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by Peter Moskos

May 21, 2015

Murder in Baltimore

With murdered doubled post-riot, you'd think more people would care. I don't mean people in high-crime neighborhoods in Baltimore, they do care. It's all those other people who so righteously saw police as the biggest problem in the hood. Where are they, now that the murder rate has doubled?

Oh, and how did that "gang truce" work out? Well that hasn't worked out so well. Legitimizing and empowering gangs is not the answer. It's the Cloud Cuckoo Land idea, embraced by too many, that crime prevention can be purely collaborative and never confrontational. It's also a strangely insulting concept, especially when it comes from outside white liberals, that criminals somehow represent the community more than the police.

Yes, police can and should be more polite in their job. There's no reason to be an asshole on the job (which is not to say that some people sometimes don't need to get told off sometimes). But being a dick is not only wrong, it's bad policing. It makes the job tougher for all police. Still, more polite and empathetic and understanding police -- which can make non-criminals less anti-police (a more important than many cops want to admit) -- will not stop criminals from killing each other.

I think a lot of this comes down to the old sociology fallacies that A) police don't deserve credit for preventing crime, B) culture doesn't matter, and C) the only real causes of crime and what is perceived as bad culture are inequality, racism, and lack of opportunity. But the "root causes" did not magically change on April 27, when Baltimore burned.

After the riots and horrible leadership from Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner, proactive police patrol all but stopped. Why? Because all police work has the risk of going south. There's long been the maxim in policing, "if you don't work you can't get in trouble." I'm not a big fan of the thin-blue-line trope, and yet here you have a pretty clear cut case where police have done less and criminals have done more.

Racism in America and violence in America are two separate problems. To walk up to an enemy and pull a trigger is something some people choose to do and others do not. Somehow, lots of poor people -- even in Baltimore -- manage to live decent and even joyous lives without killing somebody. Calling out racism and racists -- a noble calling -- isn't going to save one black life in Baltimore. To see police as some kind of nexus between racism and violence is a tragic mistake. Baltimoreans aren't being killed by racists. They're being killed by each other (Freddie Gray being a notable exception).

In parts of Baltimore we pay police to deal with those people who think murder is an acceptable problem-solving methods. Police deal with these criminals daily because these criminals are hanging out on the corner all day dealing drugs. Some neighbors have the gumption to not like this. So they call the police. And in come the police to clear the corner. And that's what real police do.


Matt said...

Peter said. "After the riots and horrible leadership from Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner, proactive police patrol all but stopped. Why? Because all police work has the risk of going south"

This is the biggest disconnect between police and everyone else, with the added clarification that "south" is not an all-or-nothing concept. I don't think the average citizen believes that it's possible for an interaction to dip into the grey if a cop is well intentioned.

Adam said...


Do you think all of the people who hang out on the corners are drug dealers? And more importantly, do you think all of those drug dealers are murderers (or attempted murderers)?

And how does a police officer go about "clear[ing] the corner"? Order them to disperse? On what grounds, unless they are impeding the free flow of pedestrian traffic (which they rarely are)?

Do you wait for them to spit on the sidewalk? Or hope they open a 40 oz.? And even if they do something petty that amounts to an arrestable offense, should you lock them up? Would that be justice? Would you do the same if you saw someone spit or drink alcohol on a city sidewalk in Roland Park or Fells Point?

bacchys said...

You've had a number of cops- I have no idea how many or what percentage of the BPD they are- who have made their careers being assholes.

These are the guys who arrest someone for loitering who is sitting on the steps of his own house. Who arrest someone for having a knife that isn't prohibited by any law. Who decide to give a "rough ride" to someone because they don't like his attitude.

Perhaps if the "good cops" spent a little more time clearing out the assholes- instead of helping them assault people, like some did for Vincent Cosom- community relations wouldn't be such shit and there wouldn't be this kind of reaction and distrust when something bad does happen. Relations with the community wouldn't go "south."

It's the responsibility of the police to maintain trust with the community, not the other way around. This is a republic. The police are the servants, not the masters.

Freddie Gray isn't even the first guy to die in this fashion. He's far from the first to get injured this way. Every cop in the city who wants to know why things are currently in the crapper like they are need only look in the mirror to find one of the answers.

CollegeCop said...

"Perhaps if the "good cops" spent a little more time clearing out the assholes-"

The above is a great example of the prejudice Law Enforcement Officers face. It is no different from a white man saying "if the good blacks would spend a little more time helping the poor blacks".

It's how a prejudiced person rationalizes their personal dislike of an entire massive group of individuals, by assigning some form of "collective responsibility" to that group, and it's highly offensive.

As a black man I'm not responsible for what other people (who happen to have African ancestry) do, likewise as a police officer I'm responsible for MY actions not the actions of some cop I don't know in a state I've never been to, the only cops I'm responsible for are the handful that report directly to me (if they do something wrong, by all means tell me about it lol).

Anonymous said...

