Columnist

The president of Baltimore’s police union didn’t find a “Saturday Night Live” sketch funny, but instead of just shaking his head and grumbling to the person next to him and moving on, he took a bold and very public step. He wrote a letter to the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, expressing “great disappointment over the distorted representation of Baltimore Police Officers.”

You might be thinking Lt. Gene Ryan, the head of the union, needs a better sense of humor. That may or may not be true. What is clear, though, is that he needs better friends.

A good friend — the kind who won’t hesitate to tell you your zipper is down or your dress is tucked into your tights — would have stopped him before he sent that letter and said, “Delete. It. Now.”

A good friend, without waiting for him to object, would have reached over to his keyboard and done it for him.

A good friend would have let him know the giant, glaring flaw in his letter: You can’t complain about a “distorted representation” (by a satirical show!) without making people look at the real representation.

And that is exactly what has happened in the days since Ryan sent that letter and it was posted on the union’s Twitter page. The comments it has drawn are brutal and show just how failed the public feels by its police department.

“Tell your membership to stop planting evidence, and stop beating people and then maybe we can talk about how SNL hurt your feelings,” one person wrote.

“You are literally one of the most corrupt police forces in the country,” wrote another. “This doesn’t go unnoticed. Fix it. Perhaps then you will be portrayed in a more deserving positive light rather than for exactly what you are.”

“Boo hoo,” reads another. “Get your house in order and own up to the mistakes and corruption. And the lives that Baltimore Police have ruined in the name of the blue wall. The department doesn’t deserve the respect you think. This type of tone deaf crap is infuriating.”

The SNL sketch features two female officers, played by Leslie Jones and Baltimore native Ego Nwodim, inappropriately hitting on a man during a traffic stop. “You have the right to remain silent,” Jones’s character tells the man, played by Seth Meyers. “And anything you say or do may be held [long pause] against my body.”

The city is never mentioned in the skit — which features a jingle titled “Thirsty Cops” — but both women wear Baltimore badges.

In his letter, Ryan acknowledges that humor and laughter are necessary in life, but he describes the segment as coming at a time when the department is “in the throes of massive criticism and disrespect.”


Lt. Gene Ryan, president the Baltimore police union, speaks at a news conference in 2016. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“Many of our members, especially our younger ones, are struggling with their choice of career, and we are losing good and credible members daily,” he wrote. “It is a difficult time in Baltimore and to portray our brave, hard-working members with such an inappropriate manner is very unfortunate.”

He also wrote that the skit “fell short of being humorous, and felt instead, like a sharp jab at a group of people who have dedicated their lives to serving others.”

Police officers deserve respect. They risk their well-being every day for the public. But if good police officers in Baltimore are feeling any “jabs,” it is not because a comedy sketch showed two overly flirtatious officers. It is because their fellow officers have cost the department the public’s trust.

The police force is under a federal consent decree after an investigation found widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing practices. This year also saw members of its Gun Trace Task Force admit to stealing money, drugs and weapons, all while billing the city for overtime they didn’t work. And in August, an officer, who has since left the force, was captured in a viral video pummeling a man with punches.

Meanwhile, the homicide rate continues to climb, with more than 250 murders seen this year. One of those victims was the brother of the police department’s spokesman T.J. Smith, who recently resigned, citing “nasty mudslinging” and “political turmoil” within the department.

The same day Ryan announced he had sent the letter to Michaels, interim police commissioner Gary Tuggle held a news conference to reveal the department was shutting down its administrative operations so it could place 230 more officers on patrol. That announcement came a day after 11 people were shot in Baltimore.

“Right now, patrol is a priority; addressing this crime is a priority,” Tuggle said. “So, some things won’t get done. It is what it is. But the priority is stopping this violence.”

The volatility between the police and the public was not created overnight in Baltimore. It brewed and boiled under Ryan’s leadership. He has represented the force for the past four years, a time that saw public demonstrations over the death of Freddie Gray and lingering anger over the failure to convict any of the officers involved. After being defeated in an election last month, Ryan is expected to hand over the top union position to Baltimore Police Sgt. Michael Mancuso on Monday.

It seems strange Ryan would choose to end his tenure with a letter that would bring national attention to the department’s ills. Unless that was his intention. Maybe he does have good friends after all, including one who told him the best gift he could leave the force was a mirror to hold up to it.

His letter, after all, revealed that the police and the public have one commonality: No one is laughing in Baltimore.