BALTIMORE – The Vanguard Justice Society had a press conference and some people came but little was reported about it.
You heard little because the Black police officers association in this city did more than offer support for Sgt. Alicia White, a Vanguard recruit and member, who is among six officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old unarmed Black man whose passing followed an encounter with police and sparked outrage and national protests. His back was broken and spine nearly separated from his head in what police called an arrest without force.
Among the police officers charged are three Blacks along with their White counterparts.
Vanguard Justice Society leaders spoke up for Sgt. White saying she would have done something if a person in police custody needed medical assistance. The city state’s attorney has charged officers failed to act to assist Mr. Gray at least five times despite his pleas for help. He died in the city’s famed Shock Trauma Unit a week after this arrest, an arrest the state’s attorney charges was unwarranted and illegal.
Support for Sgt. White is likely the thing you heard because it fits the Fraternal Order of Police narrative that the officers involved just did their job and should not have been charged.
But if there is a Blue Wall of silence among White and Black officers, there are serious cracks in it. The Vanguard Justice Society, which some have criticized as more into social events than social justice in recent years, say longstanding problems of bias and discrimination still exist in a department that is reportedly 44 percent Black and overseen by a Black police chief, who serves at the pleasure of a Black mayor in a town with a Black city council president and a majority Black population.
How can that be? Vanguard Justice Society leaders say policing and policing strategies are determined by politicians who decide what is most important for the city. If downtown is the focal point, neighborhoods are left to fend for themselves and left at the mercy of officers who have largely unchecked power.
Blacks also face harsher discipline, compliant Blacks are promoted and recruited from out of town, often having little regard for city residents, the Black officers charged.
Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, and other officers said efforts to sit down with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake and Police Chief Anthony Batts have gone nowhere.
Officers who speak up about corruption or police brutality and abuses are quickly targeted and drummed out of the department under not just fear for future jobs but even fear for their lives, said Sgt. Louis H. Hopson, Jr., who has fought wrongs inside his department for many years.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the official bargaining unit for cops, is part of the problem as are city leaders, said Sgt. Hopson, Jr., a 35-year veteran police officer.
The Vanguard Justice Society is undermined by the FOP and commanders who try to make the organization irrelevant, said Sgt. Hopson. He won a legal fight charging systemic discrimination in the police department just six years ago. While the class action lawsuit included a $4.5 million settlement with a $2.5 million payout to some officers and an agreement to hire an outside monitor, nothing has changed, Sgt. Hopson said in a May 13 interview. He was one of six participants in a press conference held by the Vanguard Justice Society at Baltimore City Community College.
The FOP executive board is all-White and the union is not dealing with issues important to minorities, women or Blacks, he said. “This problem has manifested itself in this agency, it’s a cancer. It’s been a cancer for a long time. I don’t buy into the fact that there are a few bad apples because after three and a half decades, those bad apples have rottened the entire agency. It’s a cancer destroying us from the inside out.”
“We really need a change in the police department,” he said.
A Black female veteran officer resigned and fled the state after filing a discrimination and harassment complaint, Sgt. Hopson continued. She felt her life was in danger, he explained.
Black officers are standing up but are targeted and dismissed when they stand, Sgt. Hopson, Jr. said. The question is who acts when Black officers turn in dirty and racist cops? he said. “Who runs the ball in?”
There is an effort to block the Vanguard Justice Society, which was founded to speak for Black officers and the Black community, said the sergeant. The mayor and police commissioner did not respond to VJS warnings about “discrepancies, discrimination and corruption,” said Sgt. Hopson, Jr. There have been “fluff meetings” with Mayor Rawlings Blake and Police Commissioner Batts but no action and no follow-up, he said.
“Do you want to eradicate racism and discrimination? It’s not important to them and we’re trying to make it important,” said Sgt. Hopson Jr. “It affects not only the people of color inside, but it affects the community outside, as we now see in the wake of the riots, in the wake of the community unrest.”
Sgt. Lisa D. Robinson, vice president of the Vanguard Justice Society, wants Black officers to be at the table when the Justice Dept probes the city department. She also wants the Vanguard Justice Society to spark a national dialogue about policing. The “stop snitching” culture within the department needs to be eliminated, she said.
The death of Freddie Gray has cast a light on so many things that some would like hidden and kept quiet but it’s too late now. Too many stories, too many injuries, too many deaths, too much pain to be ignored now. If Black officers are not safe in the department they serve, do we even have to ask about the safety and status of Black citizens, poor citizens? And if none of us are safe, shouldn’t we find safety with one another? After all it appears that when it comes to the White power structure, their enforcers and their agents, we’re all in the same gang.