This current scandal is more than a case of a few bad apples, though bad apples they were. These officers acted with impunity until the FBI caught wind of their actions through an unrelated criminal investigation in Pennsylvania. A specialized police unit cannot survive for years as a criminal enterprise without the implicit — or overt — acquiescence of higher-ups. Effective leadership could have prevented this. Bad leadership has consequences.
In a city reeling from violence and less proactive policing in the wake of riots in 2015, these officers were given carte blanche. When crime goes up, guns and drugs on a table are like catnip to departmental brass. Yet the same people eager to bask in the reflected glory of seized contraband failed to ask how such quantities can be seized through legal and constitutional means.
Major police corruption scandals — whether Michael Dowd or the “Dirty 30” in New York City, Rampart in Los Angeles or Jon Burge in Chicago — share a common template. Red flags should make identification and prevention easier. Often, corrupt officers will be highly decorated, rewarded for their arrests and “productivity” without regards to how they did it. These officers will have a lengthy history of complaints against them, both sustained and unsubstantiated. Complaints are not proof of wrongdoing, and active officers interact more often with the public, but claims need to be flagged rather than dismissed by higher-ups or paid for by city taxpayers. Drugs, specifically the futile enforcement of our failed war against them, will inevitably play a central role.
Corrupt units tend to be specialized and selective. Once murky rumors begin about a unit or officer, good cops stay away for fear of trouble. The corrupt and brutal cops work together, as I once heard, as if pulled together by some magnetic force. You don’t just randomly get assigned to a plainclothes “gun trace task force.” This unit segregation removes officers from the otherwise corrective influence of the honest rank and file. There is no formal colleague review in policing; perhaps there should be.
Honest cops — still the vast majority — avoid trouble, as any citizen should hope. The rank and file cannot be blamed for keeping their noses clean, especially when unresolved questions remain about the integrity of internal affairs and the prosecutor’s office. These officers in Baltimore were guilty, but the systemic problems represent a failure of leadership, the same leadership that absolved itself of responsibility by inviting the Justice Department to investigate after Freddie Gray’s death.
The final DOJ report, which had vague methodology and no named authors, provided the legal and political cover to invite a federal consent decree over the Baltimore City Police Department. And yet, not coincidentally, the investigators failed to find fault with any contemporaneous city leaders, nor did they get a whiff of the criminality of the Gun Trace Task Force that was happening under their noses.
Self-serving political declarations of “reform” can even make things worse. A more reactive policing model is partly by design of those who see policing as inherently repressive. And it’s partly by choice of police who want to avoid any action that might end up on YouTube and the evening news. It’s also become fashionable in certain circles to simply demand police do less, and then blame society and racism for any increase in violence.
In the year following the 2015 riots, indicators of normal policing plummeted. Arrests dropped by a third. Arrests for numbers’ sake aren’t desirable, but officers have reported a dramatic decline in car stops and field interviews, as well. As the saying goes, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” On the plus side, excessive force and abusive language complaints are down. So are police-involved shootings. But homicide and violence are up. And it’s not just Baltimore. Nationwide from 2014 to 2016, murders rose 23 percent, and increased in 55 of the top 72 cities.
As elsewhere in America, racial inequality has deep and racist roots in Baltimore. Discussions of violence too often turn to society’s inequities, which are indeed important, but not so much to day-to-day policing. Officers on patrol cannot wait for a more just or equitable society before responding to a citizen’s complaint. Police must deal with society’s cards as they are dealt. Every measurable socioeconomic variable reflects a very real racial disparity. And yet somehow, we act as if these inequalities appear only the moment police show up. Police can indeed work to end racial bias; society needs to lesson racial disparity. But in a society plagued by structural racism, violence, too, is racially disparate. Over the past 10 years, fewer than 6 percent of murder victims in Baltimore have been white. Calls for police assistance reflect this disparity, as does police response.
Contrary to a police-are-the-problem narrative, a nationwide poll found that more African Americans want more police in their neighborhoods than whites do. Just 10 percent of blacks want fewer police. And two-thirds of nonwhites have “a great deal” of respect for police in their area. Of course, “more police” and “better police” are not mutually exclusive, but the answer to bad policing isn’t less policing. Calls to remove police from the streets or scale back proactive policing are tone-deaf to those who live in high-crime minority neighborhoods. Residents of poor minority neighborhoods deserve the same level of police service and public safety that wealthier, often whiter, communities simply take for granted.
It’s both easy and essential to note what we don’t want in policing: Don’t be racist; don’t be brutal; don’t violate laws and the Constitution. But this is only part of the picture. We need to tell police what we want them to do, and some of that involves forcing wrongdoers to stop doing things they really want to do. On a recent day in Baltimore, as is typical, more than one-third of patrol shifts were staffed by overtime. An understaffed police force is tired. Toward the end of a mandatory double shift, patrol officers will do little but answer calls for service.
Until 2015, policing and Baltimore had been getting better. After an excess of zero-tolerance policing in the early 2000s, Baltimore saw a sustained decline in both murder and arrests. From 2004 to 2011, murders declined from 278 to 197 while arrests dropped by 42 percent. People even began to move back to the city. After six decades of decline, the population increased. These civic and public safety gains reversed in 2015. Last year 343 people were murdered in Baltimore City, and the population and tax base are falling once again.
This year the police scandal is yet another black eye for a bruised city. Mayor Catherine Pugh, in a statement she later walked back, said she was too busy to follow the trial. The acting and presumed next police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, is well-respected but will have his hands full. Corrupt police officers deserve special blame for committing crimes while in the public’s trust. But for a wounded Baltimore to rise again, city leaders, both elected and appointed, must accept their responsibility and get things done.