One thing that this whole thing has shown me is that Baltimore was/is a deeply dysfunctional police force so taking PCM at his word about the professionalism and legitimacy of the BPD was a fool's game all along.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I'm not a big fan of the "blue wall of silence" trope, but that's not because it isn't true, it's because it IS absolutely true and trumps almost everything else.

Moskos said...

Matt, I have little doubt that when those bike cops approached a drug corner at 8:30 AM on a Sunday, they were well intentioned.

They could have -- and in hindsight *should* have -- sat on their asses drinking coffee while watching middle-class women in fabulous hats go to church.

Instead, they were out there policing, trying to do their job, trying to bring a bit of order to drug corner.

It's inconceivable that they rode up to the corner thinking, "who can I kill today"? Now we don't know what exactly happened after Gray ran, but clearly things went south. Gray died while in police custody.

Some of the anti-police anger isn't just about Gray's death, but the culmination of the fact that police are out there "harassing" "innocent" people in the first place. If police activity, enforcement of drug crimes, *are* the problem (rather than an inevitable consequence of the war of drugs), then the solution is that police don't get any situation unless the good people of the city call 911 to report a problem.

Now the idea that police should only come when called is nothing new. It was the foundation of post 1960's new thinking in policing: police as a service industry; police as social workers; police as non-discretionary enforcers of the law. This false line of thinking says that crime is caused by society and societal factors (the "root causes") and police are a repressive structurally racist organization, a necessary evil.

The purpose of police was simply to arrest offenders after the fact. The criminal justice "system" was to punish and deter future offenders, as much as possible.

This failed model lasted until, I would argue, the 1990s Broken Windows approach in NYC.

If people are happy with a much a higher murder rate and fewer instances of policing gone bad, so be it. But I don't think this is a good tradeoff.

Now this isn't to say we can't demand and expect better policing. But the solution is not protests, riots, and indictments (though I'm not saying the latter is never necessary). The solution lies in better hiring standards, better training, and engaging with police officers.

What is happening in Baltimore is the opposite. What we have is a situation where, as Batts put it regarding Oakland: "the police department is seen as a necessary evil and the government spanks the police department because it’s the bad child."

Moskos said...

Adam, of course all the people hanging out aren't drug dealers or criminals. But most of those hanging out on drug corners are. Police generally know the difference, because they're there every day. (And police often know better than some residents, who assume the former and call police for every group hanging out.)

As to how this plays out, check out chapter 4 of Cop in the Hood. I describe it in great detail. Usually the cop pulls up in a car and the people walk away (to re-congregate a short time later). You also have great discretion to Terry frisk people on drugs corners, legally. But indeed, police action is somewhat limited, as prescribed by laws and the constitution.

So yeah, if they are criminals, and they don't listen, you find any bullshit reason you can to lock them up. And no, you don't police the same way in Fells Point. Because you don't have to. Fells Point doesn't have the same problems with violence. Different situations, the totality of the circumstances, demands different policing. That is what police discretion is all about.

I find that one of the things outside critics of police don't understand is the individual nature of crime. Every year in Baltimore 100-plus murders go unsolved. Every year, 100-plus murderers are hanging out on stoops and corners. Liberals in particular, I find, seem to think that bullets just magically fly into people's bodies when poverty and racism and hopelessness reach some arbitrary level. Liberals, somewhat ironically, do not give agency to criminals. Like the acts that lead to homicide -- everything from the motive to the gun to approaching a victim to pulling the trigger to being a lucky shot -- are preordained by the Almighty himself.

Police (more or less, mind you) know from which group of people the next victim will come. And from which group of people the next shooter is. It really isn't rocket science.

I always get a kick when the paper reports "A young male was shot. No motive is known." Well it's not some anonymous innocent person shot at random. No, it's Ray-Ray, who is there every day, who has a long record, who has been shot before, who knows who shot him and why. Ray-Ray will probably end up dead or in prison.

So the $64,000 question, then, is what should police then do with that knowledge? They can either engage in low-level harassment of known criminals and likely future victims (and offenders) or they can say hi to the nice people in the neighborhood while waiting for the next victim to be killed. Vocal people in society seem to prefer the latter right now.

So a great extent these problem go beyond policing. But given the society we have, what do want police to do? And how do we get police officers do to want we want (or anything at all) if all we do is spank them when things go bad?

Anonymous said...

So if you're right, the murder rate spike means very little cause these people were gonna die anyway. In that case, the low level harassment isn't about saving lives (your take) but just about playing the game so the police have something to do.

Moskos said...

No. Murder has a lot to do with the person you're pissed off at being with you or where you can find him.

If police disrupt that nexus (through arrest or clearing the corner), murder are often postponed, and hence prevented.

Groups of people also start fussing. You have any idea how many shootings result from dice games gone bad? (Well, I can't give you number, but more than you'd think.)

You know what's the best homicide preventer? Rain.

If only cops could make it rain.... sheee-it, you'd never see the sun.

(Interestingly, you might expect domestics to go up when people are cooped up inside, but no. They usually start when people come late late after being where they shouldn't be.)

bacchys said...

