It’s not just Freddie Gray

The Justice Department’s new report shows how wide and deep Baltimore’s police problems are.

In Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire, a landmark TV drama centered on the Baltimore Police Department, a new gangster has been taking over the city’s drug trade. Normally this would mean a bloodbath, but strangely the bodies of rival gangsters haven’t been turning up. Eventually Detective Freeman figures out where a dozen or two of them must be hidden: inside abandoned houses that have been re-boarded-up using a recognizable type of nail. When he explains this theory to his colonel, he gets this response:

You’re asking us to call out half of public works, and pull the plywood off thousands of vacant houses, all so we can raise the city’s murder rate by 10%.

The Wire has a lot of underlying themes, but one of the key ones (particularly in Season 4) is just how badly the statistics-based management fad interacts with municipal government, where statistics never quite capture exactly what you want. Think about it: What measurable quantities can define a good education, an efficient transit system, usable parks, or a safe and livable community?

Worse, the statistics you end up trying to optimize largely come from the people you will judge by those statistics. So for them, it will always be easier — and more tempting — to manipulate the count than to genuinely improve outcomes. It’s easier to teach to the test — or maybe just to change the answers later — than to provide a better education on a smaller budget. It’s easier to make more arrests and give out more tickets — or maybe even to misclassify crimes — than to improve public safety.  And if the statistical goals are set are unreasonably high, even people who are committed to the public they are supposed to be serving might end up cooperating with deception, because fudging the numbers is the only way to avoid the unfair and destructive consequences of perceived failure.

That’s what Detective Freeman is running into: The gang-war murders have in fact been committed already, but they don’t show up in the stats if the bodies are never found, so until then no one has to explain to the press why the murderers haven’t been caught. Finding the bodies — a genuinely good piece of police work — makes everybody look bad by raising the murder rate. Why should BPD do that to themselves?

In real-life policing, optimizing “productivity” statistics interacts badly with another idea that sounded good for a long time: the Broken Windows theory. Broken Windows says that police can keep a neighborhood from turning bad by strictly enforcing relatively minor laws. By doing so, they maintain public order and keep the citizenry from retreating behind locked doors and leaving the streets and sidewalks to the criminals.

Baltimore’s version of Broken Windows was called “zero tolerance”, a strategy that (according to the Justice Department) “prioritized attempts to suppress crime by regularly stopping and searching pedestrians and arresting them on any available charges, including discretionary misdemeanor offenses.”

Put a statistics focus together with zero tolerance, and police start to have a predator/prey relationship with the community: When a policeman drives through a poor neighborhood, he isn’t looking for a way to help, he’s looking for someone he can turn into a statistic that will look good on his record. Arrest someone for loitering or jaywalking or driving with a broken taillight, and you’re having a productive day. If the stop turns into more than that, so much the better. Stop a fight before it starts, and you have nothing to show for your effort; arrest somebody for assault, and you’re doing your job.

A year ago, a Slate reporter took a drive through Baltimore with former cop Michael Wood Jr., who explained the motivations embedded in the system.

Now you have the background to appreciate the new Justice Department report on the Baltimore Police Department and its relationship with its poorer citizens, who are mostly African-American. The executive summary gives you the highlights:

BPD engages in a pattern or practice of:
(1) making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
(2) using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans;
(3) using excessive force; and
(4) retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.

This pattern or practice is driven by systemic deficiencies in BPD’s policies, training, supervision, and accountability structures that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of the federal law.

… The agency fails to provide officers with sufficient policy guidance and training; fails to collect and analyze data regarding officers’ activities; and fails to hold officers accountable for misconduct. BPD also fails to
equip officers with the necessary equipment and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally, and effectively.

… BPD deployed a policing strategy that, by its design, led to differential enforcement in African-American communities. But BPD failed to use adequate policy, training and accountability mechanisms to prevent discrimination, despite longstanding notice of concerns about how it polices African-American communities in the City.

 The background section on Baltimore is horrifying:

[A] recent Harvard University study found that Baltimore has the least upward mobility in America. In the nation’s 100 largest jurisdictions, Baltimore’s children face the worst odds of escaping poverty. … The City has nearly three times the national rate of lead poisoning among children. … This past year reflected a notable surge in violence. On a per-capita basis, 2015 was the deadliest year in Baltimore’s history with 344 homicides. The City’s overall gun violence increased more than 75 percent compared to the previous year, with more than 900 people shot.

