Why Baltimore Police Have 'Stopped Noticing Crime'

An interesting news story ran in Thursday’s USA Today. “Baltimore police stopped noticing crime after Freddie Gray's death,” read the headline. “A wave of killings followed.”

What I found most interesting about it, though, was not the facts that were reported but rather that anyone should have found them surprising. “Just before a wave of violence turned Baltimore into the nation’s deadliest big city,” the story begins, “a curious thing happened to its police force: officers suddenly seemed to stop noticing crime.”

The story goes on to describe how Baltimore’s police officers reported seeing fewer drug dealers out and about, fewer traffic violators, fewer people with arrest warrants, fewer of any type of person who previously would have attracted their attention. Note that the story does not say there were fewer of these lawbreakers, only that the police did not report seeing as many.

Surely if the officers were being candid, they would say they saw just as many as ever, but that they made the decision not to do anything about them.

And who can blame them?

For about one third of my career with the Los Angeles Police Department, I was a uniformed sergeant at four different stations in the city. The challenge I and my fellow supervisors faced every day was how to motivate the officers in our charge to go out and practice the type of proactive police work that reduces crime and the fear of crime for the law-abiding citizenry. To that end, we had to make sure the officers were properly trained and equipped for the mission. Equally as important, we had to instill in them the belief that if they received a complaint (and complaints are a tool for lawbreakers to inhibit police activity), it would be investigated fairly and expeditiously.

The most difficult times I faced during my years with the LAPD were during the years Bernard Parks served as its chief. Parks, in an overreaction to the Rampart scandal (which, though a genuine scandal, was confined to a handful of officers at a single police station), had disbanded the LAPD’s gang units and instituted a disciplinary system that placed a penalty on proactive police work. It was under Chief Parks that I attended a supervisors’ meeting after a week in which my patrol division had seen four murders and a wave of lesser crimes. Despite these grim statistics, not a single word at this meeting touched on the subject of crime. What did we talk about? Citizen complaints. And even at that we didn’t discuss them in terms of the corrosive effect they were having on officer morale. Instead, we talked about the processing of the paperwork and the minutia of formatting the reports. Fighting crime, it seemed, had taken a back seat to dealing with citizen complaints, even the most frivolous of which required hours and hours of a supervisor’s time to investigate and complete the required reports.

As one might have expected, officers reacted to these disincentives by practicing “drive-and-wave” policing. Yes, they responded to radio calls as ever, but it became all but impossible to coax them out of their cars to investigate suspicious activity when they came upon it. As one might also have expected, the crime numbers reflected this change in police attitudes. Violent crime, which had been falling for seven years, began to increase and continued to increase until Bernard Parks was let go and replaced by William Bratton.

Which brings us back to Baltimore, where, USA Today informs us, 342 people were murdered in 2017, bringing its murder rate to an all-time high and making it the deadliest large city in America. (Baltimore’s population last year was about 611,000. In Los Angeles, by comparison, with a population of about 3.8 million, there were 293 murders last year.)

The Baltimore crime wave can be traced, almost to the very day in April 2015, that Freddie Gray, a small-time drug dealer and petty criminal, died in police custody. When Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby made the ill-considered decision to charge six officers in Gray’s death, she sent a clear message to the rest of the city’s police officers: concerns about crime and disorder will be subordinated to the quest for social justice.

As was the case in Los Angeles years ago, the result was entirely predictable. Officers disengaged from proactive police work, minimizing their risk of being the next cop to be seated in the defendant’s chair in some Marilyn Mosby show trial. The prevailing thought among Baltimore’s cops was something like this: They can make me come to work, they can make me handle my calls and take my reports, but they can’t make me chase the next hoodlum with a gun I come across, because if I chase him I might catch him, and if I catch him I might have to hit him or, heaven forbid, shoot him. And if that happens and Marilyn Mosby comes to the opinion that I transgressed in any way . . . well, forget it. Let the bodies fall where they may, and I’ll be happy to put up the crime-scene tape and wait for the detectives and the coroner to show up.

None of this is to excuse the corruption that has been uncovered in the Baltimore Police Department, the result not only of moral defects in the involved cops but also of spectacular failures in the agency’s leadership. But it is the political establishment of Baltimore that allowed the Police Department to go so far astray, to the horror of the city’s honest cops and its vulnerable citizens.

The people of Baltimore, at least those who have supported this political establishment, have gotten what they wanted. The police are stopping fewer people and getting fewer complaints, and if the price to be paid is an all-time high murder rate, that’s just the cost of social justice. For this to change, some brave politician is going to have to stand up and say, “Enough.”