How Cops Have Turned Baltimore into a Surveillance State

Originally published in VICE on September 13, 2016.
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Somehow, the policing nightmare in Baltimore keeps getting worse.

In July, charges were dropped against all the officers responsible for 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death, a massive defeat for police accountability in a city crying out for it. Just weeks later, the feds released a scathing report finding Baltimore cops engaged in systematic racism and callousness towards victims of sexual assault. And perhaps most spectacular of all, a magazine story late last month revealed cops have been running a secret aerial surveillance program in city skies.

All of which is to say that just as cynical and frustrated residents began to plot the long road to reform in a city wracked by gun violence and shady policing, experts and reform advocates now find themselves at a loss to explain how one city is wrapped up in just about every kind of police excess there is.

The aerial surveillance program consists chiefly of flying planes over 8,000 feet in the air and gathering video footage across a roughly 30 square mile radius, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The program was funded secretly by Texas billionaires, Laura and John Arnold, who say they are looking to support new tools that can help police departments more effectively solve crime. The planes have flown about 300 hours in Baltimore since January.

For its part, the police department denies that officers have done anything wrong, or that the planes even amount to a form of surveillance. TJ Smith, media relations chief for the Baltimore Police Department, told VICE the aerial program “doesn’t infringe on privacy rights” because it captures images available in public spaces. “We do not feel like citizen’s rights were violated because they weren’t,” he said. “This phase is a trial run to see if this is technology would be useful in the city of Baltimore. We are constantly searching for creative ways to solve crime in a city that saw 344 murders in 2015.”

An evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, also funded by the Arnolds, is expected to come out later this month.

Meanwhile, last week, in the final days available for public comment on the feds’ scathing appraisal of Baltimore cops—the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings hosted a town hall for residents to share their thoughts on police reform. Michael Wood, a former city cop turned reform activist, attended, and while he expected racism to be at the top of the list, the surveillance bombshell was clearly overwhelming residents, too.

“I haven’t spoken to a person who isn’t furious,” Wood told VICE of revelations about the program.

Remarkably, the mayor and the city council were both unaware of the surveillance experiment’s very existence, namely because it was funded secretly through a local foundation. The foundation’s leadership have claimed they did not realize what the Arnolds’ money was going towards, and in a statement, Laura Gamble, board chair, and Thomas Wilcox, the foundation’s president and CEO, said they have “learned valuable lessons from this experience.”

Baltimore public defenders were also kept in the dark, and argue that police and prosecutors’ failure to disclose—in court documents—when video footage came from aerial surveillance is a serious problem. Defenders have called for a suspension of the program.

Meanwhile, state and local politicians are looking at legislative responses to the city’s latest police scandal. At the next session, Curt Anderson, the head of Baltimore’s delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, is considering introducing surveillance regulations that would apply to all Maryland police departments. He told the Baltimore Sun that lawmakers need to figure out “how and where [footage] would be used, where you keep the information, how much it would cost to store that information, and how much it would cost someone if they made a request for that information.” On the local level, the ACLU of Maryland plans to craft legislation for someone on the Baltimore City Council to sponsor, which would limit the scope of police surveillance and/or increase the level of civilian oversight.

Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California Davis who specializes in policing and technology, told me that while police secrecy is nothing new, the kind of dragnet surveillance that Baltimore has engaged in—where officers aren’t necessarily looking for one particular person, or conducting a specific investigation—raises serious political issues. “You need to balance some legitimate police needs with the idea that police may just have too much information on innocent people,” Joh said. “And that’s a real struggle for people in a democracy to figure out. Police can go as far as they want, but what do communities want?”

Baltimore police officials maintain the aerial surveillance program is just an extension of CitiWatch, its street-level closed circuit television system. But according to Anne McKenna, a visiting law professor at Penn State University and a national expert on technology and surveillance, the “breadth and scope” of Baltimore’s aerial surveillance program raises new questions that are nowhere near settled in case law. And when you take the department’s reported aggregation of social media posts, overlay it with aerial surveillance and closed circuit TV footage, “Well, you’ve really created Big Brother,” McKenna said.

But Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, actually sees the city’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, who took over not long after Gray’s death, as someone who genuinely understands the importance of reform. Which makes the surveillance revelations all the more surprising. “It seemed completely contradictory to the actions we’ve seen Commissioner Davis take,” Huffman told VICE.

