Tag Archives: policing

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.