'It's Time for Good Cops to Do Something About Bad Cops'

What do law-and-order conservatives propose to do about abusive policing?

Eric Thayer / Reuters

Several weeks ago, Heather Mac Donald, a leading defender of urban police officers, published a provocative Wall Street Journal article, “The New Nationwide Crime Wave,” in which she warned that “the nation’s two-decades-long crime decline may be over,” and that the most plausible explanation of a “surge in lawlessness” is “the intense agitation against police departments over the past nine months.” She argued that blame for the “demonization of law enforcement” and the ensuing uptick in gun violence is shared by street protestors, political leaders, activists, and journalists, and that although activists may embrace slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” black victims of street violence will suffer most intensely as crime rates increase.

Cheered in law enforcement circles and among her fellow “law-and-order” conservatives, the theory provoked fierce rebuttals from advocates of policing reform. Many objected that the article selectively highlighted unrepresentative data to suggest the existence of a nationwide crime wave. The debunking of a “nationwide crime wave” was decisive: the claim is unsupported by evidence.

But in one city, Baltimore, protests against police were followed by a sudden uptick in violent crime; and those hit hardest by the crime wave were black residents. For those reasons, the most charitable critic of Mac Donald’s theory might ask, “Does it offer any insight, if only into the city that most closely fits its narrative?”

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Conflict between the Baltimore Police Department and the city’s black residents is longstanding, and the nationwide movement to protest killings of unarmed black men by police has resonated in the city from the beginning, but no event looms larger over recent events there than the April 12, 2015 arrest of the late Freddie Gray. Local prosecutors who reviewed the incident have concluded that the 25-year-old black man did nothing to give police officers lawful cause to stop and arrest him, and that six police officers who loaded him into a police van for transport  committed criminal acts that led directly to his coma and subsequent death.

Anger over Gray’s treatment preceded the murder charges against police.

After he slipped into a coma and died, Baltimore residents took to the streets in peaceful protest. As that week wore on, isolated incidents of protest violence began to flare up. And on April 27, hours after Gray’s funeral, Baltimore exploded into riots.

Crime has since spiked.

“The city has experienced 100 homicides this year, compared with 71 at this time last year,” the Baltimore Sun noted on May 21. “It's the fastest the city has reached 100 homicides since 2007. Last year, the city reached the mark on July 4. Nonfatal shootings are up 70 percent with at least 19 people shot on Tuesday and Wednesday.”

Criminologist Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore policeman, says “in post-riot Baltimore, police have described to me how crowds confront police responding to even routine calls for service in the most crime-ridden neighborhood. Not only have criminals become more brazen, but policing is more difficult and less effective.”

He continues:

...today, several police officers need to respond to situations where formerly one could do the job. This stretches resources and prevents proactive policing.

Police are less likely to frisk for weapons or make discretionary arrests. In response, shootings and homicides more than doubled, literally overnight…  Hands-on policing deters some potential shooters from carrying and using illegal guns -- and a homicide postponed is often homicide prevented. When we punish and even criminally charge officers for even well intentioned mistakes, I think of the police maxim, “If you don’t work, you can’t get in trouble.” We need police to do more, not less.

Another criminologist, Eugene O’Donnell, lamented overly aggressive policing, but also wrote that “while there is no hard evidence that the nation is going to be enveloped in a tide of real crime, it has been far too easy for critics of the police to dismiss the need for proactive work to provide a sense of safety, particularly in the poorest, most abandoned American beats, like inner-city Baltimore. It is not irrational for officers to be cautious about engaging in enforcement activities when abuses are being discouraged, and this may keep officers from doing their jobs well.”

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The true causes of Baltimore’s spike in crime are beyond my knowledge. But I have no problem believing that diminished respect for police officers is one factor—or that a related factor is an aversion among some cops to assertively policing a hostile population. For the sake of the argument, let's assume both factors are contributing to a spike in crime that’s mostly harming blacks, as conservatives claim.

What I cannot accept is the fantastical notion that the Baltimore police department lost the support of the city’s black residents because of hostile politicians, activists, and journalists, as if criticism of cops is a cause of dysfunction in policing rather than an effect. “If anti-cop vituperation tapers off in the coming months and police start to feel supported in their work, the recent crime increases may also taper off,” Mac Donald writes in another article. “If the media-saturated agitation continues, however, the new normal may be less policing and more crime.”