Baltimore, of course, is continuing to struggle with gun violence—the Sun reports there have been 215 homicides already this year, and the police’s clearance rate for solving murder cases has tended to be dreadfully low. But the connection between aerial oversight and catching violent criminals isn’t always so clean-cut.

“I think what is alarming—and I think it’s fair to say uniquely alarming about what we’ve seen going on in Baltimore—is there’s been a massive investment of resources to monitor speech and protest,” said Lee Rowland, the Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Exercising your First Amendment right is not probable cause, it’s not reason for suspicion. That the police would be directing their investigative resources to fly over protests or spend their days on Facebook looking for speech when there’s been no complaint or evidence of a crime, that is a use of power we should call out as wrong.”

Challenges remain for Baltimore residents, as the deadline for a consent decree with the Department of Justice draws near and opposition from the police union looms large. But most glaring of all to some observers is the fact that the police department continues to argue that tracking social media and conducting aerial surveillance shouldn’t even bother people.

“The community’s reaction to the surveillance helps to underscore just how fractured the relationship is, just how deep the distrust, the resentment, the suspicions run,” said Huffman. “The community is in a position where transparency is the order of the day.”

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Arrests and Suspensions Are Out of Control in Baltimore Schools

Originally published in VICE on March 9th, 2016.
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An eight-second video was released last week showing a Baltimore school police officer attacking an unarmed student while another cop stood by and watched. The clip went viral and spurred national outrage, as well as calls for a federal investigation. The two officers, Anthony Spence and Saverna Bias, turned themselves in Tuesday night to face second-degree assault and misconduct in office charges—Spence is also charged with second-degree child abuse—and had posted bail by early Wednesday. But with criminal trials still pending for the six cops charged over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray last year, the footage has stoked an already strained conversation around policing in Baltimore City.

Upon the clip’s release, politicians and advocates quickly began to criticize the city’s ill-defined school police policies, pointing out that there are no public arrest statistics, including who gets busted, why, and whether those incidents might have been handled outside the criminal justice system. There’s also little or no oversight of the school police budget and officers’ use of force. All of which is especially alarming given that policing aside, Maryland actually has some of the most progressive school discipline policies in the country—at least on paper.

Still, a lack of leadership and a persistent culture of criminalization within public schools have the city suspending, expelling, and arresting students too often—and in discriminatory fashion.

Baltimore’s unique place in America’s school discipline hierarchy emerged over the past decade. In 2004, the city’s school issued more than 26,000 suspensions in a school district of 88,000. Alarmed city advocates began speaking out, forming networks to push for disciplinary alternatives, and fighting for district leaders to reckon with the glaring suspension data. Research has long shown that excessive suspensions and expulsions are tied to higher rates of school absence, school drop-outs, and academic failure. Suspended students often sit around at home, or in low-quality alternative programs, falling further behind on their studies. There’s also evidence that school suspensions lead to higher rates of arrest and juvenile detentions, fueling what is commonly referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.”

In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who began overhauling the district’s school discipline policies. He worked to scale back not only the scope of offenses that could warrant an out-of-school suspension, but also expanded the number of restorative alternatives to keep kids in class and on top of their school work.

The results were dramatic. During the 2009-2010 school year, the district issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004. The suspensions were also significantly shorter, and graduation rates went up, particularly for young black men.

“One of the things that really sets us apart from other school districts is that students can no longer be suspended for low-level and ambiguous infractions, such as disrespect,” explains Karen Webber, director of the Education and Youth Development at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a local think tank and advocacy group. “Before, a child might say something edgy, and if an administrator didn’t appreciate what was said or how it was stated, that child could be sent home for five days.”

Advocates around the state began to push for similar reforms, and in 2014 the State Board of Education approved new regulations to reduce the numbers of suspensions and expulsions across Maryland. The new policies encouraged teachers and principals to keep students in the classroom whenever possible and to promote alternative disciplinary measures. And the feds took notice: In light of Baltimore’s substantial drop in suspensions, and the statewide work done around discipline reform, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore in 2014 to unveil the first set of national school discipline guidelines.

But even as suspensions have plummeted, critics point to a series of disturbing school police scandals and argue that Baltimore City still hasn’t implemented many of the progressive policies passed statewide two years ago. The district hired a new CEO that year, Dr. Gregory Thornton, who has made less of a fuss about school discipline reform.

“You can have the most promising policies on the books but rules are only as good as their implementation,” says Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“While there’s been great work done to write these policies, those changes have not been filtered down to the staff level—nobody has been retrained,” adds Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender in Baltimore.

