When a video surfaced showing New York police officers crushing the life out of Eric Garner, libertarians, conservatives, and liberals alike were outraged—but their diagnoses of the problems that led to Garner’s death were not the same.
Conservatives tended to highlight over-criminalization. Garner’s sole offense was selling black-market individual cigarettes, called “loosies,” made popular by New York’s exorbitant cigarette tax. If it weren’t for such bad laws, conservatives said, Eric Garner might be alive today.
The way liberals saw it, focusing on tax law was a cop-out. The officer directly responsible for choking Garner had previously been sued for multiple race-related civil rights violations, and the NYPD was notorious for unfairly targeting minorities with its unconstitutional “Stop and Frisk” program. If black people weren’t disproportionately killed by police, liberals said, Eric Garner might be alive today.
As a libertarian, I argued both sides were half-right. Institutional racism was certainly at play in Garner’s demise, but without the institutional part, that racism would be much less powerful. When everything is illegal, police have every excuse to stop and even kill minorities.
Now, more than two years later, the Department of Justice has released a report on policing problems in Baltimore, another city where a high-profile police killing of an African-American man took place.
The assessment is scathing and not particularly surprising. It reiterates both policing problems we saw in Garner’s death. As with Garner, it’s not just one factor: the bad policies and racial bias go hand in hand, each amplifying the other’s effects. Here are four ways the Baltimore report makes that clear:
1. Strip searches and even cavity searches are performed roadside without justification.
In one particularly appalling story, the BPD forcibly subjected a woman to a roadside anal cavity search after she was stopped for having a broken headlight. How does a low-level vehicular malfunction justify public sexual assault? That’s a good question, and not one the officers involved have answered.
When the cavity search “found no evidence of wrongdoing,” the report notes, the woman was released without charges. Some 60 similarly unconstitutional and humiliating searches have happened in the last six years alone, and those are only the ones where the victims filed formal complaints. Needless to say, the great bulk of these probably happened because police were looking for drugs—over-criminalization in action.
2. Black Baltimoreans are stopped and searched more often than whites—even though they’re less likely to be caught with contraband.
Not every stop the BPD makes involves a strip search, of course, but the DOJ report documents plenty of other constitutional abuses. Looking at the department’s thousands of stops on a grander scale, a grim pattern of racial bias soon emerges: “African-American residents were three times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police, though whites were twice as likely to be found with illegal guns, drugs and contraband.” This is indefensible from a public safety standpoint, let alone a constitutional one.
3. Police make up reasons for stopping people after the stop is underway.
I’ll share this one straight from the report:
During a ride-along with Justice Department officials, a BPD sergeant instructed a patrol officer to stop a group of young African-American males on a street corner, question them, and order them to disperse. When the patrol officer protested that he had no valid reason to stop the group, the sergeant replied “Then make something up.” This incident is far from anomalous.
Not even having multiple DOJ officials in the car monitoring for civil rights abuses failed to give these officers pause. And because there are so many vague charges police can levy at their discretion—stuff like “disorderly conduct,” “disturbing the peace,” and “resisting arrest”—a corrupt officer doesn’t have to be particularly creative with what he makes up.
4. Black Baltimoreans are disproportionately arrested on flimsy charges that are later dropped.
Those vague, discretionary charges are applied in a racially biased manner, too. The DOJ report reveals black Baltimoreans were as much as four times more likely to be arrested for subjective, nuisance-level crimes. Yet when these cases were reviewed by prosecutors and booking officers, African Americans’ charges were disproportionately thrown out, “indicating these reviewers saw the charges as undeserved.”
Once again, bad institutional policies give officers an excuse to act on racial bias. Until we tackle both of these problems, police abuse will continue to be a reality.