US & Canada

US government blasts Baltimore police over race

A mural of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, 10 August Image copyright Win McNamee
Image caption Freddie Gray is commemorated by a mural in Baltimore

A US justice department report has accused police in the city of Baltimore of routinely discriminating against black people and using excessive force.

An inquiry was ordered after a young black man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody in April of last year, sparking Baltimore's worst riots for decades.

The report found African-Americans had been disproportionately targeted.

Unjustified strip searches were conducted while in one arrest, a black man's weapon was listed as "his mouth".

In recent years, the justice department has conducted similar investigations into the police in Chicago, Cleveland, Albuquerque and Ferguson, Missouri.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake responded to Wednesday's report by promising speedy reforms.

At the scene: Aleem Maqbool, BBC North America Correspondent

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Media captionA month after Gray suffered a fatal injury, Baltimore remained on edge

The statistics are damning and the individual cases studies are alarming.

The report talks of one black man being stopped 30 times in four years without ever being charged and 60 cases of the police being accused of using the N-word in interactions with black people, though only one of those incidents being recorded as the use of a racial slur.

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Media captionBaltimore police report: 'it's ugly and brutal and painful'

But the report's findings seem to have surprised very few here. The feeling among many is that American policing is beset with systemic racism, with Baltimore having a particularly bad record.

The fact that around 40% of the city's police force is now African American does not appear to have been enough to turn things around.

The Department of Justice has recommended a push towards community policing, a style of law enforcement that has been resisted by forces in other parts of the country.

"Over the next few months, we will put in place a concrete plan for change and a new culture - for the good of the city, the police department and the people it protects," she said in a statement.

The report runs to 163 pages. Among the findings:

  • Black residents account for roughly 84% of stops although they represent 63% of the city's population
  • Black residents make up 95% of the 410 people stopped at least 10 times by officers between 2010 and 2015
  • Police stopped 34 black residents 20 times, and seven black residents 30 times or more, between 2010 and 2015. No individuals of any other race were stopped more than 12 times
  • In addition to pat-downs, Baltimore officers perform unconstitutional public strip searches, including searches of people who are not under arrest
  • Officers routinely use unreasonable and excessive force, including against juveniles and citizens who are not dangerous or posing an immediate threat

'Trust eroded'

The head of the justice department's civil rights division, Vanita Gupta, told reporters the Baltimore Police Department's practices had "deeply eroded" trust between officers and the community.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Maryland National Guard deployed armoured cars in Baltimore during last year's unrest

"We conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern of practice of conduct that violates the constitution and federal anti-discrimination law," she said.

BPD Commissioner Kevin Davis said people were right to be indignant at police behaviour as described in the report.

"Citizens can't be expected to respect an agency if the trust of that agency is breached. There are several instances in this report in which that fragile trust has been breached."

Guilty police officers have been fired, he added.

'The harsh reality'

The head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a leading African-American civil rights organisation, said the report confirmed "what many African-American residents of Baltimore have known and lived too long".

Sherrilyn Ifill said the report's findings had laid "bare the harsh reality of discriminatory policing in a major American city''.

She urged "residents, community groups and leading city institutions to marshal their resources and prepare for the long haul to find a way forward".

Freddie Gray, 25, suffered a broken neck while he was handcuffed and shackled but left unrestrained in the back of a police van on 12 April 2015.

Six police officers were arrested on charges which ranged from involuntary manslaughter to misconduct in office but none was convicted.

The six officers

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Top L-R: Caesar Goodson Jr; Garrett Miller; Edward Nero. Bottom L-R: William Porter; Brian Rice; Alicia White

Brian Rice, aged 41: Mr Rice was one of the three officers who first encountered Gray while on a bicycle patrol and participated in the initial arrest. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second degree assault and misconduct in office, among other charges. His trial began on 7 July but he was found not guilty on all counts on 18 July.

Edward Nero, 29: Another one of the three bicycle patrol officers who first encountered Gray. Mr Nero was charged with second degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. He went to trial but was found not guilty on all counts in May.

Garrett Miller, 26: The third of the three officers who first encountered Gray. Mr Miller was charged with second degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. His trial was due to begin on 27 July but all charges against him were dropped the same day.

William Porter, 25: Became involved after the initial arrest. Prosecutors said Mr Porter was asked twice by Gray for medical assistance but failed to summon any. Mr Porter was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. After his first trial ended in a mistrial in December, he was put on trial again last month but the charges were dropped.

Alicia White, 30: Ms White was accused by the prosecution of failing to call for medical assistance for Gray when he was in obvious distress. She was charged with involuntary manslaughter, second degree assault and misconduct in office. Her trial was due to begin in October but all charges against her have been dropped.

Caesar Goodson Jr, 45: Mr Goodson was the driver of the van in which Gray was held. He was charged with second-degree "depraved-heart" murder and manslaughter by vehicle, among other charges. He went on trial in June but was found not guilty on all charges.

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