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DOJ to Investigate Pattern of Racist Policing in Baltimore

Though welcomed, rights advocates question whether prosecutions or probes will have meaningful impact on systemic discrimination in Baltimore and other U.S. cities

A Baltimore protester faces a wall of police in riot gear during a demonstration on April 28, 2015. (Photo: Arash Azizzada/cc/flickr)

A Baltimore protester faces a wall of police in riot gear during a demonstration on April 28, 2015. (Photo: Arash Azizzada/cc/flickr)

The United States Department of Justice announced Friday that after weeks of uproar and protest it would open an official investigation into the Baltimore Police Department to determine whether the discrimination and events that led to the brutal death of Freddie Gray were part of systemic pattern of abuse.

After traveling to the city this week, the newly anointed U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that recent events, including the "tragic in-custody death of Freddie Gray," had led to a "serious erosion of public trust," prompting local officials and community leaders to seek federal oversight of policing practices.

The investigation, Lynch continued, will determine "whether the Baltimore Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of violations" of the U.S. Constitution or the community's civil rights, focusing specifically on "allegations that Baltimore Police Department officers use excessive force, including deadly force; conduct unlawful searches, seizures and arrests; and engage in discriminatory policing."

On Tuesday, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who requested the probe, also said the DOJ will investigate whether the department has "engaged in a pattern of stops, searches, or arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment."

The patterns or practice investigation will occur in addition to a federal probe announced April 21, which is examining whether civil rights laws were violated specifically during Gray's arrest.

"A just resolution in Baltimore will address not only the city’s long history of police violence, but also the economic privation and state control that helped spur such strong resistance by its residents."
—Sharlyn Grace and Oren Nimni, National Lawyer's Guild

The city is already undergoing a voluntary investigation with the DOJ into alleged police brutality, which began six months prior to Gray's death.

The announcement comes a week after Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby said the state would be filing criminal charges against the officers involved in Gray's death.

Though welcoming the news, civil rights advocates question whether either prosecution of the officers or a federal investigation can go far enough to address the root causes of police violence against people of color.

In an op-ed on Friday, attorneys Sharlyn Grace, National Lawyer's Guild (NLG) national vice-president, and Oren Nimni, chair of the NLG United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC), wrote about the need to address the "deeply entrenched conditions and systems" that led to the deaths of Gray and others killed by police.

"The problem is not just these six cops. The problem is also not just the Baltimore Police Department (although they are notorious)," write Grace and Nimni.

They continue:

While the police continue to enforce conditions of poverty, there will be violence. While the police continue to degrade and dehumanize women, trans* and gender non-conforming people, there will be violence. While the police occupy communities of color, there will be violence. When we seek an end to police violence, we seek, in part, an end to police.

A just resolution can only come from addressing systemic issues in policing and real attempts to meet the needs of the community at large, things that prosecution is not designed to handle. A just resolution in Baltimore will address not only the city’s long history of police violence, but also the economic privation and state control that helped spur such strong resistance by its residents.

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