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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.