Records obtained by the Baltimore Sun and published this week reveal that the rough treatment handed down to Gray was far from an anomaly. In just under three years, Baltimore correctional officers refused to take custody of thousands of separate Baltimore Police Department arrestees for a variety of horrifying injuries that should seem pretty familiar:
From June 2012 through April 2015, correctional officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center have refused to admit nearly 2,600 detainees who were in police custody, according to state records obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request.
In those records, intake officers in Central Booking noted a wide variety of injuries, including fractured bones, facial trauma and hypertension. Of the detainees denied entry, 123 had visible head injuries, the third most common medical problem cited by jail officials, records show.
On a regular basis, Baltimore police were so busy beating criminal suspects that they couldn’t even bother to properly arrest them.
The Sun investigation provides yet another gross look at the state of a police force that not only cannot control the conduct of its officers, but apparently wasn’t even trying in the first place. One man who drunkenly crashed his car claims that Baltimore cops dragged him out of his vehicle while beating him with their batons, then ignored his fractured ankle, broken jaw and facial lacerations for three hours. A pregnant woman says she reported a crime to police only to have them arrive and assault her. Both got five to six figure settlements.
Some of the 2,600 people rejected from Baltimore jails probably were visibly on drugs, and another few may have been faking or exaggerating injuries to avoid being thrown in the slammer. But there is absolutely no way that city officials could not have known these problems existed, and equally impossible to deny that they let the problem fester for years. Another Sun investigation found that Baltimore has been involved in 317 lawsuits for “false arrests, false imprisonment and excessive force” since 2011. The city paid out over $5.7 million in payments and settlements in 100 of them and shedding an additional $5.8 million in legal fees.
In a crime- and poverty-ridden city like Baltimore, a police department can enjoy enormous political capital. Martin O’Malley, mayor of Baltimore from 1999-2006 and Maryland governor from 2007 to 2015, helped push a zero-tolerance approach to crime that TheWashington Post’s Fact Checker blog notes contributed to an astonishing “108,447 people arrested in a city of roughly 600,000 residents” in 2005, about two-thirds of which were non-violent offenders. That’s an astonishing figure. Who can keep a police force that’s locking that much of the town up for things like littering or loitering accountable?
There’s a number of other reasons why police are rarely held accountable, like high popularity with voters and cautious deference among elected officials who are afraid to anger the people who can turn anything into a Willie Horton moment.
But I think there’s certainly a case to be made that part of the reason cops in Baltimore and elsewhere get away with “rough rides,” shattered ribcages and unnecessary shootings is because all that excessive force is an inescapable consequence of a tough-on-crime approach to policing. It is collateral damage treated as regrettable but necessary to enforce a particular social order. Take Ferguson, where a brutal system of hefty fines and aggressive police efforts to enforce them targeted blacks to exploit them for revenue. The complicity of officials from D.A.’s offices to mayors to unchecked police power is both a response to the political realities of the screwed-up country we live in and a way of perpetuating them.
It’s definitely scary to think of American police as out of control. But it’s much scarier to ponder if the system is actually running more or less as it should, one beating at a time.