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Two Years After the Uprising, Black Women’s Experiences of Policing in Baltimore Still Under the Radar

Police violence and sexual assaults against Black women are too often ignored in discussions of DOJ oversight.

Two weeks before Freddie Gray was killed by Baltimore Police officers, Mya Hall took a wrong turn and wound up dead.

Hall, a Black transgender woman, was killed on March 30, 2015, when she and a companion mistakenly took an exit off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway that leads to a National Security Agency campus at Fort Meade, Maryland — as many people have been known to do without incident. In her case, police emptied a hail of bullets into her vehicle even as she was turning around and attempting to leave.

Thirteen days later, Freddie Gray was arrested and suffered extensive injuries — including a severed spinal cord — in the custody of the Baltimore police. Ultimately, those injuries would kill him. Gray’s death on April 19, 2015, sparked weeks of protest and, eventually, an investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Hall’s name and story were rarely seen and heard during the Baltimore Uprising except in tweets posted and at events organized by Black women and trans women. While Hall was not killed by members of the Baltimore Police Department, and the circumstances of her shooting were unique, her death was no less an injustice. A smattering of news stories — many of which misgendered, demonized and exoticized Hall and her community of transgender women in Baltimore’s Old Goucher neighborhood — followed her killing. And then, nothing.

There has been even less conversation, then and now, as we commemorate the second anniversary of the Baltimore Uprising, about Black women’s experiences of policing on the streets of Baltimore.

“The way the police engage women, especially Black women and sex workers, creates a culture of violence.”

“Our collective focus on police shootings overshadows the reality of what is going on for women on a daily basis,” said Jacqueline Robarge of Power Inside, an agency that works with criminalized women, in an interview. “The way the police engage women, especially Black women and sex workers, creates a culture of violence. The police use a variety of tactics, including harassment, physical and sexual violence, medical neglect in police custody, and ignoring violence committed by family and community members.”

The DOJ investigation prompted by Gray’s killing revealed a number of instances in which Baltimore police officers extorted sex from women they alleged were engaged in prostitution or drug-related activities. The women’s complaints were poorly and partially investigated, if at all, with little or no consequences for the officers involved. One woman’s testimony gathered by Power Inside described, “They call us bitches, whores, prostitutes, tricks…. I’ve been offered to give head, fellatio, I’ve been offered to have sex for information or they’re gonna lock us up.”

According to Robarge, a 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University found that 6 percent of study participants involved in prostitution in Baltimore had been coerced to have sex with a police officer within a given month. In Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, I summarize the sizeable body of research revealing that the police sexual violence found by the DOJ in Baltimore, and committed by now infamous Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, is alarmingly commonplace across the country.

Given the choice between facing decades in prison for a drug or prostitution-related charge or performing a sexual act … women will continue to be targets of sexual shakedowns by police.

Federal Judge James K. Bredar recently approved a consent decree — an agreement between the Obama DOJ and the City of Baltimore mandating reforms to the police department — despite the Sessions DOJ’s attempts to stall and roll back the process. Unfortunately, the agreement does little to address the police sexual violence found by the DOJ investigation. One of the dangers of the DOJ pulling back from oversight of police departments, and of Sessions’ stated intention to ramp up the war on drugs and trafficking enforcement, is that both will create conditions giving police officers tremendous power to do more of the same. Given the choice between facing decades in prison for a drug or prostitution-related charge or performing a sexual act, with little likelihood of accountability for the officer involved, all too many women will continue to be targets of sexual shakedowns by police, in Baltimore and across the country.

Robarge, who submitted testimony to the DOJ and the court overseeing the consent decree, emphasized, “Police sexual violence continues to be ignored here — people always want to reduce the issue to the unfounding of sexual assault complaints, which is bad enough, but people are roundly ignoring the fact that police are coercing sex and raping people. And it’s not just sex workers, it’s people they know are visible and vulnerable because they have a warrant or are less likely to be believed. Black women are particularly vulnerable to the whole range of rights violations by the police, but that fact has been stripped out of the conversation.”

It’s certainly a reality that has consistently failed to come up in both media coverage of sexual violence (even as we mark April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month) and debates over the DOJ’s ongoing involvement in Baltimore.

