The Daily Record: A turning point for transformative change?

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on August 18, 2016.

If for some reason you missed the recent release of the U.S. Department of Justice’s report from a 15-month investigation of the Baltimore Police Department, it can be summed up this way: The findings are damning and, in more than a few respects, appalling.

As chapter and verse of the report makes abundantly clear, systemic patterns of excessive use of force, unjustified searches, seizures, arrests and other unlawful and unconstitutional conduct by members of the city’s police department have been pervasive and ingrained in the culture of the department for many years.

The report demonstrates that Baltimore has a complex and troubling problem with the way the department collectively approaches the business of policing with a heavy hand that isn’t color blind.

The reality is that the burden of this broken police culture has overwhelmingly fallen on Baltimore’s African-American residents and communities. As a recent Baltimore Sun editorial pointed out, the DOJ report found “overwhelming statistical evidence of racial disparities” in police practices.

White residents, wealthy neighborhoods and the city’s corporate establishment have been largely unaffected and thus removed — in experience and emotion — from the bias and crushing effects of this broken system and culture.

Here is just one example from the DOJ report:

“African-Americans in Baltimore were charged with one offense for every 1.4 residents, while individuals of other races were charged with only one offense per 5.1 residents. This discriminatory pattern is particularly apparent in two categories of BPD’s enforcement: (1) warrantless arrests for discretionary misdemeanor offenses such as disorderly conduct and failing to obey an officer’s order; and (2) arrests for drug possession. In both cases, officers arrest African-Americans at rates far higher than relevant benchmarks.”

Such findings only confirmed what many in Baltimore’s predominantly black communities have known, experienced or witnessed for years. It took a federal investigation to make this public — and to make it real to those residents and communities in Baltimore City who have been insulated from what’s been happening day in and day out on some of the streets of the city.

Compelling economic issue

Some voices in the city have said the report points to a civil rights issue, a social issue, or a race issue.

But as Diane Bell-McKoy, President and CEO of Associated Black Charities in Baltimore, correctly points out in her commentary today in The Daily Record, the DOJ report highlights a compelling economic issue.

The report makes clear that the systemic conduct against blacks in Baltimore “…limits future economic opportunities by false arrests and unlawful stops of ordinary law-abiding citizens,” Bell-McKoy writes.

An arrest record, even if a simple misdemeanor or a charge that is eventually dropped, can follow a person for life. It can thwart current and future job prospects. It can cast doubt on purchasing a home or securing a loan to buy or start a business. It can significantly impair the dream of building individual and generational wealth.

Any arrest record can be difficult to clear. These records can show up on background checks for jobs, loans and business transactions. Engaging a lawyer is frequently the most effective and expeditious way to get an arrest record expunged.

Poor and low-income individuals, lacking sufficient funds and access to legal expertise, find themselves up against a wall when it comes to clearing their names to compete for jobs and career opportunities.

“It’s often called the secret sentence or the silent punishment,” Norman Reimer, Executive Director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in an interview with Time.

Underscoring this point is a study conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina. The Wall Street Journal reported that the researchers mined data from the U.S. Labor Department and found that youths arrested by the age of 23, regardless of whether they were ever convicted, experienced a number of negative outcomes:

  • Only 53 percent obtained a high school degree by age 25, compared to 89 percent for those with no arrest record at the same age.
  • Only 10 percent received a college degree by the age of 25, compared to 37 percent that never been arrested.

As these statistics show, the crushing weight of an arrest record can undermine a young person’s aspirations.

Improving opportunities

What all of this underscores is that the DOJ report can and must be seen as a turning point for improving economic opportunity for the city’s African-American population, young and old.

Baltimore’s corporate, business and private-sector employers must be stakeholders in the implementation of the consent decree that the police, city and DOJ craft to address the problems uncovered by the report.

After the order is approved, the private sector must work closely with the new mayor and city council who are taking office late this year to develop solutions to ensure economic opportunities for those who have been held back by brushes with the law, as well as those who served jail time and are returning to society and seeking a new productive path.

Working collectively to overcome the past conduct noted in the DOJ report will serve to broaden and diversify Baltimore’s workforce and economic ecosystem. Joining together to aggressively change the culture will make Baltimore City more appealing to highly educated and skilled workers of color seeking to display their talents in Baltimore to secure employment or start a business, fueling the city’s economic landscape with new ideas, energy and excitement that rich diversity adds to an ecosystem.

Or, as Bell-McKoy correctly observes, Baltimore can embark on a “journey of transformative change …” by “dismantling the structural practices and policies that limit economic opportunities and growth.”

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record. 

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