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by Peter Moskos

May 29, 2015

Too many? Too few? Or just right?

Arrests are way down in Baltimore. But not just this month (though they are) but over many years.

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.

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."
But arrests kept getting lower. And so did homicides. Again, win-win.

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?


Alex Elkins said...

Quick thought on your last point about the riots before I go read the Barry articles, which look interesting. I study the 1960s uprisings. In the decade preceding the riots, many urban departments embraced preventive policing by orchestrating (fairly sophisticated for the time) campaigns of field interrogations, or a cruder version of stop-and-frisk. Many, though not all, departments stepped up wholesale arrests, investigative arrests, and a variety of dragnet practices. Then came the Warren Court's major decisions -- particularly Mapp in 1961 -- which forced them to stop the mass detentions on less than probable cause. Then came public pressure -- in the form of civil rights protests and judicial scrutiny -- which also forced some departments to ease up on mass raids and indiscriminate arrests. Arrests for vagrancy and disorderly conduct, however, remained fairly steady throughout the 1960s, until state and federal courts, one by one, found them unconstitutional, culminating in the 1972 Papachristou decision by the US Supreme Court. By 1964, stop and frisk to some degree had replaced the investigative arrest and the mass raid.

Policing was becoming a touch gentler and more careful -- but it was still pretty violent. Rochester and Philadelphia police had to be told by their respective civilian review boards to use handcuffs more regularly, so they would not be "forced" to beat up suspects to subdue them. Many police -- three-fourths according to Reiss -- also held racist views.

Despite the lightening of the dragnet and greater attention to police-community relations, we get one of the worst periods of urban unrest in history of the United States *after* 1964 -- not in 1931, when the Wickersham Commission condemned the nation's police departments, not in 1951, the year of "We Charge Genocide." No, in 1964 -- three years after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said that police brutality had declined but remained a serious national problem.

It's tough to explain anti-police protest-riots in terms of a shift in tactics alone. First, the memory of police harassment and violence is long in communities most systematically on the receiving end of hated tactics. Though the dragnet "softened," police killings continued and brought people into the street to protest and riot. Plus, beginning in 1964, New York State and then others passed "stop-and-frisk" statutes, formalizing a dragnet regime hated by many in the communities most aggressively targeted.

Arrests -- their rise and fall -- are not enough to explain why people riot *against* the police. Riots have a lot to do with the political climate as well -- there usually has to be something to be gained by rioting, some measure of public support and state interest expected on the other side. Also just because arrests declined in aggregate after O'Malley does not mean that pockets of saturated policing did not remain thereafter.

Sometimes -- and this is just a theory, obviously -- riots erupt after a hated repression regime loosens its grip. Things have gotten better, but they're still bad.

Andy D said...

Does the most recent decline in arrests have anything to do with the Decriminalization of Marijuana under 10 grams that took effect October 2014? I know Marijuana was never a big Baltimore crime issue but were there a lot of stops where while clearing a corner or investigating a disturbance someone who needed to take a ride got hooked for a bag or two of weed? Could the fact that an arrest can no longer be made for that be working its way into the police culture and so driving the already declining numbers down even further?

Peter Moskos said...

Interesting. Both posts.
Andy, regarding marijuana. I don't think so. I haven't heard that come up in any conversation with a BPD. There's still loitering, after all.

Thos Wallace said...

Too many ... too few?

"here is much of value in On the Run, especially as it reveals the terrible consequences of brutal- and over-policing in minority neighborhoods. Like most others, I was impressed by the effusive early reviews. Betts’s Slate essay, however, caused me to be skeptical when reading the book a few weeks ago, which turned into outright astonishment when I reached the unrepentant account of her late-night vendetta rides." http://newramblerreview.com/book-reviews/law/ethics-on-the-run

Just read a review of 'On the Run'. I don't follow stuff like this closely. However, it looks like she made up a lot of her 'ethnography'? By 'made up', I mean the good stuff. The kind of thing that people react to by saying, "you couldn't make that up".

For example, the UVA rape (hoax) charges that disappeared into thin air once the Washington Post sent in a few reporters to ask questions face to face. It was odd that one of the first and strongest reactions was, 'even if it didn't happen, it could have happened.' To which I would answer ... if it could have happened (because that is the way the world works) it DID HAPPEN, so find when it did happen and report that.

In my opinion, ethnography just isn't a difficult concept. You show up, watch what is going on, talk to people, keep notes, and write it down. Not that there isn't anything more to it than that ... but stuff like taking notes and caring about accuracy and facts ... is basic stuff.

To get to the point: This particular reviewer of the book now being called into question, pays a lot of attention to the things he knows about. And finds them unbelievable. And bases his review on this.

But then he says: "brutal - and over-policing in minority neighborhoods."

Like that is a fact ... or like, of course it is going on. It seems to me that it is at least as likely that residents feel like they are under-policed. Does anyone ask them? Other than those that show up as spokesmen of the community on CNN or activists or the relative of someone that has just been the victim of something awful.

If I were to make a generalization about this ... the more someone actually knows about something, the less likely they are to think that any conventional points of view .. the stuff that shows up in the popular press or alternative media or whatever, are plausible. And reality is a lot more complex than anyone wants it to be. And when people are trying to label the good guys and the bad guys ... it is never that easy.

I don't have any great ideas. Except to push back strongly against the popular zombie facts. You could always get lucky and kill one off.

Peter Moskos said...

I don't think Alice made stuff up because, like cop stories, why would she have to? I think there's too much good in her book that I hate to quibble with what are, in the grand scheme, minor flaws. Plus, I know and like Alice, which also gives me reason to trust her.

The whole idea that she was almost an accessory to murder is a valid point to bring up (ethically, morally, personally) but I don't think it makes the book any worse.

Do I think the book was too anti-cop? Well, yes. But that doesn't mean it's not true. She was presenting a certain perspective which I believe is very true from that perspective. She spent years there. I think she's saying a lot of things that others, less articulate, have been trying to say. But she is a good academic who has access to publish and get press. Nothing wrong with that.

She thinks the people she befriended over the years were basically good people. I think the cops I worked with over the years are basically good people. They aren't necessarily mutually exclusive viewpoints.

Personally, I would have loved it if her and my research could have coincided in the same time and place. That's never been done before in ethnography.