When Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a gathering of police officials back in May that “if you want crime to go up, let the ACLU run the police department,” he may have had a point. While opponents of “aggressive” police tactics like stop and frisk and other “broken windows”-type policing have complain about the injustice faced by minorities who they say are disproportionately and unfairly targeted by police, the city of Baltimore is demonstrating what happens when police dial back stops for minor violations like street-level drug dealing and other “everyday violations.”
According to USA Today, since the death of Freddie Gray and the arrest of several officers who were charged with murder for allegedly playing a role in his death (he died handcuffed in the back of a police van after reportedly breaking his neck) police in Baltimore have “stopped noticing” small crimes and minor violations. The officers who were charged were acquitted, but the incident ended their careers, and the Baltimore Police Department faced a 2016 Department of Justice investigation that found the city’s police routinely violated the constitutional rights of the city’s residents. More than 150 people have been killed in the city already this year, compared with 342 last year, which was the city’s deadliest on record.
Unsurprisingly, shootings soared…
…Leading to a spike in murders that has transformed Baltimore into America’s deadliest city.
Just before a wave of violence turned Baltimore into the nation’s deadliest big city, a curious thing happened to its police force: officers suddenly seemed to stop noticing crime.
Police officers reported seeing fewer drug dealers on street corners. They encountered fewer people who had open arrest warrants.
Police questioned fewer people on the street. They stopped fewer cars.
In the space of just a few days in spring 2015 – as Baltimore faced a wave of rioting after Freddie Gray, a black man, died from injuries he suffered in the back of a police van – officers in nearly every part of the city appeared to turn a blind eye to everyday violations. They still answered calls for help. But the number of potential violations they reported seeing themselves dropped by nearly half. It has largely stayed that way ever since.
“What officers are doing is they’re just driving looking forward. They’ve got horse blinders on,” says Kevin Forrester, a retired Baltimore detective.
The surge of shootings and killings that followed has left Baltimore easily the deadliest large city in the United States. Its murder rate reached an all-time high last year; 342 people were killed. The number of shootings in some neighborhoods has more than tripled. One man was shot to death steps from a police station. Another was killed driving in a funeral procession.
Police records show officers respond to calls as fast as ever, if not more quickly. The only drop has been in what police call “on-views” – when an officer witnesses a potential violation and stops the perpetrator (like when somebody is stopped for speeding). Between 2014 and 2017, the number of suspected narcotics offense stops dropped by 30%, and the number of people reported with outstanding warrants dropped by 50%. But Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who took command in May, also blamed a shortage of patrol officers
Police officials acknowledge the change. “In all candor, officers are not as aggressive as they once were, pre-2015. It’s just that fact,” says acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who took command of Baltimore’s police force in May.
Tuggle blames a shortage of patrol officers and the fallout from a blistering 2016 Justice Department investigation that found the city’s police regularly violated residents’ constitutional rights and prompted new limits on how officers there carry out what had once been routine parts of their job. At the same time, he says, police have focused more of their energy on gun crime and less on smaller infractions.
“We don’t want officers going out, grabbing people out of corners, beating them up and putting them in jail,” Tuggle says. “We want officers engaging folks at every level. And if somebody needs to be arrested, arrest them. But we also want officers to be smart about how they do that.”
The change has left a perception among some police officers that people in the city are free to do as they please. And among criminals, says Mahogany Gaines, whose brother, Dontais, was found shot to death inside his apartment in October.
“These people don’t realize that you’re leaving people fatherless and motherless,” Gaines says. “I feel like they think they’re untouchable.”
A pastor in West Baltimore spoke with USA Today about the rise in violence. He described a city where residents are becoming afraid to leave their homes. Criminals have taken over, and crews are setting up drug-dealing operations on corners across the city.
At least 41 people have been shot near his church. He described how a new drug corner recently set up shop on the corner across the street, and nearly got into a gun battle with another crew working nearby.
On a sticky morning in May, the Rev. Rodney Hudson slips on a black “Sermonator” T-shirt and walks down the street from his west Baltimore church, a gray stone edifice two blocks from where police arrested Gray. A few days earlier, a drug crew from another neighborhood set up camp on the corner across the street. Hudson says the dealers nearly got into a gunfight with the crew that usually works across from the elementary school down the block.
Since Gray’s death, at least 41 people have been shot within a short walk of Hudson’s church.
“Drug dealers are taking control of the corners and the police’s hands are tied,” Hudson says. “We have a community that is afraid.”
Two blocks away, Mayor Catherine Pugh and a knot of city officials are under a tent on an empty lot to break ground for a group of new townhouses. Police officers linger on the streets, and a helicopter swirls overhead. But three blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, drug crews still appear to be at work. Shouts of “hard body” – one of the drug cocktails on offer – ring clearly. Another man shouts a warning as Hudson and a reporter approach.
Drug dealers have worked Baltimore’s street corners for decades. But Hudson says it has been years since he has seen so many young men selling so brazenly in so many places. Dealers, he says, “are taking advantage” of a newly timid police force.
At least 150 people have been killed in Baltimore this year.
To be sure, the investigation did expose some legitimate corruption, including incidences of officers planting drugs and other evidence. Police Commission Darryl De Sousa resigned in May after federal prosecutors charged him with failing to pay his income taxes.
This year, eight officers in an elite anti-gun unit were convicted in a corruption scandal that included robbing drug dealers and carrying out illegal stops and searches. One officer testified that a supervisor told them to carry replica guns they could plant on suspects. Another officer was indicted in January after footage from his body camera showed him acting out finding drugs in an alley. The city’s new police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, resigned in May after federal prosecutors charged him with failing to pay his income taxes.
But with the wave of protest and anti-police threats, officers absorbed the message that they shouldn’t take unnecessary risks when making stops. And that affect isn’t limited to Baltimore. Nearly three-quarters of the officers who responded to a Pew Research Center survey incidents like the Gray killing had left them less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious. Others said the incidents had made stopping people harder. Meanwhile, civil rights advocates have accusing police of laying back on enforcement as a means of retaliating.
“What it says is that if you complain about the way the police do our job, maybe we’ll just lay back and not do it as hard,” says Jeffery Robinson, a deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which had advocated for an overhaul of police agencies in Baltimore and elsewhere. “If it’s true, if that’s what officers are doing, they should be fired.”
Another criminologist pointed out that police are largely doing as the public asked: They’re lessening the racial disparity in the number of people they stop and the number of police-involved shootings and complaints.
“The cops are being less proactive at the same time violence is going up,” says Peter Moskos, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and former Baltimore officer who reviewed USA TODAY’s data and analysis. “Cops are doing as requested: lessening racial disparity, lessening complaints, lessening police-involved shootings. All those numbers are just great right now, and if those are your metrics of success, we’re winning. The message has clearly gotten out to not commit unnecessary policing.”
Anthony Barksdale, a retired Baltimore police commander, says the message to officers was unmistakable.
“These guys have family members who tell them ‘Don’t go to work and chase people for a city that doesn’t care about you,’” he says. “If I’m riding down the street and I see an incident, I see it, but you know what? It’s not worth it. That’s what these cops are thinking.”
Of course, this information probably won’t stop the millions of leftists who insist that all police departments are purveyors of “systemic racism” and that “broken windows”-style policing policies – where police in America’s cities are empowered to make more stops, not fewer – inevitably lead to racially motivated stops. Maybe the murder rate will need to move a little higher for them to understand how these policies have been a major contributor to the massive drop in America’s rate of violent crime over the past 25 years. Or maybe, because many of them live in rich, all-white enclaves, the problem of urban crime will never truly register.
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