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In "Baltimore Rising," Fault Lines looks at the relationship between the city and its law enforcement, after the death of Freddie Gray. The film airs on Monday, June 15, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.
In the wake of Freddie Gray’s arrest and eventual death, two decades of policing methods by Baltimore’s Police Department (BPD) are under new scrutiny.
But Jill Carter has been raising the issue long before Baltimore erupted in protest last spring. Carter has represented West Baltimore’s 41st District* in the Maryland Legislature since 2003. Carter says the BPD’s operating principle of “hyper, overly aggressive policing” has fueled deep mistrust between the local police force and the citizens of Baltimore.
Fault Lines spoke to Carter about police brutality and accountability in Baltimore—and what could be done to heal the rift between law enforcement and residents. An edited version of the conversation follows:
You were a very vocal critic of former Baltimore Mayor (and current Democratic presidential aspirant) Martin O’Malley’s “zero tolerance” policy. Can you talk a little about how that policy played out in places like Sandtown?
I always say it wasn’t just a zero tolerance policy, it was a failed zero tolerance policy. It was a rogue zero tolerance policy. It was commonplace for law enforcement officers to plant a van at the top of a block and conduct a street sweep of everyone they saw outside. And the theory was the more people we arrest, the less crime because no one will be on the street. But what happened is that, at the same time that people were being arrested for virtually nothing, violent crime was able to continue and to expand because the real criminals knew there was no one there to pursue them. The police officers were rated on the number of arrests they made, and everything was stats-driven not people-driven. That really in large part created the culture that exists today.
There were a lot of people in the community, older people especially, who believed that, “Well, it's a good thing. We need to lock up these criminals.” But over time I've noticed a complete change because of the devastation that it's had on people. It's destroyed the ability of many young people to even lead productive lives. Because once that arrest record is there, many people believe, “Oh, it's just a conviction.” But actually no, it's an arrest record, as well, that employers don't really wait to see what the result is. They just say, “OK, you're charged with this crime, and we can find someone else.” The problem is that in Baltimore City, it's becoming more and more difficult to find anyone whatsoever under certain ages and zip codes that doesn't have a criminal record.
Martin O'Malley was not just wrong, but savagely wrong on criminal justice issues.
[Ed. note: We've reached out to Martin O'Malley's presidential campaign for a response to Carter's comments and will update the story when we receive one.]
The drug war basically serves as the pretext, I believe, for all the mass arrests. The police haven’t been properly trained on how to make legal arrests. They haven’t been trained to arrest or make stops based on reasonable suspicion or an arrest based on probable cause. They are used to just going up into certain neighborhoods and jacking people up and taking people away.
What does that do to the community in terms of their trust toward the police?
The community has so little trust in the police that there actually was a judge some years ago who convened a grand jury to investigate why the community did not trust the police, why juries would not convict (and the reason that they'd give is that they did not believe the police), why they could not get jurors to serve jury duty. Because when people were asked the question during voir dire whether or not you're likely to believe a police officer, the answer was overwhelmingly, “We will not believe the police.”
To focus on the Freddie Gray incident, what does his act of making eye contact with the police officers and then running symbolize in terms of how people relate to the police in this community?
It's a normal thing to run from the police, and you certainly don't have to be a criminal, especially now that there's been more reporting of incidents of brutality. It would even cause some people who normally would have more trust in the police to probably have that same reaction.
I would say that there is a legitimate belief that any encounter with the police will not only result in arrest, but bodily harm and even death. And so that is why the response is normal. Many people will take chances with crime on the street as opposed to put themselves at risk by having an encounter with the police officers.
I would say that there is a legitimate belief that any encounter with the police will not only result in arrest, but bodily harm and even death.
Maryland State Delegate
But even on a lower level than that, there’s just a fundamental disrespect. There are people that I know of who have called the police for things that might be deemed minor, and the police have scolded them or berated them for even bothering with them because they had other things to do, they had crimes to get out, they had drugs on the street.
A lot of people we spoke to in West Baltimore described the police as “an occupying force.” They repeatedly used that term. What do you think needs to be done to restore some measure of trust?
There has to be greater recruitment efforts of people who live in Baltimore City. Until the police department and the leadership of the city get serious about growing a department from within the people that live here, we will not have change. You can't have community policing with people who are not from the community. More than 80 percent of the police department doesn't live in Baltimore City, are not from Baltimore City.
Out of 119 people who have died in police custody since 2010, in only two cases were there charges brought against the officers. What does that say about the system of accountability?
It says that there is none. State's Attorney [Marilyn] Mosby has managed to get indictments on these six officers, but the concern is this: one is that indictments are not convictions. All across the country, even where there have been indictments, there have rarely rarely been convictions. And then the other part is that Moseby is one prosecutor at this time. But other prosecutors that have preceded her have not brought these kinds of charges. And so rather than just rely on who's there at the moment, we need to create mechanisms for accountability regardless of who is in the office of the State's Attorney.
What kind of mechanisms would you like to see implemented?
We need officers that commit brutality, officers that are abusive, officers that are disrespectful to be disciplined. We need them to be fired. We need them not to be hired to begin with, but we need them, ultimately when they do something wrong, to be fired. But all kinds of data shows that more often than not, they're not only not fired, they're often transferred and/or promoted. And so there's zero repercussions, and that's why there's no reason why an officer would not commit these acts.
Also, I don't know if you've had a chance to talk to any officers, but in talking with them, I certainly have had many over the years tell me that committing the acts of brutality is almost a rite of passage. It's something that's almost required in order for your fellow officers to know that you're one of them, and you're not going to rat them out. It's like now they'll have something on you, so there's nothing to worry about. You're all part of the same clique. So it's not about people who have a violent nature or go into this police department with an intention to act this way. It's the culture that coerces people to act this way more often than not.
How important is the issue of police brutality for this generation?
I remember getting a call from one of my nieces actually on the heels of one of these incidents that happened in another city. She was crying. And she said, "Aunt Jill, I cannot believe this. What are we going to do about it?" I was wondering why it was affecting her so much. And I was remembering she wasn't alive for Rodney King. They believe in equality. They see people of all races as equal, and they don't have discrimination in their hearts. But when they see it actually happening, they're shocked because they thought it was a thing of the past.
It's a critical issue because as long as we allow it to happen, we are sending a message that it's OK for the state and for the government to kill people because police officers are actors of the state. And if politicians do nothing, we're sending a message that in America it is OK for black people, people of color and persons with disabilities to be casualties of the police department.
*Correction: This article previously stated that the 41st District included "the Sandtown neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived and was arrested." The district actually starts just north of Sandtown. We regret the error.