Justice Department Opens Investigation of Baltimore Police Department

The Baltimore Police Department will finally be under the Federal microscope. But it took the death of Freddie Gray for it happen.

Baltimore Police

Yesterday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Department of Justice was launching what is called a”pattern or practices” investigation into the Baltimore Police Department to determine if the department as a whole is run in a manner that is leading to widespread violation of civil rights and racial discrimination:

The Justice Department has opened a formal investigation into the Baltimore Police Department to determine whether officers have committed systemic constitutional violations, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced Friday, putting the city’s force under rigorous federal scrutiny.

The broad investigation, known as a “pattern or practice” review, will focus on the police department’s stops, searches and arrests, its use of force, and the question of whether there has been a practice of discriminatory policing. The review was requested by Baltimore’s mayor and will be a “collaborative reform process,” Lynch said, adding that she was optimistic that federal and city officials could work together to create a “stronger, better Baltimore.”

The investigation is separate from the Justice Department’s criminal civil rights probe into the case of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man whose death while in police custody ignited protests and rioting in Baltimore. Gray suffered a severe spinal injury in the back of a police van while his pleas for medical help were ignored, according to Baltimore prosecutors.

“We’ve seen events change in Baltimore and become more intense over a short time,” Lynch said during a news conference at the Justice Department, her first since becoming attorney general. “It was clear to a number of people looking at the situation that the community’s frayed trust — to use an understatement — was even worse and has in effect been severed in relationship to the police department.

“We felt the best thing to do was to conduct an investigation to see if these issues arose to the level of federal civil rights violations,” she said.

Since 1994, the Justice Department has been able to investigate local police departments under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The department has opened more than 20 investigations of police departments under the Obama administration, including in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer fatally shot unarmed teen Michael Brown in August.

In addition to gathering information directly from community members, pattern or practice investigations involve interviewing police officers and local officials and gathering information from public defenders and prosecutors. The investigations also involve observing officer activities through ride-alongs and reviewing documents and specific incidents relevant to the probe.

Federal “pattern or practice” probes focus on the entire police department, rather than investigating the conduct of certain officers.

In that way, they are different from civil rights investigations of certain individuals, such as the two-year-long probe into the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American from Florida who was unarmed when he was fatally shot by a former neighborhood watchman.


Baltimore’s police union issued a statement welcoming the review. But in a sign of the tension between police and city leaders, the union also encouraged the Justice Department to expand its review to focus on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D).

Rawlings-Blake issued her own statement that she was pleased by the Justice Department’s decision, saying: “Our city is making progress in repairing the fractured relationship between police and community, but bolder reforms are needed and we will not shy away from taking on these challenges.”

Lynch visited Baltimore earlier this week and met with the mayor, law enforcement officials and community leaders. She also met with Gray’s family and spoke with an officer who was injured in the violence.

In her remarks Friday, the attorney general said Baltimore has struggled with many of the same issues facing other cities.

“We have seen the tragic loss of a young man’s life. We have seen a peaceful protest movement coalesce to express the concern of a beleaguered community,” she said. “We have seen brave officers upholding the right to peaceful protest, while also sustaining serious injury during the city’s unfortunate foray into violence. And we have watched it all through the prism of one of the most challenging issues of our time: police-community relations.”

The Atlantic’s Russell Berman comments:

Policing practices have come under scrutiny in cities across the country in the last year, police-related deaths have repeatedly made national headlines, whether in Staten Island, Cleveland, Ferguson, Baltimore, or South Carolina. On Thursday, the district attorney in San Francisco announced an inquiry into racial bias in the city’s police department following reports of racist and homophobic texts among police officers and the discovery that officers had gambled on forced fights between inmates in city jails.

“We’re talking about generations not only of mistrust but generations of communities that feel very separated from their government overall,” Lynch said. Yet she also acknowledged that the Justice Department had neither the intention nor the resources to investigate every local law enforcement agency. “We cannot litigate our way out of this problem,” she said. The broader goal of inquiries like the one in Baltimore is to prompt cities to look into their own departments and make fixes on their own or in collaboration with other jurisdictions.

