My first lesson in the workings of the Baltimore Police Department was received as a college student. While living in West Baltimore, in the heart of the ‘hood,’ young Black men schooled me as I was standing on the steps of a corner store. As police sirens blazed in the background, and getting within earshot with each passing second, the cries of “Five-O!” rang out on the corner. As about a dozen Black boys scattered, one tapped on my shoulder and warned, “Nigga you better move!” I took his advice, running down the block in the opposite direction of the action toward my front steps, and when I looked back, the BPD was in full effect, exacting punishment on whoever they could catch.
It’s why I didn’t need the U.S. Department of Justice to issue its breathtaking condemnation of Baltimore’s police force. I am thankful though that the report was released. It gives truth to the many decades that Black people in ‘Charm City” complained about the brutality of police who are sworn to ‘protect and serve.’ The details of the manner in which the Baltimore police regularly violate citizens’ constitutional rights, harbors hatred of Black people and women, and operates as a rogue vigilante force vindicates a community whose legitimate grievances have been summarily dismissed for years. Generations of Black Baltimoreans have stories of the over-the-top and excessively punitive behavior of local police in the tourist destination that too many outsiders forget is a southern city. Like the complaints from Blacks across the country concerning police brutality, local residents in Baltimore were always accused by police of fabricating such claims or inviting harsh treatment by their own behavior.
No, what we learn in the Department of Justice report is that it’s the police. The takeaway for me after reviewing the report is that the police are truly the source of much of the despair in the Black community. I never held that view before this report but after considering the true reach of the ‘long arm of the law’ there is no way that I can avoid that conclusion.
Think about it. Police are the one local governmental institution that perform its duties with life and death consequences. For Blacks, a simple traffic stop could be your ticket to the hospital or more likely the morgue. And speaking of tickets, the police have the power to issue unwarranted citations and tickets that put citizens in debt and leads to imprisonment of the very people who cannot afford to pay. Criminalizing Black people has become a revenue stream for local government as we learned in Ferguson Missouri. Through bogus charges and unjustified arrests police also disqualify Black people for employment, make it difficult to establish credit and affix a permanent label of ‘criminal’ that sticks even within our own community. By preying on poor Blacks who cannot afford legal representation and are left to the mercy of an overtaxed public defender system, the police populate prisons, many of them for-profit-ventures, and fracture families in the process.
The absence of young Black men in public schools can be traced to how they have been criminalized from birth. Their ticket to the cell is punched early on; with the slightest infraction for ‘loitering’ and is compounded by repeated harassment that helps police build a criminal record on the offended. The police exact a heavy psychological toll upon Blacks, subjecting our daily lives to terror and turning our neighborhoods into controlled encampments. From an early age Blacks are socialized to live defensively and to absorb the mental body blows that come from the day-to-day indignities that are hoisted upon us by the very people who are hired to uphold ‘the law’ but instead engage in lawlessness. We might joke but catching a case for “breathing while Black” is the reality for Black people across the country.
It’s the police. No doubt in my mind after reading the DOJ report on the Baltimore department. It’s not the schools or the churches or the disintegration of the Black family. It’s the damn police. It’s not even the prevalence of guns because after reading this report, who in their right mind would not want some degree of protection against this type of state-sanctioned terrorism. One thing the young brothers on the corner of Whitelock and Brookfield taught me years ago is that their biggest fear was the police and not each other. In fact, whether it’s Baltimore, Chicago or New York City, Blacks have always complained about the degree to which police were stirring criminal activity. I guess on that claim folks are imagining things too. At the root of the dehumanization of Blacks people in America is the corrupt hand of law enforcement. It’s not the case of a few bad apples but truly a rotten orchard.
One last thing. The Baltimore police union and the rank and file that have been after State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s head for prosecuting officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray – take a seat and shut up. The one thing that Black people in Baltimore must make certain is that any collective bargaining agreement reached with the police union include mandatory drug testing upon hiring, drug testing after every incident in which an officer discharges a firearm or has a physical encounter with a citizen, elimination of the grace period an officer is given to make a statement after an incident of deadly force, and a requirement of annual recurrent training. This should be the case in every city in America but given the gravity of the DOJ report, the collective bargaining agreement with the Baltimore police department should be rescinded and revised.