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by Peter Moskos

May 28, 2015

"So what's the big deal?"

What's weird, at least to me, is that many (mostly from the political left) seem to dismiss the never-before-seen increase in homicides in Baltimore as just some random uptick. "You know," I've been told (and more than once), "violent crime is up in New York City, too."

Are you fucking crazy?!

Homicide in Baltimore is up 250 percent over-fucking-night! And that night, April 27, 2015, just happened to be the night of the worst riots "Mobtown" has seen since 1968. This was a time when the mayor said police need to give room to people who want to destroy. (To be clear, I firmly believe this is not at all the message the mayor was trying to say... but still, a good mayor doesn't let things slip from her lips that can be -- and were -- reasonably misinterpreted as letting people know that violence and destruction would be tolerated.)

April 27th was also (and this is more Commissioner Batt's fault) when police were confronted with some kookie young kids at Mondawmin Mall. The police, in riot gear, were told to stand down. I don't think police should go too quickly to riot gear... but when you do use force, you go in strong! Instead, cops charged... and then retreated. This was on order, say police friends who were there, of the high-command.

So the police charge became a half-assed charge. And 5 angry kids became 15 when police retreated. And then one more pseudo charge. And then 15 rock-throwing kids became 50. It was horribly policing, tactically. Horrible. (But not the only problem, mind you. I still want to know who the hell closed down the MTA and thus prevented school kids from leaving the mall?)

So on April 27th, 2015, there were riots. And fires. And looting. And then starting the next day, twice as many get shot. People, this isn't a fucking coincidence! This isn't something that was meant to happen. It's not like the Almighty wrote it. People on the streets, with guns, go up to other pull people, pull the trigger, and shoot them. So now, in a city of 620,000 people, this is happening one more time every goddamn day!

So yeah, to those who point out homicides in NYC are up 13 percent compared to the same time last year: whatever.

13 percent may be a statistical fluke. Or maybe it's not. Maybe we can live with 40 more people murdered annually in NYC if it is at all related to half-a-million other people not stopped by police. I don't know. But those are the discussions we should be having.

Here's the thing -- and this is what bother me -- I'm willing to discuss why crime is up, the role of police in crime prevention, what we can do to reduce violence, and the relationship between more aggressive/repressive police and less violent crime. I mean, that is kind of what I do for a living.

But I'm not willing to debate that more people are getting killed in Baltimore and that something changed because of the fallout from the death of Freddie Gray.

So the starting point for me is that something has changed in Baltimore vis-a-vis violence and homicide.

The reason some people can't accept this, I suppose, goes back to the fallacy that police don't really matter, except as agents of racist repression. This argument says that crime is caused by society and root causes (and not criminals, per se). If racism, unemployment, and even aggressive policing cause crime, than some are happy to blame cops, society, racism, Broken Windows, Bill Bratton, and everybody but those who actually pull the trigger and kill somebody.

Get real.

So here we have the most sudden sustained increase in violence -- overnight, mind you -- in American history (best I know... please, if you know anything comparable to this, let me know). Of course it has to do with the riots. Not directly the riots, mind you. They're over, at least for now. And nobody was actually killed during the riots, which is kind of amazing. This surge in shooting? It's because of politics and police.

Given that six officers were criminal charged for the death of Freddie Gray -- a death that certainly not all six of them were responsible for -- why would you go out and do more than have to?

What you have -- I can't help but keep harping on the failed "gang truce" so loved by the mayor and police commissioner -- is a police department that:

A) isn't doing much proactive police work (which means not doing more than answering calls for service);

B) isn't going hands-on with criminals hanging out on the corner so much (ie: not frisking people on violent drug corners means criminals are emboldened and guns are more accessible);

C) an understaffed force that has been reduced to about 2,200 (down from more than 3,000 cops when I was there -- doing more with fewer cops is yet another west-coast concept that hasn't worked so well in Baltimore);

and D) large crowds getting in the way of every routine call for service. (This means more cops need to respond to every call. And keep in mind that some of those getting in the way are responsible for the horrible increase in shootings. So it's not like cops are paranoid about the situation.)

Maybe I'll break those down more later, but let's just keep going with the 250 percent increase in killings.

I'd bet (though I don't know) that complaints against police are down equally dramatically. Probably the same 50 percent that arrests are down. Some say police arrest too many people. So fewer arrests should be good (it happened in NYC without a big increase in crime).... so if you believe that, please try and explain this increase in murders in a way that doesn't involve police. Or tell me what you want police to actually do. It's not a simple question. And I'm all ears.


Adam said...