Police sexual violence is not the only form of police brutality against Black women that is not being addressed by the consent decree. A 2014 investigation into use of force by the Baltimore Sun uncovered the story of Starr Brown, a 26-year-old Morgan State University graduate who returned home from work one afternoon in September 2009 and saw a group of girls fighting on her block. When police responded and began to yell at the victims, Brown went outside to urge the officers to chase the aggressors, who had left the scene. One of the officers responded by lunging at her and wrapping his arm around her neck — despite the fact that both Brown and her neighbors screamed that she was pregnant. The officer later offhandedly said “we hear that all the time.” Brown told the Sun, her voice cracking: “They slammed me down on my face … I was tossed like a rag doll. He had his knee on my back and neck.” Without any evidence of wrongdoing on her part, the officers charged her with obstruction of justice and resisting arrest. The charges were dismissed and the city settled Brown’s civil suit in 2011.

The same Sun investigation also revealed the case of Barbara Floyd, a 58-year-old Black grandmother who suffered similar treatment as she was standing outside her home observing an undercover drug bust. A Baltimore police officer came up behind her and wrapped his arm around her neck, threw her to the pavement, and ground her face into the sidewalk, opening up a wound on her forehead and sending her blood pressure over 200. The City also eventually settled her lawsuit.

In a piece published in Rolling Stone shortly after the 2015 Uprising exposing the role of “broken windows” policing in the daily police violence against Baltimore residents like Freddie Gray, Matt Taibbi told the story of Makia Smith. Smith, a 33-year-old accountant, was stuck in traffic on her way home one day in 2012 when she saw police surrounding a boy on the ground and began filming. She told Taibbi, “I was hoping that if they saw me, then maybe they would stop doing what they were doing.” Instead, an officer ran toward her screaming, “You want to film something, bitch? Film this!” Makia tried to get back into her car, but the officer grabbed her phone, threw it to the ground, dragged her by her hair and threw her on the hood of her car. Her two-year-old screamed in the back seat as she witnessed the abuse. As they arrested Makia, police threatened to turn her daughter over to child protective services. Frantic, she asked a young girl by the side of the road to take the toddler until her grandmother could pick her up. Smith fought the charges piled on her by the officers responsible and brought a civil suit, but the officers were eventually found innocent of any wrongdoing.

And, just this week, 52-year-old Kim Doreen Chase died after collapsing in a holding cell in a Baltimore police precinct under circumstances that leave lingering questions for local advocates, and prompted a departmental investigation.

These are just a few among many more untold stories. According to the Baltimore Police Department’s own data, arrests of Black women make up 71 percent of the total number of women’s arrests in a city that is 62 percent Black — a rate of racial disparity similar to that for all arrests, including among arrests of men. Where charges are known, Black women are most frequently arrested for narcotics, prostitution, disorder, assault and theft-related offenses.

These numbers suggest that as Baltimore embarks on the next phase of the consent decree process, there needs to be greater attention to police violence against Black women and to the potential impacts of ramped-up drug and “broken windows” policing the Sessions DOJ is promoting across the country.

Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner have announced their intention to implement court-ordered reforms of the police department, notwithstanding Sessions’ second-guessing of consent decrees in Baltimore and elsewhere. But if they, and officials in cities across the country who have expressed similar commitments, are serious about wanting to address issues of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests and use of force against Black communities, then they need to go further to address the experiences of Black women.

They need to adopt and enforce policies that will effectively prevent, detect and hold officers accountable for the kinds of police sexual violence documented by the DOJ. They need to take action to prevent use of force against pregnant women like Starr Brown. They need to stop officers from threatening to put children in the system instead of waiting to place them in the care of family members when mothers like Makia Smith are arrested. And they need to make clear to officers that women like Smith and Barbara Floyd are entitled to observe police activity in their communities without violent retribution.

And, most importantly, they need to move away from aggressive enforcement of “broken windows” offenses like “disorderly conduct,” prostitution and low-level drug offenses, and instead redirect resources to meeting the needs identified by women who are involved in the drug and sex trades.

“Women whose stories are told in the DOJ report continue to be hassled, stopped and violated by police. Things need to change more quickly,” Robarge urges. It’s up to the mayor and commissioner to make sure those changes don’t leave Black women targeted by police violence behind.

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