And politicians are taking note. In place of more radical calls to defund or abolish police departments, they offer milder improvements: “The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms,” Joe Biden said in a USA Today op-ed. Even President Trump, who has previously encouraged police misconduct, signed an executive order this past week focused on training and “best practices.”
A number of cities have already tried this — Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, Baltimore and, even before the police killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis — and rebellious police have a lot to do with why those fixes haven’t worked. But the response of Baltimore police to the 2015 uprising that followed the in-custody death of Freddie Gray is especially instructive. Baltimore is a useful case study precisely because it promised aggressive fixes that were thwarted by a more aggressive police force.
After the city’s top prosecutor charged six officers involved in Gray’s death, Baltimore appeared to be a beacon of hope for reform. New policies required officers to wear body cameras and follow several other Obama-era proposals. The department embraced the ideas behind community policing, and, as a result of a year-long Justice Department investigation that revealed racist practices in how laws were enforced, Baltimore was put under a consent decree, where the federal government assigned a monitor to insure reform.
Members of the department undermined every new policy in an open revolt. Some cops decided that if the city didn’t have their back, they’d stop working hard and allow chaos to reign, showing how important they were. Others, particularly plainclothes officers, took the opposite approach: They doubled down on harassing citizens, violating their constitutional rights and even fabricating probable cause to maintain “law and order.” And some cops seized on the moment to rob and steal, creating more disorder.
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Slowdowns have been perhaps the most common approach to resisting police reform nationwide. Sometimes police unions announce a work slow-down as a planned action to demonstrate the value of their members. Other labor unions make similar moves. But in the case of policing, this tactic is an attempt to leverage violence over residents to prevent reform.
This happened in New York last August when union members protested the firing of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death in 2014. The union failed to prove its point: The number of arrests decreased during the slowdown, yet although homicides rose slightly, overall crime stats showed the city was not significantly less safe.
Baltimore’s slowdown, by contrast, was not announced in advance. Police apologists began discussing it after the fact — about a month after Gray’s death — to explain an upsurge in crime soon after April’s protests. The crime spike was initially blamed on people who looted drugs from pharmacies during the uprising. According to the police commissioner, the abundance of drugs disrupted the underground economy and created related beefs. But when crime persisted well after the uprising, police latched onto this other explanation: Oversight, reform and citizen cellphone cameras all increase violence because they make police scared to do their jobs.
This idea was already established — it was what the police chief in Ferguson dubbed the “Ferguson effect.” If cops don’t act aggressively when they suspect malefactors, crime supposedly will skyrocket. With a sharp increase in murders, Baltimore seemed a perfect illustration.
In truth, the dynamic was more complicated. There was a sharp decline in arrests, but it was predominantly because the patrol officers weren’t responding to citizen complaints. A Johns Hopkins study on crime in Baltimore after the uprising found a 30 percent decrease in arrests between April and July 2015, when reforms were being put in place. The sharpest drop was for so-called “nuisance crimes” that were already on the decline.
People on the ground noticed it. Natalie Finegar, a defense attorney who was deputy public defender at the time, remembers driving around Penn-North, the neighborhood where Gray was killed. “We saw cop car after cop car after cop car with the cops just parked and they were just leaned back in their seat,” she said. “And it was very much this, ‘I’m not touching anybody, I’m not doing anything, I’m not arresting anybody.’ ”
In many ways, fewer arrests was actually an improvement. But it was only part of the story. Plainclothes squads still ruled the streets of Baltimore, stopping residents with little cause. A survey of West Baltimore residents during this period found that they felt “over-policed yet under-served.”
Nevertheless, the narrative that a slowdown had helped spark a crime wave pushed what’s known as “proactive policing” above reform in the public discourse, once again. The mayor hired a new commissioner to bring down crime. Eric Kowalczyk, former head of communications for the Baltimore police, described the dynamic in his book “The Politics of Crisis.” “The message being delivered was a simple one: The riot was over. We were back to basics. Do whatever it took to get the homicide number down,” Kowalczyk wrote. “That mentality and operating modality were the exact reasons we had just gone through a riot.”
