Would better technology at the Baltimore Police Department have saved Freddie Gray?

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In a scathing report issued Wednesday, the Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department has a troubling record of racial bias. The report confirmed what was widely expected in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray last year—if you are poor, black or from the wrong part of town, you're much more likely to get roughed up by Baltimore's cops.


Chief among the concerns of the DOJ investigators was the role that technology—or rather, a lack of it—played in allowing the department's patterns of racism and bias to continue unchecked.

Baltimore police officers, the report found, had neither adequate technology to do their jobs well, nor the technology in place to catch them when they screwed up.


The city's officers are "challenged by BPD’s outdated technology, equipment, and facilities," the investigators wrote. "The Department is hampered by significant technological infrastructure gaps and historically has underestimated the infrastructure required to implement technology."

Investigators found, for example, that the BPD uses 232 separate databases to store information, most of which don't link to each other. They use different software to record stops, arrests, and incident reports, respectively, meaning that multiple pieces of information about an incident might be stored in completely different databases, unconnected to one another. If it's determined that an arrest was made without probable cause, that information is stored somewhere else, too. What all this means that the BPD's haphazard approach to data gives the department virtually no way to spot troubling patterns in an officer's behavior.

"The Department does not generate any reports or otherwise track patterns in officers’ stops, searches, arrests, uses of force, or community interactions," the report found.

"BPD’s failure to respond to its pattern of conducting unlawful arrests illustrates the consequences of segregating related data in unconnected systems," it read.


Baltimore police officers also have no computers in their cars, meaning they have to head back to the station to type each report. And at the station, computers often don't work either. Department-issued cellphones are supposed to come equipped with an app called PocketCop for in-field communication, but many officers didn't have access to it.

"This absence of technology for field-based reporting creates an additional drain on the Department’s already limited resources," the report said. "Taking officers off the street to type reports at the district takes away from time that could be spent on law enforcement or community building activities."


Where technology has been implemented, it is frequently either outdated or broken. Vans to transport detainees, for example, originally came equipped with cameras to show officers the rear of the van. But investigators found that many of these cameras quickly broke and were never repaired.

"How am I supposed to pull someone over for having a taillight out when my car has two?” one officer told a focus group cited by the report.


In training facilities, outdated or all-together absent technology is a major problem, too.

Investigators found that that the BPD has only 17 computers available to train its nearly 4,000 employees. Training programs are outdated and lack a tool for assessing the proficiency of recruits. The tracking system to determine who needs training or has failed a class amounts to a single officer updating an Excel spreadsheet with the activities of thousands of police. For this reason, the report said, officers often miss "significant amounts" of required training.


The training facilities themselves are also in a state of disrepair, lacking drinkable water or working air conditioning and heat.

"Recruits, sworn personnel, visiting law-enforcement experts, and civilians get the impression that they are party to a fly-by-night, poverty-stricken department when they find themselves in a crumbling, drafty building," the report said.


Freddie Gray died after suffering fatal injury in the back of a Baltimore Police Department van. If there had been working cameras in that car, would the officers have noticed sooner that Gray was in a state of duress, and gotten him help? If the department's data collection and analysis was more robust, perhaps those officers would have been taken out of the field altogether.

In the aftermath of widespread civil unrest in the city following Freddie Gray's death, the Baltimore's police department has committed to adopting technologies it hopes will improve its ability to police fairly, like body cameras. But the Department of Justice investigators found that in many places the department lacks basic technological infrastructure, a shortcoming that has had serious consequences.

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