As our Department of Justice’s “pattern or practice investigation” of the Baltimore City Police Department has revealed, far too many law enforcement officers have participated in repeated violations of the constitutional rights of our citizens, especially our African American citizens.
Now, with the cooperation of our Police Department, we are proceeding toward a judicially supervised and enforced Consent Decree governing the manner in which our law enforcement officers will perform their duties.
Our first imperative is this. We will not allow anyone to trample on the constitutional rights of our citizens.
That is — and must remain — a non-negotiable principle underlying reform.
We also know full well, however, that the process of creating a culture of greater justice in our community demands a sustained and comprehensive commitment to change that extends beyond police reform.
As the Justice Department’s investigation made clear, we cannot reform the manner in which law enforcement is conducted in our city without also addressing the social and economic context in which both crime and policing take place.
Ms. Diane Bell-McCoy, CEO of Associated Black Charities, has accurately observed that “we also must understand and dismantle the structurally racialized policies and practices that limit economic opportunity and growth for all of our people. It’s not just a civic rights issue. It’s not just a social justice issue. It is also very much an economic issue for our entire community.”
I fully agree.
The most readily apparent economic consequences of the zero tolerance, racially-stereotyped policing in our past have been felt by the neighbors who have died, been injured, lost their jobs or been unable to find employment as a consequence of arrests for non-violent, often trivial crimes.
Yet, if we are to achieve reform by speaking truth to power, we must be willing to search for the whole truth about the inter-relationships between policing and economic disinvestment in our community.
We know, as my colleague, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, has observed, that Republican policies during the last 30 years have resulted in the “systematic abandonment of Black neighborhoods.”
We also know, as Diane Bell-McCoy has pointed out, that racialized policies here in Baltimore (and other major American cities) have not been limited to law enforcement but, rather, have extended to every significant area of our lives.
There also is a second, equally compelling imperative for our community. We must squarely confront the reality that far too many Baltimoreans do not feel safe — even though the Baltimore City government is spending more than $400 million dollars each year on “public safety.”
That fear, the fear of becoming victimized by violent crime, has had disastrous economic consequences. It is one of the major obstacles that I have encountered in my own efforts to encourage economic development in many areas of our community.
When I have listened to our police officers, I have encountered resistance to the Justice Department’s conclusions about the future direction of law enforcement in Baltimore. Many believe that the manner in which they have been performing their duties is what is required to keep us safe.
Yet, the reality is that Baltimore Police Officers have violated our Constitution by engaging in stopping, detaining and arresting African Americans for minor offenses, especially in our less affluent neighborhoods, and without what most of us would consider either “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause.”
To achieve real, lasting reform beyond the language of a court order, we must convince those who have pledged to protect and defend us that relying upon racial stereotyping is not only unconstitutional, it is ineffective policing.
Too many officers have been following the perception, as former Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale has remarked, that to protect us, “you go where the violence is.”
However, we know (from statistics for the years 2008-2012 developed by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics) that persons in African American households at or below the Federal Poverty Level experienced rates of violence (51.3 per 1,000) similar to poor urban Whites (56.4 per 1000).”
We also know that unconstitutional and racially disproportionate policing of less significant offenses has been a major factor in law enforcement’s losing the trust and cooperation of much of our community.
Most of us would wholeheartedly agree that the primary duty of law enforcement is to keep us safe. Yet, without the public’s cooperation, effective policing of violent crime has become far more difficult, if not impossible.
Through August 13 of this year, for example, the BCPD’s own statistics have confirmed 181 homicides in our City — but only 8 homicide arrests.
We must do better than this, and I am convinced that we can — through major reinvestment in our cities and our people combined with constitutional “community policing” that targets violent crime with greater cooperation from the public.
Working together with law enforcement, we can achieve more effective and constitutional policing, as well as a safer, more equitable, and more prosperous community.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.