Here’s an alternative theory. Today’s relationship between the Baltimore police department and the city’s black residents was determined by neither Obama Administration statements nor New York Times editorials nor liberal hashtag activists. Rather, it was determined by years of interactions between residents of black neighborhoods––the law-abiding majority and a criminal minority alike––and Baltimore police officers, including many who behaved like thugs (and many more forced into the impossible position of being asked to wage an unwinnable war on drugs). Law-and-order conservatives are happy to acknowledge Baltimore’s criminals but ignore the part of local police culture that is thuggish, brutal and lawless because it is incompatible with how they want people to think of authority.

Yet their silence is not hiding anything.

Local mistrust of and antagonism toward Baltimore police isn’t rooted in the national conversation. It is rooted in the fact that Baltimore police officers unlawfully stopped and arrested a 25-year-old black man from the neighborhood, tossed him in the back of a van, failed to belt him, and killed him with allegedly felonious acts.

Actually, it’s much more than that.

Had the treatment of Freddie Gray been unusual, his killing at the hands of Baltimore police officers most likely wouldn’t have sparked a day and night of riots. But many Baltimore cops had been abusing residents in just that way for years. In Baltimore police culture, cops practiced “rough rides,” failing to put seat belts on arrestees and then deliberately driving in a way intended to injure them. And many others within the police department failed to stop their colleagues for doing so.

“Rough rides” were far from the only kind of abuse.

Ten days before the riot, “hundreds of Baltimore residents gathered to air grievances over years of harassment, beatings and other mistreatment they say they have endured from city police,” the Baltimore Sun reported. “They turned out for a meeting convened by the Department of Justice to investigate, at the city's request, complaints about Baltimore's Police Department. When a former San Jose, California, police chief hired to lead the meeting told the crowd he wanted to know whether they ‘trust’ the city's police, a woman shouted ‘No.’ From that point on, dozens of residents—most of them black—inundated federal officials with their assertions that city police have been brutalizing residents with impunity.” Why do “law-and-order” conservatives almost totally ignore this key factor?

Hundreds of black people gathered to beg help from federal law enforcement, complaining that local police are brutalizing them with impunity, and prominent law-and-order conservatives want to blame antagonism toward cops on Al Sharpton?

That is myopia.

“Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil-rights violations,” the Baltimore Sun reported in a 2014 article that went on to detail some of the victims of brutality:

...a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.

Baltimore is a city where, in the recent past, the FBI caught 51 municipal police officers in a scheme that resulted in at least 12 extortion convictions. And “law-and-order” conservatives fault police reformers for the low esteem in which cops are held?

Just this week, Michael A. Wood, a 14-year veteran of the Baltimore police department who retired as a sergeant in 2014, took to Twitter to post several alarming examples of corrupt policing that, he wrote, “I've seen & participated in.”

They include the following:

  • A detective slapping a completely innocent female in the face for bumping into him, coming out of a corner chicken store.
  • Kicking a handcuffed, face down, suspect in the face, after a foot chase.
  • CCTV cameras turning off as soon as a suspect is close to caught.
  • Urinating and defecating inside suspects’ homes during raids, on their beds and clothes.
  • Summonsing officers who weren't there so they could collect the overtime.
  • Targeting 16-24 year old black males essentially because they have been arrested in the past, perpetrating the circle of arresting them more.

This is not a description of a few bad apples in a mostly lawful police department––it describes a rotten culture that cannot help but touch even good cops within it, who excuse rottenness just to get along. And it doesn’t take much empathy or imagination to understand that word of Baltimore police defecating in the beds of residents during raids must poison attitudes toward cops in the parts of the city that they shit on.

“Everyone knew it,” Wood said in a subsequent interview. “Any cop who has worked in Baltimore knows about it. You definitely won’t find a cop who has done the raids who hasn’t heard about it. They usually blame it on the dog. But everyone knows it goes on.”

Obviously, this context does not excuse riots, or gun violence, or attempts to kill police officers, who come in all varieties and deserve to be treated as individuals as much as anyone––many are doing an almost impossible job in dysfunctional bureaucracies they didn’t create and are trying to improve. But bad cops and abusive policing subcultures are a crucial part of the narrative that Heather Mac Donald leaves out when talking about one of the only cities where there is a clear relationship between rising hostility toward police and an increase in violent crime.

