The explosive trial of eight of Baltimore Police’s Gun Trace Task Force has exposed some of the worst misconduct imaginable — from robbery and extortion to faking evidence, planting drugs, and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars, drugs and valuables from their victims. The eight cops involved have left a wake of destruction within Baltimore’s most vulnerable community. And even doubled their pay through fake overtime while doing it. In trials concluded in January, all either pleaded or were found guilty and face sentences of up to 60 years for racketeering, robbery and conspiracy.
Sham solutions. Mayor Pugh, the Police Commissioner DeSousa and city council members all came out condemning the perpetrators and went on the record as having “zero tolerance” for corruption. Is this just a particularly extreme case of “bad apples” as they would have us believe?
The widespread and persistent nature of police misconduct in Baltimore proves otherwise.
The murder of Freddie Gray by police, all of whom got off, is still fresh in memory. It sparked an uprising that burst onto the national stage and prompted a Department of Justice inquiry. The resulting report was a scathing confirmation of what poor and Black residents experience — rampant civil rights violations by the Baltimore Police Department. These include racial profiling, unlawful searches, and brutality of every sort, particularly against juveniles and people with mental health disabilities.
This led to a “Consent Decree” agreement in 2016 between the Department of Justice and Baltimore police to carry out sweeping reforms, presumably on the honor system. Other decrees exist in Ferguson, Cleveland and Chicago but all have failed to create any noticeable difference. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions heading the Justice Department, they could be dismantled at any point.
Just as the National Guard in the South did little to stop the police-led lynch mobs, the Feds historically have not intervened in local police behavior, other than as a public relations gesture in response to big public pressure. Local departments know this. Despite the federal exposé and a major media spotlight on them, Baltimore’s “finest” continued to commit some of the most brazen misconduct in the history of policing.
And that’s because the feds recognize and respect the police’s actual role — to carry out the agenda of the local corporate class.
Unbridled racism and poverty. In post-industrial Baltimore, policing means controlling an “inconvenient” Black working class, largely left behind in the economy now run by universities, hospitals and real estate. They want inner city residents contained while they privatize and gentrify every square inch possible. According to business interests, these cops are doing their job just fine.
Shifts in the economy have magnified the city’s already stark segregation, the result of decades of racist policies like redlining, where Black neighborhoods were marked “risky” for loans by banks. White flight and gentrification have steadily shifted public funding from the Black neighborhoods to the outer suburbs, creating increasingly barbaric conditions in the inner city, like public schools without heat in a winter with record freezing temperatures.
As the Democratic Party oversees the massive transfer of public wealth to corporations, and tax breaks rob public coffers, the working class of Baltimore suffers increasing joblessness, underfunded education and a housing crisis. This economic violence has led to a destabilized and underemployed inner city where gun violence has exploded. Living in the closed loop of poverty and over-policing, for many, selling drugs is one of few options.
The city officials place the blame on the very people they’re selling out, and call for cops to take guns and drugs off the street by any means necessary.
No recourse for victims. With a strong mandate and no real oversight, the Gun Trace Task Force easily took advantage of an ignored and abandoned population. Since the Police Department barely tracks or determines what is constitutional to seize, drugs and money and guns were ripe for the picking. And since their victims were viewed as criminals, when they reported the robbery, they were ignored.
Even for civilians without a record, existing police complaint structures have little impact. Baltimore has one of the most impossible complaint procedures in the country. The 2016 federal inquiry described it as “plagued by systemic failures, including: discouraging individuals from filing complaints; poor investigative techniques; unnecessary delays; and a persistent failure to discipline officers for misconduct, even in cases of repeated or egregious violations.”
The city did establish a civilian review board in 1999, but it’s woefully underfunded, appointed by the mayor, and has no powers to enforce its findings. As is true across the country, all discipline happens at the discretion of trial boards made up of cops or police commissioners who generally throw out cases or downgrade discipline. Three of the Task Force officers had been under investigation by Internal Affairs or been the subject of misconduct settlements, but no discipline was taken. One of them was even promoted!
A workable answer. Movements in all cities need to mobilize to establish new bodies, elected and independent of the police department, which are legally empowered to investigate and enact discipline. Transforming Baltimore’s existing review board from appointed to elected, with proportional representation for those in police-abused neighborhoods, would build tangible working-class power in those communities.
An elected Special Prosecutor, independent of the District Attorney, would work with the board to prosecute criminal cops. This team would be free from the conflicts of interest that prevent DAs from taking on the cops they work closely with.
Efforts are well underway in New York City, where a grassroots coalition is working to introduce a city charter amendment to create an elected board and prosecutor. Other cities should also unite around these reforms, which will require coalitions of labor, social justice organizations and the Left to be won. In the process, the role of police in protecting profit must be increasingly exposed. While the board won’t change this fundamental role of the police, authentic review boards would be a critical tool to curb violence and defend working-class communities. In Baltimore and across the country, this check on police business-as-usual can’t come soon enough.