BPD itself is largely an external force:

Most BPD officers are neither originally from Baltimore nor live in the City, and many commute long distances to work at the Department. Indeed, BPD leadership informed us that roughly three-fourths of BPD officers live outside the Baltimore City limits.

DoJ documents BPD’s predator/prey relationship with the community.

BPD’s law enforcement practices at times exacerbate the longstanding structural inequalities in the City by encouraging officers to have unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members that increase exposure to the criminal justice system and fail to improve public safety.

… BPD frequently makes investigative stops without reasonable suspicion of people who are lawfully present on Baltimore streets. During stops, officers commonly conduct weapons frisks — or more invasive searches — despite lacking reasonable suspicion that the subject of the search is armed. These practices escalate street encounters and contribute to officers making arrests without probable cause, often for discretionary misdemeanor offenses like disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, trespassing, and failure to obey.

… These and similar arrests identified by our investigation reflect BPD officers exercising nearly unfettered discretion to criminalize the act of standing on public sidewalks.

and the role of statistics:

One of the reasons that the intended move away from zero tolerance policing has not sufficiently curbed BPD’s practice of unconstitutional street-level enforcement is a persistent perception among officers that their performance continues to be measured by the raw numbers of stops and arrests they make, particularly for gun and drug offenses. Many officers believe that the path to promotions and favorable treatment, as well as the best way to avoid discipline, is to increase their number of stops and make arrests for these offenses. By frequently stopping and searching people they believe might possess contraband, with or without requisite reasonable suspicion, officers aim to improve their statistical output, which will in turn reflect favorably in their performance reviews. … Other officers told us that they were denied the opportunity to work overtime because supervisors believed they did not make enough stops and arrests.

But of course, you can’t boost your numbers by manufacturing charges against middle-class white people. As the Slate narrator (Leon Neyfakh) summarizes:

To close out our tour, Mike took me to a part of Baltimore that was very different from everything we’d seen so far: a white neighborhood on the north side of town, where he was transferred after about four years on the force. He found the contrast astonishing. He also found it difficult to make his numbers, because all of a sudden he didn’t have anyone to arrest. His solution? Drive two blocks away, to a part of town where he could easily find young black men.

The DoJ report validates that observation:

Statistical evidence shows that the Department intrudes disproportionately upon the lives of African Americans at every stage of its enforcement activities. BPD officers disproportionately stop African Americans; search them more frequently during these stops; and arrest them at rates that significantly exceed relevant benchmarks for criminal activity. African Americans are likewise subjected more often to false arrests. Indeed, for each misdemeanor street offense that we examined, local prosecutors and booking officials dismissed a higher proportion of African-American arrests upon initial review compared to arrests of people from other racial backgrounds. BPD officers also disproportionately use force — including constitutionally excessive force — against African-American subjects. Nearly 90 percent of the excessive force incidents identified by the Justice Department review involve force used against African Americans.

This is where the process goes from here:

The Department of Justice and the City have entered into an Agreement in Principle that identifies categories of reforms the parties agree must be taken to remedy the violations of the Constitution and federal law described in this report. Both the Justice Department and the City seek input from all communities in Baltimore on the reforms that should be included in a comprehensive, court-enforceable consent decree to be negotiated by the Justice Department and
the City in the coming months, and then entered as a federal court order.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • christine7935gmailcom  On August 15, 2016 at 11:03 am

    There’s a parallel here to physicians and hospitals refusing to perform higher risk surgery because it jeopardizes the outcome rates on which they are judged. Statistics in a vacuum are only one part of a decision process. Time we remember that.

    Sent from my iPad


  • M. George  On August 15, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    And of course, it isn’t just Baltimore. It’s pretty much anywhere the DoJ investigates. I’m sure you saw this Vox article: It looks like the whole country needs to think seriously about what, exactly, is the job we want our police to do.

  • R. L. Synthesis (@RLSynthesis)  On August 15, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    Until your ultimate solution of Democratic Socialism is achieved, you might have to reluctantly accept that the easily abused “proactive policing” of petty crime may be the most effective means available to police departments today to reduce more serious crime in poor neighborhoods.

    When Baltimore police virtually stopped making drug arrests last year following the Freddie Gray riots, shootings soared. This so-called “Ferguson effect” has been corroberated in several other cities.

