As a black man and a lifelong resident of Baltimore, Ray Kelly has been stopped by the police more times than he can count. And as a community organizer who tried to document police bias after the death of Freddie Gray, Kelly had always expected that a federal investigation would uncover a pattern of racial discrimination.
Even so, the scathing report that the Justice Department unveiled Wednesday — a data-rich indictment of how Baltimore police officers have for years violated the U.S. Constitution and federal law by systematically stopping, searching (in some cases strip-searching) and harassing black residents — gave him a jolt.
“Hearing the actual numbers, like on the traffic stops, is blowing my mind,” said Kelly, 45.
Release of the 163-page report, at a packed City Hall news conference, was another wrenching moment of self-examination in this majority-black city. Even as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the police commissioner, Kevin Davis, accepted the findings — both vowed to turn the Baltimore Police Department into a “model for the nation” — there was relief, but also rage and skepticism among black residents who wondered if anything would change.
“Mere words by officials mean little when it’s people on the ground who are living with these material conditions every day,” said the Rev. Heber Brown III, a Baptist pastor who was among a small group of community leaders who met privately last year with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “From the streets to the suites, everybody is skeptical and furious.”
In one stark statistic after another, the department’s report helped validate the experiences of Brown, Kelly and countless others in poor African-American neighborhoods who regard the police as an occupying force. Many wanted to know what took so long.
“It’s like a huge taste of ‘too little, too late,’” said Brandon Scott, 32, a member of the Baltimore City Council, who said he ran for office to correct police abuses that have been going on since before he was born.
In Baltimore, a city that is 63 percent black, the Justice Department found that 91 percent of those arrested on discretionary offenses like “failure to obey” or “trespassing” were African-American. Blacks make up 60 percent of Baltimore’s drivers but account for 82 percent of traffic stops. Of the 410 pedestrians who were stopped at least 10 times in the 5 1/2 years of data reviewed, 95 percent were black.
“Seeing it all collected and pulled together really hit me in the solar plexus,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who lived here for 15 years while teaching law at the University of Maryland. But what most infuriates her, she said, is that city leaders — including a series of black mayors — have ignored the problem for decades.
“African-Americans have not been silent about this,” she said. “It’s so rampant, it’s so widespread, this kind of harassment of the African-American community in a city that’s majority African-American, that you really have to ask yourself, ‘Why did it take this?’ ”
The report is a first step toward a negotiated settlement, known as a “consent decree,” in which police training and practices will be overhauled under court supervision. The city has already entered into an “agreement in principle,” the mayor said, adding, “We have a very long journey ahead of us.”
Davis, who described himself as “very, very concerned” by the findings, said he had already fired six officers who had engaged in misconduct uncovered by Justice Department investigators.
“Those who choose to wear this uniform and choose to blatantly disregard someone’s rights absolutely should be uncomfortable,” he said, “because we are not going to tolerate it.”
The report took 14 months; the mayor invited the Justice Department in after the April 2015 death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody, set off riots. As the inquiry has progressed, she said, Baltimore has worked closely with the department to change police practices.
City officials have revised 26 policies, she said, including the one governing use of force, and officials are engaged in “active discussion” about giving residents a role in determining how officers are punished — a central demand of civil rights advocates. The city has also retrofitted its transport vans — officials say Gray was injured while riding unbuckled in a van — and has begun issuing body cameras to officers.
But none of the steps can substitute for the wholesale change in culture that people here agree is required. Brown could barely contain his rage as he cited one anecdote from the report — about a teenage boy who reported having been strip-searched, in front of his girlfriend. The officer denied strip-searching the teenager during a drug arrest, and the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. After the teenager filed a complaint, he told investigators that he was strip-searched again by the same officer who, he said, then grabbed his genitals.
Tensions over race and policing in Baltimore date to at least 1980, when the NAACP called for a federal investigation into police brutality, and they continued with a crime-fighting strategy known as “zero-tolerance policing,” which was singled out by the Justice Department.
“People say, ‘driving while black, walking while black,’ ” Scott, the city councilman, said. “When you’re talking about zero tolerance, it’s breathing while black.”
Baltimore is now among nearly two dozen cities that the Obama administration has investigated after they were accused of widespread unconstitutional policing. Once Baltimore reaches a settlement, an overhaul of its police department will take years. Rawlings-Blake and her aides put the price tag at $5 million to $10 million a year for five to 10 years.
Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department official who supervised a similar inquiry in Ferguson, Mo., said reports like the one issued Wednesday were a required step toward community healing.
“I’ve often thought of the reports as a necessary cathartic moment, maybe an act of witness, where you give voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice,” Smith said.
Kelly, the head of the No Boundaries Coalition, an advocacy group in Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray grew up, agreed. After Gray died, his organization convened hearings and conducted dozens of interviews for a report, “The People’s Findings,” that he submitted to the Justice Department. He was among those providing testimony.
“You are just hoping that you don’t get arrested for loitering or something crazy like that, and you get 23 hours in central booking for something that never even makes it to a courtroom,” he said. “That’s been routine my whole life. I can’t remember a time when that wasn’t the way it was.”