issues, including a recent extensive policy agenda calling for massive criminal justice reform. The DOJ report follows partial suit, advocating the reform of the Baltimore Police Department practices in the hopes of eliminating the operational processes that led to and justified institutional racism against African-Americans.
Issued in the 51st anniversary week of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the DOJ’s report helps explain how and why America’s growing racial divide continues to widen. Not only are black American’s systemically dehumanized by a criminal justice system that is ostensibly there to serve and protect them, the perpetrators of racial injustice are never held accountable – as Baltimore residents know all too well with the recent acquittal and dropped charges against the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death.
Recommendations of better police training, while laudable, merely scratch the surface of our national criminal justice nightmare. The issues plaguing the justice system are rooted in larger social problems around poverty, segregation, mental health, public schools, unemployment, broken infrastructure and community decay. This decay is borne not just from a loss of hope but racist public policy that denies opportunity to generations of African-Americans. Indeed, the fact that 44% of cops in Baltimore are black exemplifies the fact that merely diversifying police departments has not eliminated institutional racism and biases related to law enforcement’s treatment of African American communities.
Anti-black racism and its evolution remain central to understanding not only this specific report, but the systemic patterns of unequal justice plaguing the entire nation. Baltimore is just the tip of the iceberg. The DOJ is conducting investigations into dozens of cities – including Ferguson, Missourie, and Cleveland – triggered in part by spectacular acts of police violence against black people, including juveniles in the case of Cleveland’s Tamir Rice.
The criminal justice system’s denigration and dehumanization of black life represents the great moral crisis of our times. The report’s unspoken context is the nation’s painful history of slavery, Jim Crow and racial violence that contours contemporary American social, political and civic life. Black life in America continues to be subject to racist, institutional forces that deny access to citizenship and the rule of law and then, in an outrageous rhetorical sleight of hand, criminalize African-Americans as being undeserving of citizenship or legal protection.
The report’s larger implications represent a sobering new reality for all Americans. Structural racism still serves as the central spoke in the wheel of injustice that systematically marginalizes and devalues the hopes, dreams, freedoms, constitutional protections and yes, the very lives of black people in America. Decades after the civil rights movement’s heroic period, the struggle for black dignity and citizenship continues.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.