Justice Department alleges racial discrimination by Baltimore police

The Obama-Lynch Justice Department is about to release a report on policing practices by the Baltimore police department. The Baltimore Sun apparently got a sneak preview. It says DOJ found that Baltimore police officers have routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force.

As noted, the report isn’t out yet, and I don’t want to prejudge it. However, a few observations come to mind after reading the Sun’s account.

First, half of the Baltimore police force consists minority group members, with African-Americans being by far the biggest such group. Is there a disparity between the extent to which white officers and black officers stop blacks and/or use force on them? I can’t tell from the Sun’s account whether DOJ studied this.

If black officers are stopping blacks and using force on them to a disproportionate degree, it’s difficult to attribute the DOJ’s findings to racial animus. To do so would assume that black officers are prejudiced against black citizens.

This isn’t out of the question, but it is counter-intuitive. One would want an explanation.

Second, the crux of DOJ’s case against the Baltimore police force, at least as reported by the Sun, appears to be this:

The report noted that officers recorded more than 300,000 pedestrian stops from January 2010 to May 2015. Roughly 44 percent were made in two small, predominantly African-American districts that contain 11 percent of the city’s population, and seven black men were stopped more than 30 times each.

Black pedestrians were 37 percent more likely to be searched by Baltimore police citywide and 23 percent more likely to be searched during vehicle stops. But officers found contraband twice as often when searching white residents during vehicle stops and 50 percent more often during pedestrian stops, the report notes.

The first paragraph tells us that the police force is policing certain small predominantly African-American districts more aggressively than it is policing other areas. Is this improper? To me, the answer depends on whether these are high crime neighborhoods.

Of course, a neighborhood will appear to be high crime if it is aggressively policed. The more one looks for crime, the more crime one is likely to find.

But I think there’s a pretty objective way to gauge whether a neighborhood truly is “high crime.” That’s by examining the murder rate. Aggressive policing may give rise to extra drug arrests, but I doubt that it gives rise to extra murders.

Do the two heavily policed, predominantly African-American districts have high murder rates? I don’t know. But I have read that in around 80 percent of Baltimore murders in recent years the victim was black.

The second paragraph tells us basically the same thing as the first paragraph — policing is more aggressive in predominantly black neighborhoods. Again, this may be justified by objective considerations or it may not be. I can’t tell from the Baltimore Sun’s account.

According to the Sun, DOJ’s investigators concluded that 1990s-era policies that encouraged more aggressive policing contributed to the (allegedly) discriminatory practices. It seems clear that proactive policing contributed to lots of stops of African-Americans (and it seems clear that DOJ doesn’t like proactive policing for that reason). But again, this doesn’t mean such policing produced or contributed to “discriminatory practices.” Aggressively policing high crime neighborhoods isn’t, in itself, a discriminatory practice.

I don’t doubt that some actions by some Baltimore police officers are racially discriminatory. Indeed, this seems inevitable. But whether discrimination “routinely” occurs in stops and the use of force, as DOJ apparently found, is another question.

Perhaps the Obama-Lynch Justice Department report will shed light on that question. Perhaps not.

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