For the past 80 weeks, Tawanda Jones has spent Wednesday nights on Baltimore streets, often in front of City Hall, holding vigil for her brother, Tyrone West.
Long before the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer or the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York Police Department detective, before the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland patrolmen or the death of Eric Harris after he was shot by a reserve deputy with the Tulsa, Okla., County Sheriffs, and well before the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in the back of a Baltimore police van, there was West, a 44-year-old African American beaten by plainclothes Baltimore officers after a traffic stop.
The official cause of death was ruled to be a heart attack, but an independent inquiry said police had made “several errors” that led to the beating sustained by West in July 2013.
And ever since, Jones has been holding “West Wednesdays” to honor her brother and shine a light on a police department that has a history of violence that is as long as it is brutal.
Even before the violent confrontations and vandalism that marked Monday’s standoffs between area residents and law enforcement, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake acknowledged a “broken relationship” between the city’s majority African American population and its police.
“This is part of a decades-long, growing frustration over the extent to which police in Baltimore have adopted a highly militarized approach to policing residents of our city,” said Sonia Kumar, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, in an interview with the New York Times. The Maryland ACLU brought a 2006 lawsuit against Baltimore’s aggressive police tactics.
Suits against Baltimore policing date back to at least 1980, according to the NAACP, but many media accounts, including an in-depth 2014 investigation by the Baltimore Sun, point to a program called “zero-tolerance policing” instituted by Martin O’Malley when he was mayor of Baltimore between 1999 and 2007. O’Malley later served two terms as Maryland’s governor and is openly eyeing a run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.
O’Malley and his supporters tout the zero-tolerance approach as necessary to address violent crime rates plaguing the city at the time, but mass arrests and aggressive enforcement of even minor infractions (tactics that resemble often-criticized “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” policing) caused “countless innocent people” to get caught up in the “dragnet,” which bread “community frustration,” according to Kumar in the Times.
After the ACLU and NAACP sued in 2006, alleging a broad pattern of abuse, Baltimore settled for $870,000 and publicly stated, in 2010, that zero-tolerance policing would end. But local reports say that tensions persist, and, to read the Sun investigation, so does the pattern of abuse.
In the two decades leading up to 2012, 127 citizens were killed by police in Baltimore — significantly more than other cities of similar size. Las Vegas saw 100 deaths at the hands of law enforcement, while in other like-sized cities, such as Memphis, Oklahoma City and Seattle, police killings were less than half Baltimore’s number, according to the Justice Department’s voluntary survey of such incidents (there is no federal reporting requirement, and statistics on deaths at the hands of law enforcement are notoriously hard to compile).
The beatings and killings, where the victims are most often African American, according to the Sun, “poison relationships between police and community,” and also tax city coffers. From 2011 to 2014, Baltimore paid out $5.7 million to settle some 102 civil suits over police brutality — and that number does not include the $5.8 million in legal fees spent by the city in defense of the police.
And those are just the cases that were settled. The Sun said that during that same period, Baltimore faced a total of 317 lawsuits over police conduct.
The victims, many detailed in the Sun story, include “a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.” Beatings, which resulted in broken jaws, noses, arms and legs, and “head trauma, organ failure and even death,” often came “during questionable arrests,” according to the Sun.
And, again, this was after the city settled a lawsuit over zero tolerance and said it had abandoned its aggressive tactics.
These stories do not include the “rough ride” that is indicated in the severe spinal injury that cost Freddie Gray his life. Rough rides, where a suspect in custody is handcuffed and sometimes shackled, but not buckled in when they are placed in the back of a police van, are apparently a time-honored tradition in Baltimore. Police then bring the vehicle to an abrupt stop, throwing the bound prisoner across the holding pen with extreme force.
The Times cites the cases of Jeffrey Alston and Dondi Johnson, both African American, both paralyzed from the neck down after being injured during rough rides in Baltimore police vans. Both cases resulted in multi-million-dollar settlements for the victims, paid out of the Baltimore budget.
In recent years, a new mayor, police chief, and a state’s attorney visibly prosecuting police misconduct have attempted to change the perception, and, according to the city, the practices of the Baltimore Police. There is a new accountability body trying to push through a backlog of disciplinary cases; there are tougher command structures that have resulted in more cases where officers are held to account; and the city has a new computer system to track legal actions against law enforcement.
The federal Department of Justice, too, has gotten involved. In January, the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing began an 18-month review of Baltimore’s police brutality cases.
But community leaders say the time for reviews is over. At a town hall meeting earlier this month held by the Justice Department at Baltimore’s Coppin State University, more than 300 area residents gathered to tell their stories of police corruption, misconduct and excessive force. Among them was Tawanda Jones, Tyrone West’s sister. Jones says she has repeatedly called the DOJ asking for intervention in her bother’s case, but says they were not responsive.
Jones labeled the current review “phony,” according a Baltimore Sun reporter present at the meeting. “We are in a state of emergency here and you all are here with Band-Aids," Jones said.