Is the Department of Justice paying lip service to the black residents of Baltimore? On Wednesday, the DOJ released a damning report on the police force’s treatment of blacks in the city. And it comes just one day after Lt. Brian Rice, one of the cops cleared in the death of Freddie Gray, was awarded $127,000 in back pay. Wednesday’s report, which highlights the city’s discriminatory policing, marks the second of its kind; last March, the Justice Department released a 100-page report with similar findings in Ferguson, MO. But there is a disconnect: While the federal government acknowledges the structural problems in these police forces, local courts and state governments keep failing to prosecute and convict police officers for the deaths of the black people who sparked the investigations by the DOJ in the first place.
The investigation, which began 15 months ago, found that blacks made up 91% of arrests in Baltimore for infractions like “failure to obey” or “trespassing.” But that number is no surprise to those living in black communities. Blacks don’t need official numbers and statistics to know that avoiding an interaction with the police might save your life. After all, when Freddie Gray saw the police on April 12, 2015, his gut reaction was to run. Eventually, he was pursued and tackled to the ground by officers and subsequently arrested for carrying a switchblade. Gray died from spinal injuries after police took him on what is commonly known as a “rough ride,” to the station.
None of the six officers involved in Gray’s death were convicted. Three of them didn’t even have to face trial.
At first it looked like change might come to Baltimore. The city’s new, young prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, had moved to prosecute the officers involved in Gray’s arrest, something that hadn’t happened in the Michael Brown or Eric Garner case. But in the end, the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing, an outcome that surprised approximately no one.
The city of Baltimore has been complaining about the over-policing of its black citizens for quite some time now. The NAACP put in a request to the DOJ to open an investigation into police brutality in Baltimore as far back as 1980. But it wasn’t until massive protests, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, that their call was finally answered.
Black Lives Matter, a movement that has mostly operated outside the confines of the American political system, has been credited with bringing national attention to the deaths of blacks by police. And it’s true. The government is hearing its citizens’ cry for help. And it is confirming that racism in policing is real. But will that change anything?
Today we have a report to tell us what we already knew, that blacks are unfairly and disproportionately targeted by police. “Indeed, the mayor and the commissioner have been aware of many of the problems that our findings report details, and have not stood still during our investigation, and I want to commend them for that,” said Vanita Gupta, the top prosecutor for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, at a press conference this morning in Baltimore.
But just because the city has “been aware of many of the problems,” that doesn’t mean it’s going to change. And that’s what black people living in Baltimore actually need.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.