Very well said. I'm sure most of the violence is attributable to a decrease in proactive, street-level policing. I would just add that violent criminals have probably also been emboldened by the widespread distrust of the police, which they assume (correctly, from what I hear) will mean fewer witnesses cooperating with detectives. I.e., now's a good time to commit a murder and not have anyone rat you out.

Unknown said...

Peter and Adam, why are you certain that proactive policing causes crime to decrease? Sure, it makes a certain logical, albeit abstract, sense: if people don't expect a pat-down, then they'll carry a gun...

But it is not at all conclusive that Broken Windows caused the great crime decline in the early 1990s, for example.

Murders are up and police have stopped proactive policing since April 27 -- that does not necessarily mean that proactive policing puts a brake on murders.

Another question might be, what are the costs for residents of keeping a neighborhood on lockdown? Does a policy of arrests and jail time on a massive scale not cause poverty and thereby more crime? Stop-and-search historically and today is a response to a perceived emergency -- but it perpetuates and deepens the emergency.

My guess is that many people in West Baltimore did not trust the police before April 27. And not trusting the police may also, as Adam suggests, be linked to gun violence. When the state lacks legitimacy, the outcome is bound to be violent.

What do you think of Jill Leovy's argument in Ghettoside? That when police fail to solve violent crimes -- and de-prioritizes them in favor of stop-and-search -- it erodes the community's faith in state-administered justice and can lead to young men taking the law into their own hands. Add in a disastrous Drug War that provides the tools and incentives for both police and some residents to scale up at that war, and the cycle of distrust, poverty, and violence continues and worsens.

Sorry for the long comment. I look forward to your thoughts.

Adam said...


For starters, I'd caution against conflating Broken Windows policing with stop-and-search or even with the "clear the corners" philosophy in Baltimore. And I suspect Peter would caution against conflating Broken Windows with zero tolerance policing. Baltimore used to have zero tolerance back in the O'Malley years, but thankfully that's gone by the wayside, and the number of total arrests has come down dramatically.

Today, proactive policing in Baltimore involves looking for guns and drugs and scattering suspected troublemakers when they congregate on street corners. Peter explained -- in his May 21 "Murder in Baltimore" post and in the comments section -- why he thinks the "clear the corners" approach can reduce violent crime. That whole discussion, which includes input from a number of cops, is worth a read. I don't disagree with Peter, but I think clearing the corners probably doesn't quell violence to the extent that police commanders believe it does. For what it's worth, Terry McLarney, former Baltimore homicide commander and now a patrol shift lieutenant, doesn't much believe in that philosophy. He once told me that "[the bosses] think if we keep these guys moving all night, they won't kill each other. It's an exercise in lunacy!"

As for stop-and-search, I can only tell you that I do in fact believe people are less likely to carry guns if they think they'll be stopped and searched. I have a friend conducting a wiretap investigation right now who is actually hearing people say they should carry guns because the cops are holding back. When cops aren't holding back, they employ a rather invasive style of proactive policing, involving pretextual car stops, accosting people on the streets, and stops, frisks, and full-blown searches--some of which are not supported by the requisite levels of suspicion. I *do* think that erodes the public's trust in the police. I don't know that it leads to young men "taking the law into their own hands", but it does reduce the amount of cooperation that investigators get from the public.

In my ideal world, Baltimore police would scale back aggressive, proactive policing in order to regain the public's trust, and then they would use that trust to solve more violent crimes. As it is, Baltimore's homicide clearance rate is abysmal. Detectives couldn't even get witnesses to come forward when a 3-year-old girl was shot and killed. Much of that reluctance is due to witness intimidation, but I think a lot of it is attributable to a lack of trust in the police. The trouble is that my solution is a long-term one, and one that would require politicians to accept a short-term (and by short, I mean several years as opposed to decades) increase in violent crime. That'll never happen, because the expectation is that when violent crime goes up, the police can spring into action and stop it. Well, they can't -- not unless they use all the tactics I just described. But we’ll go on blaming the police commissioner when the violent crime rate goes up, and we’ll fire him when he doesn’t find a quick fix. The next commissioner will get the message, and stop-and-search and corner-clearing – virtually the only plausible short-term means of combatting violence – will continue to be the order of the day.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Adam. I think I understand the differences between Broken Windows, clear the corners, zero-tolerance, and stop-and-search--at least I get that there are nuances among them as theories of crime control and prevention. The mandatory arrest quotas of zero tolerance, for example, certainly amplifies those differences.

But I think those fine gradations may be diminished in practice, since police appear to be up to the same things--dispersing corner-loungers, frisking and searching for guns and drugs--that they have done since at least the 1950s. It is entirely possible that from the perspective of residents the constant jailing for low-level offenses that came with O'Malley's zero-tolerance and the constant frisking and questioning of Kelly's Stop, Question, and Frisk amplified the police practices that they had always known and that continued in modified form today -- coercive police contacts on less than probable cause, the presumption of criminality for apparently no other reason than one's residence or skin color, etc.

This kind of policing has been a disaster for poor urban minority residents and their trust in law enforcement (not to mention, in many cases, a violation of their constitutional rights). I get that many police aren't too happy with this kind of policing, or don't think it is effective. I also get the sense of urgency-- that we need to do something about crime now. Ending poverty is not a viable short-term solution to the plague of black death. I get that.

But I fear that police speak out of both sides of their mouth when they say "trust us to do the job" and "don't blame us when shit goes awry." That might be more of a poor leadership matter than a rank-and-file problem, but police chiefs for decades have argued that they know how to solve crime -- that frisking our way to public safety is the best and most effective method. The public has been happy to go along with it because most don't have to live under the thumb of constant police surveillance and harassment.

It would help, perhaps, if police took responsibility when they make mistakes and also disowned some responsibility for the problem of crime -- it is not theirs alone. Preventing crime is an ideal (though a touch authoritarian for my tastes) but we can't seem to do it without deepening the urban crisis. Solving crime -- now that seems like something police could and ought to do. That would be a good first step toward easing the tensions between residents and police -- and making that relationship less adversarial, a la the War on Crime.

This has gone on too long -- and in fact, I think we agree more than we disagree.

Adam said...

Yes, I think we agree on a lot. You can see more of my arguments here. Now I will shut up and stop promoting my pathetic op-ed before Peter kicks me off of his blog, which is the only forum I've found that contains intelligent and balanced discussions of police issues.

Moskos said...

That's all very said.

And of course how to prevent crime is never an easy question. Right now I'm just trying to get people to accept that the increase in shootings is not just happenstance. It is very directly related to recent events and a change in policing and the policing environment.

Moskos said...

That's a great op-ed! And thanks for linking to it as I missed it when it came out. Though I disagree with some if it (like the "curtail order-maintenance enforcement" part), I don't have to agree with everything. It's always refreshing to read something from somebody who has walked the walk and knows the subject about which they speak! (As opposed to, say, people who balance general ignorance with a *very* firm conviction in their beliefs). "Intelligent and balanced discussions of police issues" is all I ask for. Well done.

Unknown said...

All of the activity had to have an impact on the day-to-day drug trade where the police, protester, and rioter activity was so high. (I've heard that dealers in other neighborhoods did everything they could to keep potential rioters at bay so they didn't attract police attention and dealing could continue.)

Could this be a renewed turf war among rival drug gangs over blocks where the drug trade was essential brought to a halt for a week? If nothing else, I have to think that overnight dealing was severely impacted city-wide.

Moskos said...

As to Ghettoside, I liked it. But I do have issues. First I think it's a great book in the way it goes deep, and presents people as, well people. And I like the idea that underpolicing is a bigger problem in the ghetto than overpolicing.

But I don't buy her idea that all problems could be solved if only every cop was a good as Mr. Detective. I mean, maybe he is Mr. Wonderful. Superman. But A) we can't expect all workers to be as good as him. And B) the case the book follows isn't typical because an innocent kid was killed. People were more willing to talk not (just) because of the detective, but because an innocent kid got killed!

You can't convict people if nobody is willing to testify. Sure, some cops are better at getting people to talk than others, but why *should* a person testify when one asshole drug dealer kills another? The risks are real. The benefits are non-existent. I don't have the answer, but I think the book inaccurately says that things would be much better if only all cops were as good as Mr. Wonderful. I don't buy it. And even it were true, how do we improve all cops?

Avi said...

Hey Peter,

This blog has been really useful in thinking about what's going on here in Baltimore, and its been really hard to find clear discussions of policing. (I just finished nursing school at UM-B and will be working as a psych nurse here in the city soon, previously worked as a journalist and had volunteered for needle exchange for a while, and marched in some of the demonstrations post-riotnight, but found the discussion in the city in the weeks following hard to parse.) I had a few questions for the readers here:

1) Brandon Scott, along with the DEA (although in a much more prima facie spurious way), has been arguing that a lot of the increase in violence since Freddie Gray can also be attributed to the mass looting of pharmacies the night of the riot. At least 20 pharmacies were looted. That's a lot of new, high-quality opioid falling into street-level operators, when combined with the policing slowdown and general unraveling of social fabric from the riot, could create a flurry of corner wars. Does that theory hold any water?

2) I haven't seen any deep reporting--and have been begging friends to do a tick-tock--on the tactical missteps committed by police on the day of the riots beyond the surface-level account of Mondawmin. (I've always thought the fact that it was the only day without scheduled protests didn't help.) But your (Peter's) account on the mismanaged charge and retreat indicates there was some serious tactical indecision--neither standing back nor stepping in--that let things escalate. Which leads to my question: What have Batts's errors as commissioner been, beyond lending excess credence to the idea that Baltimore has organized gangs (which was a thing he was doing before)? A family friend and ADA in New York said he needed to "crack more heads" but I kind of don't buy that and think that there's a more robust understanding of his strategic errors and incompetence to be mined? Is my sense that the Sheila/Bealefield combination would have been significantly more competent accurate?

Avi said...

Also my thoughts on Ghettoside
3) I think Leovy's book--which I've been pushing on all my friends for weeks and I'm glad to see a discussion of--makes arguments , which almost directly echo the first four or five episodes of the Wire (which I just started rewatching). I've also found it interesting that I've heard her on black radio and saw her on Tavis Smiley, but nowhere else even though I think her book might be the most relevant new book on this subject in the past year (Unless I'm reading the wrong stuff). And I'm curious what you thought of some of the arguments she made, and maybe you've made them and I should read your book, but I liked how it was very much located in the world of post-2010.
Here are some of the key points I took away and am grappling with, and wonder what you think because there seem to be overlaps and key departures:
a) The problem of racism and the problem of violence are in fact historically interconnected in key ways, i.e., the historically high rates of black-on-black murders even in the Jim Crow south, and this has a lot to do with a breakdown in trust in the legal system combined with economic dislocation (add in 18-30 year old men, and stir). I haven't read William Stuntz or Eric Makonen (sp), the two scholars she uses to construct this argument, but it seemed to me she made a compelling argument about the uniqueness of black-on-black crime in America that didn't shirk important economic realities nor did it fall prey to mealy-mouthed cultural explanations.
b) The notion that "preventative" crime control is not nearly as effective as retroactively investigating murders and shootings, and that these investigations are a form of "making law" resonated. (Also seems like The Wire, and police all over, have made this exact argument.) This means, according to the book's logic, that if departments can't make everyone into Skaggs they should dedicate more resources and status to units that investigate the kinds of cases where an asshole drug dealer kills another asshole drug dealer instead of plain-clothes interdiction units. I thought the book painted a solid picture of the family trauma and cycle of retaliation that occurs even when one asshole kills another asshole (and those assholes have moms), and also the piss-poor resources for witness protection and assistance. Curious how this differs from Kennedy's account and the way in which Bealefield identified policing priorities, and what Batts' approach was. How do you fix the underpolicing/overpolicing balance?

Ok too many questions and you don't have to answer all of them--sorry for the sloppy rambling.

Moskos said...

1) Maybe. But I doubt it. But maybe.

But maybe people are getting shot because they have a bigger stash? More robberies? I don't know.

I also don't like the "police slowdown." Because I don't think there has been any organized slowdown. But yes, policing has changed.

2) I'm too far away to tell you just how Batts has done a bad job in in specifics. But I think Batts was too much a political choice, not that great to begin with (where was his great success?), and he was not helped by being a west-coast outsider.

And I think there would have been no riots under Sheila/Bealefield. Both because of actions done that day and the weeks before. Incompetent leadership has consequences.

As to 3 and 4, I don't know how you fix the underpolicing/overpolicing balance. They're not mutually exclusive, mind you. But you first have to get away from the ideological extremes of both sides.

If you want to police to do more, you have to accept that bad shit will sometimes happen. If you demand police do less, you must be ready to accept that crime might go up.

Where I disagree with Ghettoside is that I don't think more homicide resources would made a huge difference. Baltimore used to have better clearance until Frazier (I think) broke up the homicide unit to increase diversity. Bad move. It's never fully recovered. But keep in mind that the city wasn't safer in those days. It's just that more killers were getting arrested.

It's not just about "solving" the crime. You can know who did it and still have no case. It's about S.A.'s being willing to prosecute. And about victims being willing to testify.

It might be true that better prosecution would increase testifying and bring the criminal justice system back to the hood in a good way. A positive feedback loop that ends up restoring hope and prosperity and lowering crime. But I just don't buy it.

You'll never have good relations between many residents and the system if those residents are actively or passively involved in criminal activity.