For example, some suspended Baltimore students languish for months outside of school just because the district failed to make a final decision about their punishment. Neeta Pal, a legal fellow at the Maryland Public Defender’s office, says that when the district leaves students in this bureaucratic limbo—indefinitely suspended—it violates both state law and the US constitution.

One such student was 15-year-old Kuran Johnson, a ninth grader with a disability who was suspended this past October. Johnson spent four months in an alternative program, and was only allowed to return back to a traditional public school a few weeks ago after Nicole Joseph, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center, threatened to sue. “This is their way to get rid of kids,” Sabrina Newby, Johnson’s grandmother, tells me over the phone. “They feel these kids are so easy to suspend, and then they wonder why kids end up dropping out or wind up in juvenile facilities.”

Following the standoff between students and police back during the April 2015 Freddie Gray protests, Karl Perry, a Baltimore high school principal, penned a memo in which he attributed the local uprising in part to their “soft code of conduct.” He promised a “return to zero-tolerance enforcement,” and within two months, he was hired to be the district’s Chief Supports Officer—overseeing, among other things, suspensions and school police.

Joseph wrote an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun criticizing Perry’s remarks, arguing that zero-tolerance policies “feed the school-to-prison pipeline” and increase the likelihood at-risk students will be excluded from school. She called for reforms like increasing the number of mental health providers, promoting positive behavior interventions, and increasing engaging curriculum and job skills training.

She points out that in Baltimore, despite all the changes and national attention, black students and those with disabilities are still suspended at higher rates than the general student population.

“Yes, suspension numbers have gone down, in almost every district across the state, but the disproportionately is not going down,” Joseph says in an interview. “Both by race, and also for students with disabilities, these minority groups are not experiencing the same reduction in harsh discipline that non-disabled and white kids are.”

Officials with the Baltimore City Public Schools did not return repeated requests for comment on Perry’s remarks, on students left in suspension limbo, and on whether the district feels it has adequately implemented the state’s discipline regulations. Meanwhile, critics see the suspensions, expulsions, arrests and abuse cases as part of the same problem—a school culture that tries to kick students out rather than engage them where they are, as they are.

“We know so many of our kids have serious challenges, and one of the goals of our schools should be to address them, to help them, and not to punish them,” Egan says. “We have to change the culture so that schools actually take kids as they come. We can’t just pass the buck.”

Why Don’t Settlements Over Brutality Come Out of Police Budgets?

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 16, 2015.
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On July 17, 2014, New York City police officers choked Eric Garner, a black man in Staten Island, to death. This week, nearly one year later, the city announced that it would pay the Garner family $5.9 million to settle their wrongful-death claim.

“Financial compensation is certainly not everything, and it can’t bring Mr. Garner back. But it is our way of creating balance and giving a family a certain closure,” said the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer to The New York Times.

Families of police brutality victims deserve to be compensated, no doubt. A different question, however, is should police departments be required to pay for their misconduct too?

As I’ve written previously, these steep police brutality payments rarely come from the police department budgets. Rather, cities pay for them through their general coffers or their city insurance plan.

The NYPD has a budget of over $4 billion. Even if the police department wasn’t expected to bear 100 percent of the liability, what if they were asked to pay a share—say 25 percent—of the settlement costs? Having a cut to their budget for misbehavior could motivate senior police officials to be more responsive to police misconduct and lead departmental reforms.

“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues, told me in September. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”

The $5.9 million for Eric Garner’s family will come from a general New York City fund made up of local taxes, fees, fines, and tickets. (No state and federal money will be used.) Taxpayer dollars also finance the NYPD—so either way the taxpayer will be footing the bill—but still, as it stands, the NYPD’s budget is left untouched.

According to data from the New York City Comptroller’s Bureau of Law and Adjustment (BLA), in fiscal year 2012, New York City paid out $485.9 million personal injury and property damage tort settlements and judgments. The largest portion of that came from claims filed against the NYPD—$151.9 million in total. According to their report, “tort claims against the NYPD include, but are not limited to, allegations of police misconduct, civil rights violations, and personal injury and/or property damage arising out of motor vehicle accidents involving police vehicles.”

The question of “who pays” matters particularly as the number of tort claims has trended upward between 2008 and 2012. According to the data, the proportion of new NYPD tort claims rose from 25 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2012.