As noted, this isn’t the first time that the Justice Department has undertaken this kind of investigation of a law enforcement agency as a whole based on allegations of improper practices, racial discrimination, and abuse. Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been at the center of anti-immigration politics for years now and has become something of a celebrity in conservative circles for years, has long been accused of running a department that discriminates against Latino-Americans, for example. Three years ago, he and his department were sued in Federal Court by the Justice Department based on those allegations and other evidence, and two years ago a Federal District Court Judge found evidence of widespread discrimination against Latinos after a long and detailed trial. Ultimately, the Judge appointed a monitor for the department and placed other restrictions on its activities.

More recently, the Justice Department concluded that the Cleveland Police Department had engaged in activities that amounted to “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” based on information uncovered in an investigation lasting more than two years. That report was released while Cleveland was still dealing with the case of Tamir Rice, a young African-American boy who was shot and killed by a Cleveland Police Officer in an incident that defies logical explanation. Additionally, the Justice Department concluded that the Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri had long acted in a manner that evidenced widespread racial bias against the city’s African-American population in an investigation that had run parallel to its investigation of the shooting of Michael Brown in August. These are all just the most recent examples of such investigations, and they all seem to point to serious problems in law enforcement when it comes to violations of civil liberties and the relationship between the police and, most especially, minority communities.

Depending on what the investigation uncovers, the potential remedies that the Justice Department has at its disposal are quite numerous and range from the mild to the severe. At the mild end, the Department could simply seek to enter into a consent agreement with the department that would set forth an understanding about changes to procedures and other matters. More severely potential sanctions include the appointment of a monitor who reports back to a Federal Judge and/or the Department of Justice along with restrictions on police activity. In some severe cases, a police department can actually be disbanded and its responsibilities assumed by another department, either from a neighboring town or, more commonly, the surrounding county. This is what happened to the Police Department in Jennings, Missouri in 2011, which coincidentally the department that Darren Wilson worked at before becoming an officer in nearby Ferguson. It does not appear, though, that anything similar to that has happened in a major metropolitan area, and it seems rather unlikely in Baltimore, Instead, we’re likely to see the appointment of a monitor and an effort to implement reforms in how the department operates. Of course, the real problem is that it has been well known for years that the Baltimore Police Department was troubled and that the city’s African-American residents were being mistreated. It took the death of Freddie Gray for anyone outside of the city’s minority neighborhoods to take notice.

Photo via The Atlantic

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Policing, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gustopher says:

    While I think this is the least DOJ can do, and absolutely necessary, I think we need to be looking at systemic problems across the country. I don’t know what a solution looks like — body cameras seem obvious, and regular training on use of force as well — but this is not a series of isolated incidents.

    We don’t even have data on the use of force in much of the country. Is this a city thing, or do less populated areas just not have the density to get a riot going, which appears to be the only way to get enough attention? I wouldn’t trust anyone who thinks they can answer that with more than a guess.

    The federal government needs to use funding as a club to beat the local police departments into submission, so we can get the data, and force reforms.

  2. de stijl says:

    The policing system in America is fatally flawed in two major ways.

    The primary flaw is that policing is not really about crime control and prevention, but about preventing the poor and powerless from impinging upon the rich and powerful. The motto on the doors should read “Preserve and Suppress” rather than “Protect and Serve.”

    Secondarily, thumpers, sociopaths and bully boys thrive in police culture. Not all bully boys are cops nor are all cops bully boys, but bully boys are attracted to the profession like a fly to sugar. A disastrously large portion of cops are essentially Brownshirts.

  3. de stijl says:

    Yesterday in Charleston County, South Carolina, a black homeowner was the victim of a home invasion. He called 911. The responding deputy shot him in the neck. He died.

    This is the same county where Walter Scott ran away from a traffic stop and was shot eight times in the back. He also died.