    • WX Wall  On August 16, 2016 at 7:21 am

      Here is my problem with that WSJ article: it conflates BLM / Ferguson with the ACLU. BLM and the Ferguson rioters were protesting 1) unarmed citizens being shot by police and 2) those cops not being punished. If either of these two things weren’t happening, there’d be no BLM nor massive riots. The Ferguson riots were not protesting some 16 year old kid who was stopped and frisked.

      In response to BLM and Ferguson, the police decided that instead of dealing with #1 or #2 above, they would just stop all proactive policing. Whether or not this led to an increase in crime, this was *not* what BLM was asking for.

      In fairness, you can say that lots of BLM supporters *also* support banning stop-and-frisk. But they have for decades (like the ACLU). Why have the police decided now to stop those measures when the real issue is when they kill someone they intended to just stop-and-frisk?

      Quite frankly, even if they shoot an unarmed civilian in a routine stop, if that cop was investigated and appropriately disciplined for doing that (which should be criminal charges), then I suspect lots of people (including me) would be willing to cut the cops some slack, that they’re at least *trying* to get rid of their so-called bad apples and acknowledge and deal with their deadly mistakes. Shooting someone in the heat of the moment can be understood. Avoiding the consequences of that in the ensuing investigation is inexcusable. It’s the combination of people getting shot far too often, with police depts unwilling to discipline their own, that’s the real issue.

      If the WSJ really believes in a Ferguson effect, they should blame police depts for stopping effective policing tactics instead of dealing with the real source of the outrage fueling BLM.

      • R. L. Synthesis (@RLSynthesis)  On August 17, 2016 at 7:45 am

        My concern is to avoid having the lay Court of Public Opinion setting impossibly high standards which could have a chilling effect on the kind of proactive officer engagement that has a measurable effect on the reduction of serious crime.

        I might infer from your comments that my standards are lower than yours, in that the shooting of someone not actively holding a weapon (“unarmed”) may still be justifiable – particularly if the assailant is being antagonistic or otherwise not in 100% compliance with the verbal instruction of the officer – as they could still posess an accessible concealed weapon or pose some other physical threat. Charging towards an officer, as Michael Brown may have done in Ferguson, is downright suicidal – “unarmed” or not.

      • WX Wall  On August 17, 2016 at 11:07 am

        I guess I do have a higher standard, although I’d hardly call it impossible to meet in a case like the Kinsey case in North Miami where Kinsey was literally lying motionless on the ground with his hands in the air saying he’s unarmed and was still shot.

        For me personally what has truly disgusted me has been the routine falsifying of encounter reports that we see time and time again in these instances. Like I said, I do understand that cops have a tough job and walk a fine line, and realize that 99% of the time, they do an admirable job.

        But there is absolutely no excuse for the suppression of a full investigation or the falsifying of police reports like the Laquan Donald case, or the Scott case in South Carolina where the offending officer *and* his partner blatantly lied in their reports.

        In light of growing evidence that police routinely falsify the reports of their encounters and suppress investigations into their own misconduct, how can we continue to dismiss the assertions of BLM that these incidents are far more common and far less justified than cops tell us?

        At the end of the day, it’s not BLM that has caused growing mistrust and resistance to cops. It’s their fellow officers who have unjustifiably shot and killed citizens they’re supposed to protect, then lied about it afterwards, then walked away without the investigations required by current rules.

        I feel for the officers trying to do their jobs properly that days (which I fully agree is the vast majority of them). But their discomfort is caused by the actions of their fellow officers, not protestors calling out their actions.

      • 1mime  On August 17, 2016 at 11:43 am

        When police unions oppose officers wearing cameras, that hurts their credibility. Cameras should be a standard required piece of equipment, just as important as their badges and guns. One would think that cameras would validate good police tactics and provide documentation of poor/bad police behavior. Shouldn’t “good” cops and responsible police unions want this?

    • weeklysift  On August 18, 2016 at 7:59 am

      I made my argument against this narrative last summer in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice”. I refuse to believe that the only alternative to bad policing is no policing.


  • By From the Beginning | The Weekly Sift on August 15, 2016 at 11:41 am

    […] Will Survive This, With Damage” about the even-darker turn in the Trump campaign, and “It’s not just Freddie Gray” about the Department of Justice’s report on the Baltimore Police […]

  • By Worrying About Progress | The Weekly Sift on March 6, 2017 at 11:15 am

    […] words, there will be no future investigations like the ones Obama’s DoJ did into Ferguson or Baltimore or Chicago police. So the next time there is a police killing like Michael Brown or Freddie Gray or […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: