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Constitutional violations by police should be a federal crime

Melvin B. Miller
Constitutional violations by police should be a federal crime
“Everybody knows Baltimore cops are bad, but the judges are even worse. They ruled it’s no crime for the cops to violate Freddie Gray’s constitutional rights and cause his death.” (Photo: Dan Drew)

As anticipated, the recent U.S. Department of Justice report found that the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) had grievously abused the city’s African American citizens and denied them their constitutional rights. But most blacks already knew that. What they wanted was a criminal indictment to be filed against the offending officers. The reality is that police officers who oppress blacks have always had impunity from the criminal justice system.

The Baltimore City state’s attorney, Marilyn J. Mosby, rejected that tradition when she charged the six police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray with a crime. Gray was arrested on April 12, 2015 when he ran away from the officers who were trying to interrogate him. After a chase he was arrested on the false charge that the knife in his pocket violated regulations. Gray died as result of injuries he suffered during the ride in the police van.

Riots erupted in Baltimore and across the country. On May 1, 2015 Mosby announced her determination that the police conduct was criminal. At that time she said “to the people of Baltimore and demonstrators across America: I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.’” Those who opposed Mosby’s decision asserted that she was playing to the crowd rather than relying on the rigors of the law.

The truth is that Mosby demonstrated the courage to confront a long-standing flaw in the nation’s criminal justice system. Under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the individual states have the exclusive right to prosecute crimes in their own jurisdictions in accordance with their local laws. A police officer’s compliance with the general standards of performance of the police department is usually sufficient to exculpate the officer from criminal liability, even if the compliance is grossly negligent.

The Department of Justice investigation produced a number of violations of the Constitution and federal law by the BPD. They include:

  • “Unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests;
  • Enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans;
  • Use of excessive force; and
  • Retaliation against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.”

More than 300,000 pedestrian stops were recorded by the police in 5.5 years, and 44 percent were in an African American section of town that contains only 11 percent of Baltimore’s population. African Americans accounted for 82 percent of all BPD vehicle stops although they account for only 27 percent of the driving age population in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Only 3.7 percent of black pedestrians stopped received a citation or were arrested. This indicates that “stop and frisk” was primarily a harassment strategy. When citizens were detained, there were great racial disparities in the discretionary arrests: 91 percent for “failure to obey” or “trespass” and 84 percent for “disorderly conduct.” With the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore was ready for a riot.

Four police officers were acquitted in 1992 for beating Rodney King after a police chase. Congress then gave the Justice Department the authority to conduct a federal investigation of police departments with a record of violating the constitutional rights of citizens. Since 2009, 21 police departments have come under investigation, including Ferguson, Mo.; Cleveland, Ohio; New Orleans, La.; as well as Baltimore, Md. Yet the violations continue.

It is time for citizens to have the right to file in federal court a criminal complaint against police officers who violate their constitutional rights.