  4. Tyrell says:

    Something doesn’t fit. The Baltimore City Police Department is headed by an African- American as is the second in command. I don’t know what the racial makeup of the department as a whole is. The mayor, fire chief, most of the city council and school board are also African American. I am not sure what kind of discrimination the DOJ is talking about here, certainly not in the makeup of the city leadership. It seems Baltimore’s leadership makeup reflects the population. So with that fact, why does the DOJ not feel that Baltimore’s leadership is capable of fixing their problems ?

  5. superdestroyer says:

    What is amazing is that progressives keep repeating the claim that Black Lives Matter but then ignore the media reports that 40 people have been shot in Baltimore since the riots.


    If law enforcement is not about crime control then why is crime in Baltimore going up after the police have been put under the microscope. What crime rate is acceptable to achieve a level of law enforcement that cannot be accused of discrimination?

  6. David in KC says:

    This isn’t a republican vs democrat issue, this is not a white vs (insert minority here), this is a blue vs issue. We need to establish better rules, train to those rules, and enforce those rules. getting there will be difficult and probably painful. Body cameras may be a first step, but this problem appears to go deep, and that, in and of itself, is not going to fix it. This is going to take some time, and I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

  7. superdestroyer says:

    @David in KC:

    If you are going to use the terms better and worse, you need to define them. Would a situation where no one is killed by the police be better even if the crime rate in Baltimore goes up? Would a situation where police never make a questionable decision be better even if the burglary and robbery rate goes up?

  8. Gustopher says:

    @superdestroyer: are you pro-police-brutality so long as it is just brown people being brutalized? Is that where your casual racism has led you?

    And since when is abusing someone in your care — which is exactly what the Baltimore police did — a questionable decision? What kind of a person thinks that is questionable rather than wrong?

    The arrest was questionable. The abuse was just plain wrong.

  9. superdestroyer says:


    There is a huge gap between supporting police brutality and making the jobs of policemen so hard to do that they just stop trying to enforce the law and start pretending to do their jobs.

    If the black lives really do matter and if the point of all of the protest is to imrpove quality of life in west Baltimore, then lowering the crime rate is very important. However, if the entire point of the protest is de-policing and enabling criminal behavior, the black lives must not matter very much.

  10. Tillman says:

    @superdestroyer: So we need to define our terms between these two false dichotomies you present?

    Remind me, how much more crime does the UK face with its ungunned police?


    If the black lives really do matter and if the point of all of the protest is to imrpove quality of life in west Baltimore, then lowering the crime rate is very important. However, if the entire point of the protest is de-policing and enabling criminal behavior, the black lives must not matter very much.

    This is the third false dichotomy. The point is the police can’t do their jobs if the residents think they’re no better than the criminals.* The crime rate will go down when they perceive the police is actually serving them along with the rest of the city, and they’ll report crimes at that point.

    * Since the police are supposed to be a legitimate institution, it’s a mark against them to be untrusted by the communities they police.

  11. de stijl says:


    lowering the crime rate is very important

    Which crimes?

    Driving While Black and Walking While Black are the two crimes that garner the majority of police attention and resources.

    No one would argue that communities should be, in your words, de-policed. But old-school “Respect My Authoritay” policing must end. De-escalation should be the primary professional skill brought to bear in street confrontations.

    FFS, Henry Gates was arrested trying to get into his own house. Pardon me, I misstated the facts, he was actually arrested because he was not abjectly servile. If you’re not cop, you’re little people.

    The penalty for trying to jimmy your own door because you lost your house keys should not be a make-nice photo op beer summit at the god-damned White House with the unprofessional dimwit who arrested you just because you sassed him.

    The penalty for selling loosies and failure to pay child support should not be street execution.

  12. de stijl says:

    @David in KC:

    Body cameras may be a first step, but this problem appears to go deep, and that, in and of itself, is not going to fix it.

    I would also be in favor of requiring police officers to reside in the communities where they serve. Some cities are already doing this. I would also be in favor of getting police officers out of cars and onto sidewalks wherever possible.

    The big problem is that, too often, they see us as the enemy. Whatever that causes that structure, that process that encourages this attitude that the public are The Bad Guys and we, the thin blue line, are The Good Guys has to go.

