In December 1965, as a cub police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, I watched as a black teenager from the western district was booked for allegedly stealing a woman's purse. While the sergeant behind the high counter took his time questioning the suspect, the arresting officer stood on the boy's toes, pressing down.
Obviously in pain, the youngster squirmed and grimaced, too afraid to complain, even with a look. The police officer weighed on the teen's feet for about five minutes before the desk sergeant finally said, "Take him to a cell."
About a month later, I covered a break-in at the home of a widowed, African-American teacher in the same district. The glass in the front door had been shattered and the house entered by members of the police rackets squad, believing that there was an ongoing illegal lottery in the house. The western district community relations group sent a letter to the inspector investigating the incident terming the search "unwarranted."
A police sergeant who was part of the search later told the teacher, "We found nothing. It was a mistake." The judge who signed the search warrant said he "did not remember what the information was that the police had presented to him."
The explosion of anger and hurt following the death and funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore felt like a long-simmering reaction to the numerous instances of casual cruelty -- symptoms of more serious and ongoing abuses -- I routinely heard of and witnessed while working at the Sun 50 years ago. Have we slid backward from progress made, deluded ourselves that change was underway, or are we witnessing a new era of racism?
Even then, we knew there was rot just below the surface. In 1964, a series of articles about the police department by Sun investigative reporter Richard Levine established that the police had routinely falsified records to create the appearance of a city safer than it really was, that its patrolling system was insufficient, and that officers frequented bars while on duty.
Following the Sun's revelations, then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes appointed Attorney General Thomas B. Finan to head a special investigative committee. Police Commissioner Bernard J. Schmidt countered with his own report, compiled by police inspectors and senior officers, that challenged but did not refute the Sun's findings.
Following Schmidt's forced retirement in early 1966, Major Gen. George M. Gelston, commander of the Maryland National Guard, was appointed interim police commissioner. But allegations of departmental mismanagement continued.
At about the same time, the International Association of Chiefs of Police conducted a separate study of the department over a period of eight months. Upon its completion in January 1966, Levine wrote: "The Baltimore Police Department has been closely examined and found to be seriously inadequate." The 600-page report, he noted, "focuses severe criticism at the quality of leadership and management in the police department. It points up many areas of critical deficiencies and levels both broad and detailed attacks on almost all aspects of police service, all phases of police administration and all divisions, bureaus, squads and specialized functions . . . It recommends an immediate, total reorganization of the department."
The study concluded that in his four years as police commissioner, Schmidt never brought formal charges against an officer because of a citizen's complaint of brutality or violation of civil rights. It described corruption, with police officers on the take, emphasizing that, contrary to a popularly held image of probity, "Baltimore is saddled with vice and organized crime of major proportions."
The pattern continued. The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, alleging widespread police abuse, sued Baltimore in 2006. The city settled in 2010 for $870,000, according to The New York Times. The Sun reported last year that taxpayers had paid $5.7 million since 2011 in judgments or settlements in 102 lawsuits that had alleged police misconduct.
Despite decades of civil rights progress, Baltimore today reveals a persistent mindset of racism resulting in ongoing police brutality against African Americans. Fifty years on, law enforcement practices mirror those investigated under Commissioner Schmidt.
The teacher I wrote about as a young reporter on the city desk had something to say when she found her front door smashed and home turned upside down: "I thought it was the duty of the police to protect your home, not break into it."
Today in Baltimore, the teacher's children and grandchildren, targeted by police as generations before them have been, speak in a different tone. Feeling they are this close to Freddie Gray -- the 25-year-old man who died after his spine was severed while in police custody -- theirs is a speech of burning cars, vandalized storefronts, and assaults against police officers.
While such acts cannot be condoned, the time of alibis for police brutality has long passed.
John S. Friedman is an associate professor of media and communications at SUNY Old Westbury.