The Broken Social Contract in Baltimore: Police Violence and Hate Crimes

By Nadia Owusu

The issues of police brutality and excessive force have been amplified across the country since the tragic death of George Floyd. While the issues are decades-old, there is renewed pressure on national, state, and local officials to establish reforms and to change the current policing culture. Just like many cities across the United States, Baltimore has been plagued by corruption and tomfoolery within law enforcement.. The contradicting failures in Black communities are that they have been both under-policed and over-policed: non-substantial efforts are taken to pursue justice for Black victims of crime, while Black residents are simultaneously disproportionate victims of police violence, false arrests, and discriminatory sentencing.

As an intern with the James Byrd Jr. Center to Stop Hate at the Lawyers’ Committee this summer, I have learned about how data on hate crimes in our country is often lacking or incomplete. For instance, according to 2018 FBI data, there were only 49 reported hate crimes in Maryland. This was a slight increase from the 2017 data that reported 48 documented hate crimes. The 2018 figures show that more than half of those reported hate crimes were against victims because of their race or ethnicity, which follows the nationwide trend. In addition, about 18 percent were targeted due of religious affiliation and about 16 percent were targeted due to sexual orientation. To ensure that hate crimes are properly reported and documented, the community needs to be able to trust the law enforcement sworn to protect them. However, having grown up in Baltimore, I have watched as acts of police brutality has soiled the relationship between the community and law enforcement. The death of Freddie Gray generated national media attention and sparked city-wide protests, and is just one example of how police brutality undermine the trust community members place in police. Gray was 25 years old when he received a fatal spinal cord injury in West Baltimore after being taken into police custody on April 12, 2015. Gray screamed in pain while six Baltimore police officers dragged him to the police van. Gray’s legs and arms were shackled, so that he was unable to protect himself from being thrown around while in the van during what is known as a “rough ride” – a strategy in which police intentionally fail to buckle in a suspect while the driver speeds and stops violently in order to hurt those sitting in the back. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby charged all six officers involved but, after court hearings, none of the officers were found guilty.

Freddie Gray’s death is not unique; the same excessive force can be seen in a slew of other cases. In 2009, Jerriel Lyles parked outside of the P&J Carry Out in East Baltimore. As he went inside to buy food, an officer in plain clothes frisked Lyles and hit him so hard that he bled from his nose and eyes. Lyle was not charged with any crime and was given $20,000 in damages. In 2007, Venus Green, an 87-year-old grandmother, found her grandson shot in the leg. When she called 911, a white officer became aggressive towards her. The officer did not believe her statement when she exclaimed that her grandson had been shot outside, and not within the home. When the officer tried to enter her home, she asserted that he would need a warrant. The officer then pushed her to the ground swearing, “b, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black b** I have locked up.” The white officer whipped her around and threw handcuffs on her. A black officer on the scene ended up taking them off finding that she was not resisting. The city ended up paying her $95,000 in damages, but Green died six weeks later following the traumatic event.

These types of cases are not uncommon in the city of Baltimore. Victims range from children to seniors, but are disproportionately Black. Baltimoreans do not need statistics about police brutality – we see what our brothers and sisters face every day. The broken social contract between community members and police leads to hate crimes going underreported which, in turn, helps normalize bias incidents and gives perpetrators ammunition to continue without consequence. In order to restore social contract between law enforcement and the communities they serve, it is imperative that violent and prejudiced officers be brought to justice.

Nadia Owusu is an intern with the Byrd Center. She is a rising senior at the University of Maryland and is a Baltimore native .