  13. Tony W says:

    Additional federal oversight is definitely required, and the problem is so widespread that I think the Executive branch might not be the right place for action. Lawmakers need to set some new rules and penalties for the myriad problems that are clearly out there.

    Additionally, until we get rid of “drug” related consequence-free confiscation laws, 9/11 grants and military fire-sales enabling the militarization of our cops, and pay-to-play-cop-for-a-day schemes, many departments will remain corrupt.

    To protect and to serve….

  14. Gustopher says:

    Citizens have better protected rights at the hands of airlines than they do at the hands of the police. There was the “Airline Passengers Bill Of Rights” a few years ago, perhaps we could have something similar for citizens.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Tony W: I somehow doubt the federal legislature will do much on this. In the meantime, some executive action would be welcome.

  16. Tyrell says:

    This is interesting: “President Obama Praised Baltimore Police Department That He Now Wants Investigated” ! What is going on here ? It seems that two months ago the president was holding up the Baltimore PD as a model for other police departments. Now the DOJ is investigating them: “for years it has been known that the Baltimore Police Dept. was troubled … the city’s African Americans were being mistreated”: which is it , Mr. President; a model police department or a “troubled” police department ? One thing for sure: it can’t be both.
    See: news.investors.com/editorials/-obama-praised-baltimore-police-department
    “How about retraining the criminals?”

  17. superdestroyer says:

    @de stijl:

    The police in Cambridge Mass were responding to a 911 call. I guess in your world, the police should just ignoree 911 calls is non-whites are involved. Or maybe the police should use a quota system and only response to 911 calls in proportion to the racial make up of the town ( you can call it the Ferguson solution). Or maybe the police should just not pursue anyone who runs from them? Or walk away from anyone who yells at them.

    But then we all get back to the question that I initially raise and everyone wants to ignore, the all of the new policing leads to higher crime rates will progressives still be concerned. Is the number of blacks murders by other blacks of no concern just as long as no black person is killed by a member of law enforcement?

  18. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    What does it take to make an issue not a Democrat/Republican or liberal/conservative issue?

    When there isn’t a single Republican or conservative within a thousand miles of the huge mess that can be blamed for the mess.

    Baltimore, for decades, has been a wholly-owned property of the Democratic party. And in an exceptionally blue state. It’s been an ideal laboratory for Democratic social policies.

    How’d that work out, anyway?

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Baltimore, for decades, has been a wholly-owned property of the Democratic party. And in an exceptionally blue state. It’s been an ideal laboratory for Democratic social policies.

    I don’t know, why don’t we compare Maryland to Mississippi?

  20. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I don’t know, why don’t we compare Maryland to Mississippi?

    I don’t know, why should we? We’re talking about Baltimore, Maryland here. At least, I thought we were. Is there some connection between Baltimore, Maryland and Mississippi that is relevant here?

  21. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: When I said “no Republicans within a thousand miles,” I was speaking metaphorically. I had no idea you’d take it literally and go a thousand miles from Baltimore and find Mississippi. Color me impressed.

  22. Tyrell says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Real estate is a lot cheaper in Mississippi. There’s some good barbecue joints down there. And they have Ole Miss !

  23. anjin-san says:

    @ OzarkHillbilly

    I think you are going to have to diagram it for Jenos. Do you have any crayons handy?

  24. An Interested Party says:

    I don’t know, why should we?

    Because you’re the one implying that complete Democratic control leads to disaster…meanwhile, we’ve seen what complete Republican control leads to by looking at places like Mississippi or, lately, Kansas…such pretty pictures…

  25. An Interested Party says:

    I guess in your world, the police should just ignoree 911 calls is non-whites are involved.

    No, but what they should do is treat people as citizens, not as uppity vassals that need to put in their place…

    But then we all get back to the question that I initially raise and everyone wants to ignore, the all of the new policing leads to higher crime rates will progressives still be concerned.

