DOJ Review of Baltimore Policy Department Indicates Urgent Need for Meaningful Change

August 19, 2016

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Daquan Green, age 17, sits on the curb while riot police stand guard near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire yesterday during rioting after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice released findings from a “pattern and practice” review of the Baltimore Police Department. This is an important step towards transparency and accountability. While the report highlights pervasive problems throughout the BPD in how it interacts with communities of color within Baltimore, below are several of the DOJ’s findings pertaining to deadly force that require immediate attention:

  1. The DOJ attempted to review all uses of deadly force by the BPD from January 1, 2010 through to May 1, 2016. Although the investigators identified several deadly force cases that they had not received, the BPD was unable to find and produced case files for all deadly force investigations during that time period – including files for twenty firearm discharges. This means that the DOJ was unable to determine how many deadly force cases actually took place. This inconsistency and lack of transparency is incredibly concerning.
  2. From the 100 cases that the DOJ was able to overview, investigators found that officers often failed to de-escalate situations, often escalating to using deadly force. This was especially prevalent in cases of mental health crises. It was also found that officers were trained to point their firearm at a person as a method of gaining control, which is still a threat of deadly force that can lead to an escalation of a situation.
  3. The repeated use of the drive-stun mode of Tasers while responding to people with mental health disabilities and those in crisis, along with a general lack of training and guidelines on crisis intervention.
  4. BPD’s guidelines on the use of force along with reporting, investigation and reviewing these cases are scattered throughout many documents. When a policy is updated, it is written as a new and separate document – this can obviously lead to confusion that can be dangerous. Cohesive, comprehensive documents must be created to ensure adequate training.

As part of the Baltimore city-based coalition, the Campaign for Jobs, Safety and Justice, Amnesty International USA is committed to playing its part in ensuring that this human rights issue is prioritized on the city level. We, along with our coalition partners, are also hopeful that community input will be prioritized as recommendations are created and implemented, from start to finish.

In 2015, Amnesty International released its report, Deadly Force: Police use of lethal force in the United States, which found that all 50 states and the District of Columbia do not have laws on the use of lethal force that meet international standards. Maryland is one of 9 states that has not enacted a statute guiding the use of lethal force. While Baltimore officials recently announced a renewed commitment to revising their use of force policy (which hasn’t been revised since 2003), the DOJ findings only reaffirm that the legislature must enact a use of lethal force statute that adheres to international standards immediately.

The BPD must also ensure that it restricts its use of lethal force in compliance with international law and standards. On a state and federal level, statutes on the use of lethal force must be introduced or amended to be in compliance with the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials – whereby lethal force is only used as a last resort, when an officer or the public is faced with an imminent threat of death or serious injury, and include accountability mechanisms for when that line is transgressed by officers.

Amnesty International USA, as part of the Campaign for Jobs, Safety and Justice, also believes that other measures must be taken to mend the BPD’s relationship with the community. That begins with rebuilding effective community policing, strengthening the civilian review board, and embracing transparency by sharing department policies with the very people that they are sworn to protect.

This investigation only reasserts what Baltimore city residents and advocates have been saying for years – now is the time to act and introduce meaningful reform.