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by Peter Moskos

June 20, 2015

Corruption in the Baltimore Police Department

When I hear people, Commissioner Batts including, talk about the horrible institutional problem of Baltimore police corruption, I know they have never spent any time working on the streets of Baltimore. Batts certainly hasn't. He's the chief. He's separated by five thick layers of chain of command from the rank-and-file. And he didn't work his way up through that chain of command.

Here's what I saw. If you have no first-hand experience, please don't try and convince me otherwise. It's the old line about "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?"

This comes from Cop in the Hood:
Temptation is everywhere. Given the prevalence of drug dealing and the fact that drug dealers hold hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in cash, police officers routinely face the opportunity for quick and illegal personal gain. Police could get away with stealing drugs or money, at least for a while. But robbed drug dealers can and will call Internal Affairs. And officers with criminal dealings will usually be ratted out by another criminal. Putting a dirty cop behind bars is as good a get-out-of-jail card as exists.

I policed what is arguably the worst shift in the worst district in Baltimore and saw no police corruption. I know there are corrupt police officers. After three years on the street, one Eastern District officer stopped a man who drove his motorized scooter through a red light. The man had $6,300 in his pocket. The officer counted the money and allegedly returned $4,900 of it. The man called police to report the missing money and the officer was arrested and indicted on felony theft charges. One year later, these charges were dropped on condition that the officer resign from the police department and agree not to work in law enforcement again. When a cop is dirty, there is inevitably a drugs connection. Over a few beers after work, the subject of the drug squad came up. An older cop warned me to “stay away from drugs [in your dealings as a cop]. They’ll just get you in trouble in the long run.”

Incidents do happen, but the police culture is not corrupt. Though overall police integrity is very high, some will never be convinced. But out of personal virtue, internal investigation stings, or monetary calculations, the majority— the vast majority—of police officers are clean. A greater problem is that high- arrest officers push the boundaries of consent searches and turn pockets inside- out. Illegal (and legal) searches are almost always motivated by a desire to find drugs. In the academy, an officer warned the class, “Corruption starts six months to a year after you’re out of the academy. When you’re on the streets and you start shaking down drug dealers because they’re worthless shits.” Similarly a sergeant explained:

You’ll get out there, thinking you can make a difference. Then you get frustrated: a dealer caught with less than twenty- five pieces will be considered personal use. . . . Or you go to court and they take his word over yours. You’re a cop and you’re saying you saw something! . . . After it happens to you, you don’t care. It’s your job to bring him there [to court]. What happens after that is their problem. You can’t take this job personal! Drugs were here before you were. And they’ll be here long after you’re gone. Don’t think you can change that. I don’t want you leaving here thinking everybody living in this neighborhood is bad, does drugs. Many [cops] start beating people, thinking they deserve it.

Police officers are often in a position to hold various amounts of drugs and money. Legally seized drugs and money are kept in one’s pockets (carefully separated from personal belongings) before being taken to the station house and submitted in the proper fashion. Officers have to be careful not to make honest mistakes. They could put something in the wrong pocket. Something could fall out of a pocket. The night gets busy and they might forget to submit. Before each shift, police officers search the squad car for anything left behind.

Many residents, after repeated calls to police about drug dealers, assume that officers are either incorrigibly corrupt or completely apathetic:

I understand what you [police] deal with. But you got to understand. People see police drive right by the dealers, don’t even get out of the car. Or they [police] got them [dealers] with their legs spread [being searched]. Who’s to say you ain’t taking a little something on the side? You can’t have drugs on this scale without somebody letting it happen.

Police discount such accusations:

People get bad ideas from the media or from criminals that we’re corrupt or brutal. But we’re not. Or they refuse to think that their son could be involved with drugs. They want the corner cleared, but if we pick up their son it must be the racist cops picking on him because he’s black. And with the amount of drugs you’ve got in this area, of course they aren’t going to like police because we’re trying to lock them up. Too many people here are pro-criminal.

Even financially, it pays to be straight. A New York City police officer explained:

My pension is worth between one and two million dollars. I’d have to be a fool to risk that for $100, even $1,000. I’ll tell you when I’ll be corrupt: the day I walk into a room piled with drugs, five million dollars in cash, and everybody dead. For five million, I’d do it. I’d leave the drugs and take the cash.

Some officers enter the police department corrupt. Others fall of their own free will. Still others may have an isolated instance of corruption in an otherwise honest career. But there is no natural force pulling officers from a free cup of coffee toward shaking down drug dealers. Police can omit superfluous facts from a police report without later perjuring themselves in court. Working unapproved security overtime does not lead to a life in the Mob. Officers can take a catnap at 4 am and never abuse medical leave. There is no slope. If anything, corruption is more like a Slip ’N Slide. You can usually keep your footing, but it’s the drugs that make everything so damn slippery.


David Woycechowsky said...

I don't think that police corruption in the form of stealing money from suspects is a big problem -- it is probably as big, and as unavoidable, and the embezzlement problems that face businesses and non-profits generally. I think the reason that the police-stealing-money problem is as low as it is is because police officers are sensitive to the problem and knw allegations will be seriously investigated.