    You present a false choice…try again…

  26. superdestroyer says:

    @An Interested Party:

    The crime rate has gone up in Baltimore after the riots and the indictment of six police officers. The riots and the indictments have been cheered by progressives. Yet, the increase in the crime rate has not been mentioned. How can progressives truly believe that black lives matter when they support policies that could easily cause more blacks to die due to black-on-black homicides?

  27. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @An Interested Party: I would think that you’d prefer to compare apples to apples. Why not look at other places that have had police/law enforcement scandals, like Ferguson, or NYC, or LA, or the Secret Service, or the FBI?

    Like I said, the reason this is being pushed as a non-partisan issue is because you can’t find a Republican within a thousand miles (figuratively speaking) of this mess. It’d Democrats all the way down… and up.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    I would think that you’d prefer to compare apples to apples.

    And I would think that you’d prefer to look at this as the complex issue that it is rather than simply blaming it all on Democrats…yes, I do realize that is a lot to ask of you…

    The riots and the indictments have been cheered by progressives.

    Bull$hit…understanding why people riot is not the same as condoning riots, much less cheering riots…

    How can progressives truly believe that black lives matter when they support policies that could easily cause more blacks to die due to black-on-black homicides?

    Once again you present a false choice…it is not too much to ask for police officers to fight crime and still treat the citizens of the communities they police with respect…

  29. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “The riots and the indictments have been cheered by progressives. ”

    Well, of course. Because all progressives want is for cops to be murdered. Just ask Pinky — he’s the genius who realized that. And I think you and he can find lots to talk about.

  30. superdestroyer says:


    Most progressives just want law enforcement to go away. Why else are they so supportive of de-policing initiatives. However, there are some progressives such as Michael Moore who do want more police to die based on their support for disarming the police.

  31. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: “Most progressives just want law enforcement to go away”

    Oh, look, SuperDope is saying something so completely clueless that he has proven once again that he has absolutely no clue about anything other than his fear of scary brown people.

    How can you stand to be alive when the only thing you know is terror?

  32. Blue Galangal says:

    @Tony W: I think you’re right. Another systemic issue here is the consequences of the war on drugs, for instance, on the upward mobility of poor and/or minorities. If you get an arrest on your record, for instance, it pretty much obviates your chances of working in such professions as teaching, social work, or law enforcement or firefighting.The war on drugs, and “broken window” policing, has the effect of removing the ability to pursue certain community oriented professions from vast swathes of underprivileged people and/or minorities. It’s systemic in this sense: we can’t recruit enough African American teachers, because the pool from which teachers is supplied have to be not only conviction free but pretty much arrest free in many locales.

    Kid A, 17 year old white kid, gets busted for underage drinking, beer in hand, and gets taken to the hospital and the cops call his parents to come get him. Kid B, 17 year old black kid at the exact same concert, gets arrested, beer in hand, gets taken to jail and processed as an adult. Kid B has now got an arrest record. Kid A goes home and his parents ground him for a month and take away his Playstation.

    This is the result of this kind of policing. It’s fine to say, hey, they should know better, they shouldn’t break the law, no underage drinking. I agree. But it’s not fine that the law is applied so differently – or not applied at all – based on the colour of the skin for the identical offense.

    *This example happened in our community. Same show, same ages, same genders, two different races, two different outcomes.

  33. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    This thread has been very educational. I’ve learned three things here. Or, rather, had them confirmed.

    1) The standard liberal argument style here is “here’s what I believe, here’s what you believe, and you’re wrong and stupid for believing it.” It’s a remarkably efficient technique — it doesn’t require anyone else to actually get involved.

    2) Any time a Republican does anything bad, it’s the responsibility of every Republican ever.

    3) Anything bad in the Democrats’ past is also the fault of the Republicans.

    All are on display here, in full bloom.

  34. superdestroyer says:

    @Blue Galangal:

    Any human resources office (personnel office) will tell you that that an arrest without a conviction is not considered when it comes to employment. The same rules apply when the government gives someone a clearance to work with classified material. It is the conviction and the recentness of the conviction that really matters.

    However, if there are 50 people applying for a job, when would any employer want to deal with anyone who has a conviction?