As Doug Turetsky, the Chief of Staff at the New York City Independent Budget Office pointed out, the police department’s budget has also grown significantly since the 1980s.

“It’s a strange sociological story,” muses Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans. “On the one hand we allow the police to beat up victims and on the other hand we pay the victims large sums of money. There are no other occupations I can think of where people would not get punished. If I as a professor cost Columbia University $100,000—maybe even $50,000—they would have fired me. How expensive do police mistakes have to be?”

Though the public may likely protest any huge cutback in police funding, the city council and mayor could always decide to restore funding, if necessary. This would at least help to create a better system of incentives. If police departments felt they had something to lose, then maybe fewer Eric Garners would die needlessly.

Jimmy John’s workers fight for a union

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 28, 2014.
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On Sunday, Oct. 19, as Ravens fans meandered around the chilly Inner Harbor in advance of the game set to begin later that afternoon, about two dozen workers and community supporters formed a picket line outside the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop on Pratt Street to demand the right to form a union. “Ravens have a union!” the protesters chanted. “Why can’t we?” The Jimmy John’s employees claim that ever since their efforts to publicly unionize kicked off in early August, management has responded with clear efforts to intimidate them, including the firing of their co-worker James Hegler. Workers have responded by filing seven counts of illegal retaliation complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

On Aug. 9, with support from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union founded in 1905 that gained a reputation for organizing across class, race, gender, and occupational lines, Baltimore Jimmy John’s workers presented their list of demands to management, which included one paid sick day per month, a transparent disciplinary system for both workers and managers, and wage parity with their landlord, the Hilton, that has unionized employees making between $10.75-$13 per hour. Wages at Jimmy John’s hover around $7.25.

The Baltimore fight comes at an interesting time as Jimmy John’s workers across the country have gained national attention for launching a class action lawsuit over the non-compete agreements all Jimmy John’s employees are forced to sign in order to work there. These contractual clauses require employees to promise not to work in any nearby sandwich shop for at least two years after they leave, so as not to give away “trade secrets.” In response, over 35 House Democrats recently signed a letter requesting the Department of Labor and the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into this suspect labor practice. Though the Baltimore Jimmy John’s workers say they stand in solidarity with the class-action suit, they themselves are not presently involved.

The fight for a union also stands out as thousands of fast-food employees across the country have gotten involved with the Fight for 15 campaign, an effort to demand fast-food chains provide a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union. Founded in Chicago in 2012, and largely backed by the Service Employees International Union, Fight for 15 includes employees at McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s who have taken to high-profile one-day strikes in order to send a message to their employers that they deserve better conditions in the workplace. Even President Obama has publicly cheered on the fast-food strikers’ organizing.

But despite the fast-food industry’s substantial presence in the Baltimore labor market, the Fight for 15 campaign just has not taken off here like it has in other cities. Some activists involved in the Baltimore and Maryland Workers Assembly marched in a “Walk 4 Justice” downtown in May and September, to support strikers in other cities, but by and large the local fast-food organizing efforts have been minimal.

“We’re the only union organizing fast-food workers in the city,” said Brennan Lester, a Jimmy John’s worker and IWW organizer. “But this is an idea whose time has come. We’re long overdue for unions. We’re precariously employed with no rights and no protections and we’re one of the only growth industries. It’s not just for kids anymore.”

Colleen Davidson, an activist with the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST), who came out to the Jimmy John’s demonstration, said organizing can be particularly difficult in Baltimore because “so many people are just in survival mode, juggling two to three jobs, raising kids, and grappling with gentrification and homelessness.”

Yet back in the early ’90s, there was a time when Baltimore was the national leader for low-wage organizing efforts—proudly standing as the first city to launch a “living wage” campaign, and ultimately being the first city to pass a “living wage” law. Activists called for a minimum wage of $7.70 per hour, a significant spike from the federal minimum wage of $4.25. Led by the church-based civic group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) in conjunction with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), residents began organizing for higher wage standards after it became clear that even full-time workers couldn’t pay their bills. Activists campaigned with the theory that public subsidies and city contracts should not support private firms that paid poverty wages.

Going forward, Jimmy John’s workers have pledged to continue launching “a series of escalating direct actions” in order to pressure the company to recognize their union. Toward the end of the Oct. 19 protest, picketers marched inside the store, holding up signs, and calling for management to reinstate Hegler. “What do we want? Rehire James! When do we want it? Now!” In the end, four Baltimore City police came to break up the event.

