Renee Montagne talks to Mark Puentes, of The Baltimore Sun, whose investigation revealed the city paid about $5.7 million over 4 years to settle suits from citizens accusing police of excessive force.
Here’s one more dimension of Freddie Gray’s story. His arrest and death comes amid a long-standing pattern of police violence. Last fall, a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed what it called, a disturbing pattern of police brutality. The city paid out more than five and a half million dollars to more than 100 victims of police beatings that occurred between 2008 and 2011. Nearly all were never charged with a crime or had their charges dismissed. Baltimore Sun reporter Mark Puente wrote the two-part series.
MARK PUENTE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, was there a single incident that got the Sun, the Baltimore Sun, going on this story?
PUENTE: No, the Baltimore Sun recruited me and asked me, hey, just check out – we’ve been hearing about police brutality for some time. Go see what you can find. I spent six months combing through thousands of court documents, dozens and dozens of hours of recordings of trial testimony. And then what we found was similarities emerged pretty quick on some of these alleged beatings by officers on Baltimore residents.
MONTAGNE: And sketch out for us just a couple of examples of the sorts of victims and their injuries that you found.
PUENTE: An 87-year-old grandmother by the name of Venus Green, a retired educator, whose grandson was shot down the street at a party store – he stumbled in the house asking for help. She called police. She received a broken arm by an officer when he came into her house and accused her of allowing the shooting to happen in the basement of her home. She collected, I recall, $100,000 when she sued.
A 26-year-old pregnant accountant was thrown to the ground. She received a $125,000. The people we focused on who received these settlements weren’t drug dealers. They weren’t people out robbing or stealing. It was citizens who called the police for help. In many cases, they were questionable arrests.
MONTAGNE: You focused on a particular police unit there called the Violent Crimes Impact section. Why did you end up focusing on them in particular?
PUENTE: Because all the people that we spoke to in our investigation mentioned this group. They were plainclothes. They weren’t dressed like police officers. They wore sweatshirts, baseball hats. And people had no idea they were officers until they put them in handcuffs and these alleged incidents occurred.
MONTAGNE: And give us one example of the sorts of experiences people had when they ran into this group.
PUENTE: One individual, who collected $200,000, was in a carryout store. He thought he was being robbed until they put handcuffs on him. Next thing you know, when he kind of resisted – hey, who are you? – he got smashed in the face with a police radio. He sues the city. The officer gets on the stand – and I watched the recording of it – and the officer says, hey, I put this man in custody. I have no idea how his injuries occurred. His sergeant gets on the stand and says, I can’t recall the incident. He received $200,000.
MONTAGNE: In this series, you know, how often did you find that the police report did not reflect what ultimately was judged to be the real story?
PUENTE: The police reports did not reflect what the lawsuits alleged. But what jumped out was in all – most nearly all the police reports and charging documents, they use the same language – the suspect became defensive. The suspect went after the officer. The officer had to defend his safety and protect his life.
In one example, Officer Michael McSpadden said that an individual jumped off a stool and the officer had to defend himself – punched him, knocked him out and then handcuffed the suspect. We unearthed the video in the 11th hour of the series that showed the individual getting assaulted, falling on the ground and the camera picks – showed the officer picking the man up with his hands clearly cuffed behind his back.
MONTAGNE: He had his hands already cuffed behind his back…
MONTAGNE: …And then the officer started hitting him.
PUENTE: That’s right.
MONTAGNE: Given that so many of these victims in your investigation were African-American, did they feel they were targeted because they were black? And I’m asking that because there are quite a few black officers in the Baltimore police.
PUENTE: They did feel they were targeted because they were black, but it didn’t matter if it was a black officer or a white officer. They have a majority-minority department. They see the blue uniform. Whether it’s a white officer or a black officer, they were coming after them because of their poor status in the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
MONTAGNE: So in a sense, what you’re saying is these people who were victims were the victims of blue officers (laughter) that is to say…
MONTAGNE: …Someone in a uniform.
MONTAGNE: In fairness, much of the police brutality cited in your investigation took place before the current police commissioner – his name is Anthony Batts – took over in late 2012. Have things gotten better overall in these last couple of years – or in fact, this latest example that’s now known by the entire nation – Freddie Gray – is that a sign that not much has changed?
PUENTE: Well, I don’t think it’s just the Gray case. That’s why I requested all the lawsuits that were filed in 2013 and ’14 because the commissioner said, you looked at old cases. Well, there was still 156 new lawsuits filed in ’13 and ’14 with similar allegations. A case popped up last summer where a uniformed officer was beating a man in a bus stop. That was caught on camera and social media. So these problems still exist. They might not be as high in numbers, but they haven’t went away.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.
PUENTE: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Mark Puente is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.