However, there are forms of corruption that don't involve stealing money. These are a sharply different matter about which officers are basically brainwashed to have a different attitude, which attitude is called denial. When I am curious about L. Ron Hubbard, I don't ask a Scientologist (or a professor of Scientology) -- let's just put it that way.


Len Neal said...

I was working construction in Chicago during the Austin 7 days: those guys were out-and-out thieves and criminals; but didn't represent the majority of cops. I did know a guy who got pulled over by them, and they demanded to see 'receipts of purchase' for his truck full of tools, which he obviously didn't have. They filled their squads with most of his tools, and smirkingly waved him on.
Thing is, cops out there knew they were doing it, and kept it quiet to protect the image of the CPD.
That was a very minor one: there were a lot worse, up to and including hushed-up, point-blank, personally-motivated murders. Even then, the majority of CPD were good people. It's just that Code Of Silence. Which is understandable: lots of people hate cops, and giving them ammo is just hard to do.
When cops do go corrupt, how do you get rid of them? There is no good way. There isn't.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing up the subject of police corruption. I work for a large police force in Northern Canada, but I've worked in busy urban centres previously. Of course we don't have the same level of inner city violence as large US cities, but much of what you write still resonates here. Nothing bugs me more when people toss around baseless claims of malfeasance. It just doesn't happen. And if it does, then other professions must be a lot worse!

Think about. Police have to go through an extensive interview and in most cases a polygraph to root out potential problems. Once on the job they are surrounded by people who have been through a similar hiring process. Imagine the social pressure to be honest within police departments if they are filled with honest people. And uniform police in particular are held up for constant scrutiny through the dispatch system tracking our every move, constant radio updates, layers of supervision, and members of the public following us around looking for a "gotcha" moment.

Add to all that, my particular police force has an outside civilian agency to investigate any and all allegations of police misconduct, even while off duty and still, with all that oversight, police are still corrupt? Wtf? Then every other profession without all those checks must be completely crooked.

Sorry for being anonymous, but my agency frowns on us publicly commenting on our jobs. In fact it can get us fired.

Peter Moskos said...

Having a bit of a Chicago history and some limited interaction with Chicago cops, I've always suspected that Chicago cops were more corrupt than Baltimore. I am talking about 15 years ago, mind you, but I was a bit shocked to have a Chicago cop I just met be surprised that I had never lied on the stand. This guy was working narcotics in the Robert Taylor Homes, so perhaps it's less surprising. But the fact that he told me this 10 minutes after meeting him made me think, "Wow. This is normal for him." I mean, I was a cop, but he couldn't be sure of that. It was part of the culture there. Maybe in some perverse way he cared more than I did. But what I saw in Baltimore was cops saying, "why would I risk my job to put some shit in jail when I don't even live here. He'll be in prison soon enough regardless."

As the the lack of a culture of corruption I saw, it's for all the reasons you say, anonymous cop. Now of course there are cops hired bad and those who go bad. But to me, and what I like reminding people, is every other job I've ever had, current job included, has more corruption and malfeasance than the police world I lived. And in none of these jobs, current job included, were coworkers eager to get involved or tell on their coworkers. This isn't to defend police corruption. It's to put in in perspective. It's like "shrinkage" in retail. It will always be there. And you attack it when you see it. But you can't handicap the whole organization to fight it. Because that fight, the pursuit for absolute integrity (the title of a good book on this subject, by the way), can backfire and prevent the good workers from doing their job.

So what do you do to root out corruption? More of what we have been going over the past 40 years. Since Serpico, we have, to a large degree, rooted out institutional police corruption. Integrity stings help keep officers on the level. More pay can't hurt. We should do a better job and seeing and investigating red flags (including too many arrests). Don't have rouge divisions (eg: Rampart) isolated and removed from the positive influence of greater police culture. And don't group small offenses (free coffee) in the same category as criminal offenses. Too many departments define universal and OK behavior as against the rules. You don't want to build glass houses around officers. It makes it harder to throw stones. And investigate for red flags (included way too many arrests and way too many complaints). Finally, end the damn drug war. Let civil society deal with drugs, for crying out loud. Getting law enforcement out of that dirty game would end the majority of police corruption overnight (In the same way that legalized gambling ending police shakedowns of numbers' runners).

Anonymous said...

Anonymous cop here again.....

Outright theft and corruption are usually signs of shitty cops who no-one wants to work with anyway. They get through the academy and the screening process then usually wind up on traffic where they can't any harm. Except interact with the public all day and give the rest of us a bad name. Because it's so hard to fire poor performers catching a guy doing a criminal offense.....such as stealing exhibits.....is almost welcomed since now there is something management can do to.

Canada is a much smaller place and we get to know our prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges pretty well. In fact we often join them for lunch up North when they come to town for court. I found it weird too when I first got here. All we have is our reputation on the stand. To throw that away for lying would be career suicide not to mention personally embarrassing.

It's a big topic and I'm stuck on a tablet so my comments aren't well elaborated. If I didn't say it before, thanks for your blog.