Stephen Thompson, a 28-year-old adjunct math professor at UMBC, showed up to picket alongside the Jimmy John’s workers. “Compared with other labor-related protests I’ve been to in Baltimore, this one had a different feel. That’s what I really liked about it,” said Thompson, who noted that the IWW people are a “young ragtag kind of group” in contrast to the more professional organizers of other unions. In Baltimore, the IWW is also affiliated with the unions at Red Emma’s and Baltimore Bicycle Works. “They are very passionate,” Thompson added. “It made the picket more fun and exciting.”

City Coffers, Not Police Budgets, Hit Hard By the High Cost of Brutality

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 26, 2014.
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A
s the national conversation around racism and police brutality quickly fades—ramped up briefly in the wake of Michael Brown’s death—U.S. taxpayers remain stuck footing the bills for their local law enforcement’s aggressive behavior. This week alone, Baltimore agreed to pay $49,000 to man who sued over a violent arrest in 2010, Philadelphia agreed to pay $490,000 to a man who was abused and broke his neck while riding in a police van in 2011, and St. Paul agreed to pay $95,000 to a man who suffered a skull injury, a fractured eye socket, and a broken nose in 2012.

In 2013, Chicago paid out a stunning $84.6 million in police misconduct settlements, judgments, and legal fees. Bridgeport, Connecticut, paid a man $198,000 this past spring after video footage captured police shooting him twice with a stun gun, then stomping all over him as he lay on the ground. And in California, Oakland recently agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit a man filed after being shot in the head, leaving him with permanent brain damage. You get the picture.

The thing is, these steep payments rarely come from the police department budgets—instead they’re financed through the city’s general coffers or the city’s insurance plan. It’s the taxpayer, not the law enforcement agency, who pays the price.

“That’s why these enormous financial penalties do not seem to actually impact what police do,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal justice issues. “Conceivably, if cities didn’t want this to happen, they could say this will come out of your [police] budget.”

Other scholars have proposed this, too. Between 2006 and 2011, the total number of claims filed for offenses like false arrest and police brutality in New York City increased by 43 percent. So Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA, suggested the city could take money from its police budget to pay the associated legal costs. “Perhaps if the department held its own purse strings, it would find more to learn from litigation,” Schwartz wrote in the New York Times. This past June, Schwartz published a study that concluded individual cops almost never pay for their misconduct—rather, “governments paid approximately 99.98 percent of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”

But the politics of pushing police departments to change or make concessions can be difficult. A recent Gallup poll found that across the country, 56 percent of adults hold “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in the police as an institution. If a majority of Americans feel positively about law enforcement, gathering the political will needed to compel change becomes tough.

“Most political leaders don’t have the guts for it, or the stomach for it, so we go around and around and cities pay out buckets of money from their own funds or they buy insurance,” said Harris. “As a result, the settlement costs do not act as a deterrence.”

Video footage might help to change this: The vast proliferation of video recording devices—ranging from individual cell phones to police surveillance cameras—have forced many citizens to watch incidents they might have otherwise tried to deny ever happened. Law enforcement and city officials, too, can’t as easily obfuscate brutal incidents from the record.

It’s possible that the combination of accessible video footage and increasingly expensive lawsuits might at last force cities to re-evaluate the cost of police brutality. This month, a disturbing video surfaced of a Baltimore police officer repeatedly punching a man in June; a $5 million lawsuit was then filed against the cop and the footage will be used as evidence. After seeing the video, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake criticized the police department and directed the commissioner to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address his agency’s systemic brutality.

The following week, two city council members proposed legislation that would require every Baltimore police officer to wear a body camera, in order to reduce instances of improper behavior.

This is all mildly encouraging, but as long as the cost of the jury verdicts, settlements and legal fees fall outside of the police budgets, the economic incentives for departmental reform will stay low. It’s also important to note that filing a civil rights lawsuit is not easy; the overwhelming majority of claims do not result in huge payouts nor is it easy to secure legal representation—even if the plaintiff was clearly wronged, notwithstanding all the new technological means to collect evidence. The cases take a long time and the pay can be precarious. David Packman, a private researcher who established The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project says that both the lack of financial penalties “sufficient to outrage taxpayers” and the fact that “fewer and fewer lawyers take on police misconduct cases” helps explain why localities don’t feel much pressure to introduce meaningful systemic reforms.

Unfortunately, as long as these trends persist, the taxpayer bill is likely to grow.