Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Wednesday that he is effectively ending plainclothes policing in Baltimore in the wake of the federal indictments of seven officers last week.
Known on the streets as “knockers” or “jump out boys,” the units became synonymous with policing in Baltimore. They were the officers most likely to be seen wearing tactical vests, jeans and backward hats, prowling the city for guns and drugs.
But Davis said they have also been the officers most likely to be the subject of complaints, and he said he became increasingly concerned that their style “accelerated a ‘cutting corners’ mind-set.”
On Tuesday night, he ordered 46 officers from the agency’s centralized intelligence unit back into uniformed patrol. An additional 100 officers in “operations” squads in districts were also ordered into uniform last week.
“I’m not a big fan of these modified uniforms, these tactical vests, the T-shirts, the jeans, the baseball caps,” Davis told the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday morning. “I don’t think it represents our profession the way it should, and I’m doing away with it.”
The moves come a week after seven members of the agency’s Gun Trace Task Force were indicted on federal racketeering charges, accused of robbing and extorting citizens, filing false police reports and receiving fraudulent overtime pay. One of the seven officers was also charged with being part of a drug conspiracy.
A federal drug investigation in 2015 that authorities say ensnared the officer charged in the drug case expanded to other officers and involved wiretaps and recording devices placed in police cars, which federal prosecutors say picked up the officers discussing an array of crimes.
Davis said in an interview that there are still officers who will do plainclothes work, such as the officers assigned to federal task forces. He is also not doing away with undercover units, which are distinct from plainclothes officers.
The reassigned officers will also be asked to do the same type of proactive police work, except in uniform and marked cars, Davis says.
“There’s nothing that these guys do in plainclothes that they can’t do in uniform,” Davis said. “You can still be in uniform and a marked car and get guns and get bad guys.”
Such plainclothes squads have existed in a variety of capacities and names over the years. During the administration of former Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld, when in 2011 Baltimore saw fewer than 200 homicides in a year for the first time since the 1980s, officials credited the plainclothes Violent Crimes Impact Division, or VCID, with driving down the number of killings by targeting repeat offenders in historically high-crime zones.
His successor, Anthony Batts, said those units also received a disproportionate number of complaints, and he reduced the number of officers while rebranding the unit.
Davis said his moves over the past week finally end that type of policing in Baltimore.
“This is the absolute, final dismantling of VCID,” Davis said.
It also comes as Baltimore has been experiencing a record high per capita murder rate, with other crimes up considerably over the past year.
Davis said he has not settled on whether to rebuild a centralized operations squad. “More than likely, what we’ll do when the dust settles, I’ll beef up the decentralized units, but in a way that’s not plainclothes and relies less on surveillance and less on the investigative tactics that they’ve used. It’ll be more overt,” Davis said.
City Council member Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s Public Safety committee, said he thinks it’s a good idea for the units to continue proactive policing but under the direction of district commanders.
“The district commanders should be able to come up with their own plans and strategies while talking to their communities, and base it off that and the crime data itself,” Scott said. “This represents a new day. We have to be willing to adapt and be willing to be creative on how we do things moving forward.”
The police union president, Gene Ryan, said he has long favored more officers in uniformed patrol.
“I think uniforms in patrol cars, preventing crime, is a move in the right direction,” Ryan said.