The overtime budget was opened up for the cops considered hard-chargers, and five years later, you can see what it yielded. In 2015, as the number of homicides increased dramatically, municipal statistics show police overtime soared , despite the slowdown narrative. In 2014, there were 210 homicides in the city, and police brought home $29.6 million in overtime. In 2016, there were 318 homicides, and overtime spending increased to $43.6 million. This year, the city will spend $50 million in police overtime.
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Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the head of a “violence suppression” squad, the Gun Trace Task Force, thrived in this permissive, post-uprising atmosphere. With his squad, Jenkins made as many as 50 unconstitutional stops a night, pulling up in an unmarked car and chasing and tackling men without probable cause, racking up arrests. Jenkins and six members of his squad were indicted on federal robbery and racketeering charges in 2017 (all either pleaded guilty or were convicted in 2018). They had gone on a crime spree as the city talked about reform.
Jenkins admitted that when he found drugs, he often did not write up a report at all, stealing and selling them instead. Even the claim that looted drugs had caused the post-uprising violence was turned upside down by the federal trial, where testimony revealed that Jenkins had actually sold drugs he looted from the looters through an associate.
Jenkins is an extreme case. He had been breaking the law for years before Gray died. But as the department resisted reforms, it became particularly susceptible to his kind of corruption. He was a vocal opponent of reform — “gay training,” he called it. He was also one of the most celebrated cops in the department, praised for his “proactive” style. That sent a message.
The department looked the other way because he was giving them what they needed: statistics politicians could cite and photos of seized guns that the police PR team could post on Facebook to prove Baltimore was a war zone and make citizens think police were “winning” the war.
None of the reforms reined in Jenkins’s criminal activity. The Department of Justice’s civil rights division was investigating the Baltimore Police Department while Jenkins and his crew of cops robbed citizens and dealt drugs. And when the feds finally arrested the members of the Gun Trace Task Force on corruption charges, the move had nothing to do with the civil rights investigation. Federal agents stumbled onto the massive police corruption scandal while investigating a drug crew one of the cops was protecting.
After the indictment of task force members in 2017, we heard calls for more of the same reforms enacted after 2015. But the policies didn’t work, because cops actively sought to undermine them. Police claim that the demands of the consent decree — such as limitations on use of force and revised policies on stops and searches — make their job impossible. Authorities release footage from body cameras selectively, during news conferences where a spokesman tells reporters what they are seeing and why the recorded actions were justified. And the prosecutors who failed to convict the officers charged with Gray’s death claimed that police detectives were “sabotaging” the case.
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This is what reform looks like in Baltimore, five years later — and the rest of the country should take heed. More than 300 people have been killed every year since 2015, and the police budget dwarfs all other expenditures at over $500 million. In 2019, arrests were only made in less than a third of homicides — and the conviction rate was much lower than that. In response to the defund-police movement, Baltimore’s City Council pushed for minor police budget cuts this year. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison — the department’s fifth police leader since 2015 — claimed cuts would make the reforms that have been five years in the making even harder: “Any further reductions on top of what we’ve already made will halt our progress and have very serious consequences,” he said. (The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
We can already see the pattern established in Baltimore start to play out elsewhere. In New York, Commissioner Dermot Shea announced Monday that the NYPD would disband its major plainclothes unit, which was a main driver of stop-and-frisk stops and had been involved in numerous shootings over the years. Lynch, from the police union, responded by all but promising an increase in violent crime. “They chose this strategy,” he intoned. “They will have to reckon with the consequences.”
After Garrett Rolfe, the Atlanta police officer who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks this month, was charged with felony murder, some squads reportedly walked off the job there on Wednesday, and others called in sick.
Police departments, strengthened by their own problems, have no incentive to actually change. It is hard to imagine another agency that could use such an abysmal failure as a sign of its necessity. Police will never give up power voluntarily — so it must be taken from them by significantly defunding police departments and reallocating the money in ways that might actually curb violence and offer resources to communities terrorized by police.
Police don’t believe in reform. Baltimore shows that we shouldn’t, either.