Baltimore mayor urges turning anger into action after DOJ report on policing

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GWEN IFILL: A bruising report released by the Department of Justice today spelled out a long pattern of racial discrimination by the Baltimore Police Department. The investigation was commissioned in May 2015, after the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in the back of a police van.

Gray’s death sparked city-wide protests and thrust Baltimore to the forefront of a national reckoning on race and policing. The report examined police practices from 2010 to 2015. The numbers paint an unmistakable picture of policing disparities. Baltimore is 63 percent African-American, but blacks were charged with 91 percent of discretionary offenses, and made up 82 percent of traffic stops.

More than 40 percent of all pedestrian stops in the city came in the two small predominantly African-American districts. One black man was stopped 30 times. None resulted in any charges.

The investigation also found police frequently used excessive force and escalated encounters.

Vanita Gupta, who leads the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, announced the findings today at a press conference with Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner.

VANITA GUPTA, U.S. Department of Justice: These violations have deeply eroded the trust between BPD and the community it serves, trust that is essential to effective policing, as well as to officer and public safety. The problems in Baltimore didn’t happen overnight or appear in a day. The pattern and practice that we found results from longstanding systemic deficiencies in the BPD.

GWEN IFILL: I spoke with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at Baltimore City Hall this afternoon.

Madam Mayor, thank you for joining us.

The words used to describe this report have been astounding, shocking, amazing. I don’t think I can overstate it. And there have been other reports done. There have been other examinations. Why are we just reaching this point now?

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE, Baltimore: I think woe are reaching this point because the city has leadership that is focused and determined on making meaningful reforms.

We have tried to improve the police department, the policing strategy, the relationships with the police and the community. In the past under my administration, when I saw that we were falling short, that’s when I asked the Department of Justice to come in for a collaborative review to help us strengthen our community policing effort.

And when I saw that that was insufficient, that’s when I asked for the Department of Justice to do the patterns and practice investigation. What I heard from the Department of Justice is that they’re clear that these are longstanding, systemic issues that predate me and some that predate my life that we have had in Baltimore.

But the difference today is that there is leadership in place that’s determined to get it right, because that’s what the citizens of Baltimore deserve.

GWEN IFILL: Most people in this country know of what happened in Baltimore because of the Freddie Gray case. The Department of Justice says this is not just about Freddie Gray, but would these efforts have been put into place without Freddie Gray?

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Well, I can only speak to my track record.

And before the tragic death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed, these reforms were under way. Before the death of Freddie Gray, I was in a very lonely fight in Annapolis, our state capital, to get reforms, to fight for reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, something many people in the community felt was a barrier to the trust relationships that they believed were necessary for progress.

They thought it was a barrier to holding officers accountable for wrongdoing. That happened before. That fight happened before. The collaborative review happened before the death of Freddie Gray.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s step back from just your administration, because what this report shows is something pretty pervasive that I’m not sure that any report could fix. It’s a pervasive attitude not only on the parts of police, but also on the part of the community.

How does a report or even a negotiated settlement or a consent decree get to the bottom of those attitudes?

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: I think it is going to be up to everyone in the community to say that we have to come to the table in a spirit of collaboration with mutual respect and roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of getting to better.

We cannot afford to do what I have seen in too many parts of the country, where people just, you know, retrench to their corners, right, and just shout and they’re angry and they’re frustrated. If we can’t figure out a way to turn that anger and frustration into action, we’re not going to get better.

GWEN IFILL: If I am the black man who’s been stopped 30 times for crossing the street by an officer in this police department, why should I believe any of that?

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: You should believe it because there is nothing about my administration that is trying to hide him or any of the problems that we have from the public.

I am — I have today and have always been about shining a light on our most pressing challenges, so that we can be about the business of fixing them and of getting, you know, better and safer and stronger as a city.

GWEN IFILL: The police chief, the police commissioner said today he’s already fired six police officers in 2016. Were they particularly connected to this?

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: No, it’s an effort, his ongoing efforts to hold officers accountable for their actions.

And I’m grateful to have a police commissioner who’s been through a patterns and practice of investigation and consent decree. He understands the importance of holding officers accountable. He is side by side with me in these efforts to strengthen or to reform the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to give him more authority to deal with officers that have been found guilty of wrongdoing. It is a frustration.

GWEN IFILL: Were these specific firing, did they have to do with this ongoing investigation, or are they separate?

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: I would say separate, but it is a clear indication that the work of reform, the work of better transparency and holding officers accountable is ongoing.

GWEN IFILL: Would you say that the retrofitting of police vans that you mentioned in your news conference today, which, obviously, that’s how Freddie Gray died, in the back of a police van, would you say that was also part of this, or was that something that was ongoing beforehand?

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: There were some changes in policy that were being implemented.

But as far as the retrofitting and the cameras, I’m not tone-deaf to what happened with the death of Freddie Gray. We knew that we needed to make changes with training, with equipment, with being able to hold officers accountable when it comes to transportation. And that’s why these changes were made.

GWEN IFILL: In the end, what you agreed to today with the Justice Department — and I want to read it to get it right — an agreement in principle which leads to framework for negotiations, which to, once again someone in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where so many of these things have happened, looks at that and says, what does that even mean and how does that have any effect on me?

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: What it means is that the Department of Justice has never had as detailed a blueprint moving forward with a city on how we can be better, that they should know that the level of commitment that I have, that the police commissioner has, that the rank-and-file officers have to improving not just the relationship with the police and the community, but also the results for getting a safer city, there is no stronger example of our determination and our intention to be better.

There is no stronger example in the country than what we’re doing here in Baltimore.

GWEN IFILL: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, thank you very much.

MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: Thank you.

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