She is correct that Baltimore residents need good cops. They need protection from violent criminals. They need a healthy relationship with their police department.

But when she calls for a return to the style of policing used in the decade prior to Freddie Gray’s death, and to a president, an attorney general, a national media, and a liberal-activist base that spends no more time scrutinizing or criticizing cops than they did before Ferguson, she is urging the same conditions that ended in a dead 25-year-old and a riot after a decade in which grave policing abuses were ignored even as they became epidemic. Even if it were possible to go back to the pre-Ferguson status quo, why would we expect the replay to go better for Baltimore than what unfolded?

Law-and-order conservatives talk about a “Ferguson effect,” with protests of aggressive policing leading to meeker cops and a corresponding uptick in violent crime.

There is a “Ferguson effect,” but rather than describing a spike in violence after undue criticism of police, the term should denote an erosion of respect for police authority caused by years and years of abhorrent behavior by cops and enabling political officials who incentivize and then all but ignore blue-on-black crime. It is no accident that the cities to experience the most intense unrest after police killings of unarmed black men, Ferguson and Baltimore, were ones where even cursory scrutiny reveals severe law enforcement abuses. Circa 1992, one could have as easily called it an LAPD effect, when decades of egregious abuses supplied the gasoline and the Rodney King verdict the spark. The federal consent decree that significantly improved policing here may not have directly caused the subsequent decline in crime, but certainly did not appear to impede it. Perhaps aggressive federal intervention is needed to reduce abuses in Baltimore.

Writing in the Washington Post, Radley Balko says Heather Mac Donald implies that “people should just keep quiet in the face of what they perceive to be brutality and injustice, lest it embolden violence against the police,” and that she’s effectively telling residents of a city like Baltimore, where misconduct is well documented, “either live with harassment and abuse from the police, or live in fear of crime.” I don’t think she’d ever present that choice––I trust that she would see the injustice in it––but I agree that the arguments that she makes logically lead in that direction.

A better way forward, for Mac Donald and other law-and-order conservatives, is to start grappling with how to fix the glaring flaws of the policing culture in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, rather than ignoring them or sweeping them under the rug. What would City Journal have Baltimore policymakers do in response to a former police officer alleging that his fellow officers urinated and defecated in the beds of people on raids? How would the Wall Street Journal editorial board counsel responding to scores of police brutality  judgments totaling more than $5 million in payouts?

On policing, Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, wrote, “We don’t know all the facts surrounding Freddie Gray’s tragic death. But as a general matter, it is easy to believe that the Baltimore police are corrupt, dysfunctional, and unaccountable— because most of the Baltimore government is that way.” This was notable partly because it was a relief to see a prominent conservative applying skepticism to cops; and it was notable partly because Lowry didn’t actually know that Baltimore police are corrupt––though that’s been true for years and knowable to anyone with the slightest interest––and also didn’t feel interested enough to actually find out for the column.

But it was mostly notable because, having declared that the police department of a major city may well be corrupt, Lowry didn’t spend the next sentence (or a subsequent column) musing on how the corrupt bureaucracy with lethal force at its disposal could be made accountable. Instead, he wrote, “...it is easy to believe that the Baltimore police are corrupt, dysfunctional, and unaccountable — because most of the Baltimore government is that way,” only to continue, “This is a failure exclusively of Democrats, unless the root causes of Baltimore’s troubles are to be traced to its last Republican mayor, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, who left office in 1967.”

The column goes on to attack Democrats and their “failed model of government,” including high taxes and an over regulated economy. “The schools, predictably, are a disaster, run by and for the teachers unions,” he wrote, but never mentioned police unions. By column’s end, he seems to have forgotten about policing. “The imperative in Baltimore should be to think and act anew,” he concluded. “But the Left’s takeaway will be that there’s an urgent need for more of the same, as Baltimore and places like it continue to rot.” In fact, with respect to Baltimore’s police department, the non-libertarian right is standing athwart history yelling stop while the left is agitating on the streets and in the media for all manner of sweeping reforms.

So long as law-and-order conservatives continue to ignore, or act as apologists for, the glaring flaws of police culture as it presently exists, overdue reforms will eventually be shaped entirely by politicians, journalists and activists with whom they disagree.