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


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?”

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.”

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.

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This article written by Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic.