There were 40,000 arrests in 2014 (3,300 a month). In 2003 there were 114,000 arrests. Like I said, arrests are way down. This is worth repeating because it goes against a narrative that the riots were somehow the inevitable result of overaggressive policing and too many arrests.
Now of course arrests could be down and Baltimore could still be over-policed -- and the war on drugs continues to be the problem -- but even if over-policing were a problem, Baltimore and America is less overpoliced now that it was a decade ago.
I think we need to ask just what number of arrests would be around right. Generally. I don't mean this as a quota. And I know this doesn't help day-to-day policing. As a police officer, you don't make arrests based on some arbitrary ideal yearly goal. I know that.
But as part of society, as an thinking person, as an American, it's fair to come up with some rough number of arrests at which we can collectively say, "yeah, that seems about right." Because the status quo seems to be to criticize cops for making too many arrests, and then criticize cops again when they make fewer. What do we want police to do?
Take arrests in New York City. There were about 315,000 adults arrest year for the past 20 years. That's some variance, to be sure, but it's all in the same big ballpark. The number was lowest in 2003 (279,000) and highest at about 345,000 (in 1998 and 2010).
Questioning arrest numbers allows us to ask, for instance, what good NYC got from a 20 percent increase in arrests between 2003 and 2010? Not much, I would say. See, if you can keep crime down and quality of life up, certainly fewer arrests are better, other things being equal. Arrests are harmful to the people arrested and their family. Also, if nothing else, arrests are expensive.
Now Baltimore City went from 2,677 arrest in April of this year to what will probably be about 1,600 in May. That's a big drop. But policing in Baltimore has changed. And since crime is up, people are saying police aren't doing their job. But it does beg the question, what is the right number of arrests for a high-crime city of 620,000 people?
If you refuse to answer that, that's fine. But then don't complain that arrests numbers are too high or too low. And I don't want arrest number to be a goal. I can't state that clearly enough. But I do think arrest numbers are a useful crude indicator of discretionary police activity (not a very good one, but useful nevertheless).
For years, critics -- myself included -- said there were too many arrests in Baltimore. 84,000 in 1999; 111,529 in 2003. I don't care if everybody arrested was guilty of whatever. It's just too many arrests.
And then arrests declined (25 percent from 2004-2009). Homicide and crime also went down. Win-win!
But in 2007, the Baltimore Sun reported on declining arrests:
Some complain the pendulum has swung to the other extreme — police aren't doing enough to quell violence.But arrests kept getting lower. And so did homicides. Again, win-win.
Israel Cason... said it is less common to see police "slamming people on the ground, emptying their pockets on the street."
"You don't see that too much no more," he said.
The downside, he said, is that drug dealers are congregating on street corners again without getting challenged.
"They know what [the drug dealers] are doing, but [the police] don't do nothing," Cason said. Referring to free samples of drugs that dealers circulate through the community, he said: "We got testers out here every day, the police stand right there with them. They went from one extreme to the other."
Last year, 2014, there were just under 40,000 arrests in the city. Homicides were a low (for Baltimore) 211. Seems like job well done, right? But if 40,000 is good, is 20,000 even better? Well, not if that more recent drop is because patrol officers aren't able to do their job. And the department isn't willing to support them when they do.
So say what you want about the causes of the riots. (Myself, I like to blame rioters and Baltimore's too large criminal class.) In 2014 arrests were down 50 percent over six years and 65 percent from 2003. So it doesn't seem like Baltimore police are currently locking up too many people for no reason. Francis Barry talks about this in BloombergView:
If the riot was fueled by anger not only over police brutality but also police arrests for low-level crimes... it's a good thing the rioters were too young to light a match or loot a store in 1998 or 2003.It's actually well worth reading his whole Barry piece, and his earlier article, too, in which he takes on David Simon and points out, among other things, that "the national decline in arrests runs counter to the idea that America has become increasingly over-policed, particularly in poor minority communities." So what's the problem in Baltimore. Could it not be, at least in part, that criminals just don't like police?