@College Cop:

That's garbage. As a cop you DO have a responsibility to enforce the law, including against your fellow officers. As a black man, you don't have any legal authority to enforce behavioural norms on other blacks.

bacchys said...

Arresting someone for "loitering" on their own front porch isn't "proactive policing," and it's a false dichotomy to pretend the only possibities are letting police violate the Constitution or having the laws enforced.

The knife for which Gray was arrested as the arresting officer described it was legal under the Baltimore ordinance he cited (and which was quoted in the arrest report). But they still arrested him. Per friends of mine in the BPD, they make thousands of those arrests each year for the same kind of knives. So you have thousands of people being arrested for possessing something that is legal to possess. How is that enforcing the law? How is that good policing?

Brian Harrington said...

I share @bacchys' frustration. In my neighborhood (Abell) we tend to have a good relationship with the BPD, despite being a bunch of DFHs. But when cops break the law, they need to be punished, and it does seem like there has been a serious lack of accountability for misdeeds that don't result in death for a long time. How many of the officers whose actions resulted in the settlements here http://data.baltimoresun.com/news/police-settlements/ are still on the job? Maybe we should take the settlement money out of the overtime budget?

And @CollegeCop, last time I checked, there wasn't a Black People's Dept, of Internal Affairs, investigating the bad apples. The closest thing we have is, drumroll..., the police. This isn't prejudice against LEOs, this is basic management. Instead, based on his actions in Carroll County, it looks like the Lt. on the scene in the Freddie Gray case had, at the very least, serious anger management issues. They were known to his bosses, and they kept him out there, in a leadership role. That ain't right.

But this actually leads to a serious question for Peter. I do think that proactive policing makes a difference, and we're currently undergoing something of a police "work to rule". With that being the case, how are you supposed to enforce discipline on the police force, and deal with the bad apples?

Adam said...

Thanks for responding, Peter. I'm familiar with the philosophy that low-level harassment is one of the ways in which police can prevent violent crime. I like to think I articulated that rather clearly in this this op-ed. My specific policy proposals could use a bit more nuance (I only had so much space to write), but I stand by my central thesis, which is that the public seems to blame the police department when it can't somehow immediately quell spikes in violent crime, and yet they decry the tactics that cops use to accomplish what is essentially an impossible task.

You may be right that a higher violent crime rate in exchange for greater privacy and liberty for those in heavily policed neighborhoods isn't worth the trade-off. But what I came to realize is that the people in those neighborhoods should decide. After all, it isn't *my* safety being balanced against *my* privacy and liberty. If the people are fed up with low-level harassment, as you describe it, then the police can and should stop doing it. But the public has to realize that it may come at a cost, at least in the short term.

bacchys said...

I'm having a hard time why it's "impossible" for the police to obey the law while enforcing it.

campbell said...

@bachhys: Come on, that's not what he said and you damn well know it.

Moskos said...

I hear you, Campbell.

Anonymous said...

The police look the other way or enforce selectively when it's their friends and family (or another cop even if they think s/he's an a**hole). Fine, that's human nature, but without some counterbalance to it, the police become a thuggish, corrupt occupying force. In more affluent neighborhoods (more likely "white", that counterbalance is money and political clout). In less affluent neighborhoods, that counterbalance ofter fails to materialize. If PCM (and Campbell) want to have a conversation then he better acknowledge the fundamental corruption/incompetence/inadequacy of so many actual police officers (it's not just one bad apple). AND stop trying to pretend that police are unaware of their colleagues who should be fired while doing nothing to fix the problem. Otherwise, we can continue to talk past each other.

Anonymous said...

PCM, I know you don't need/want a debate. Not very interested in one either; it's really more a comment about why I think you miss the mark with your blog so often.

Moskos said...

I love other people's opinions. That's why I keep this blog (I already know what I believe).

By "debate" I meant nerdy point-by-point policy-like response. Or logically but obnoxiously extending somebody's argument to change the subject to what they didn't say. And both the goal of "winning."

CollegeCop's point, as I understand it based on what he wrote, is that it is just as absurd to hold one one cop personally responsible for the actions of another as it is to blame one black person for the crime of another black man.

Indeed, he said, if somebody under his command is doing something bad, let him know. If he was the authority to rectify, he will. That *is* his responsibility. But such responsibility does not extend to supplicating oneself for the misdeeds of somebody with whom one has no connection.

To do so, in his words:
"It's how a prejudiced person rationalizes their personal dislike of an entire massive group of individuals, by assigning some form of "collective responsibility" to that group, and it's highly offensive."

His point seems pretty clear to me.

Dustin Lafe said...

Peter -- I respect you simply for having the patience to keep a blog like this going. The vitriol and ignorance spewed in response to your uniquely informed posts (that are based on both data, knowledge, and personal experience) is not something I could keep up.

As a former cop (who went on to grad school and a new career path in health care policy), I agree with pretty much everything you've posted recently. Cops are the red herrings for our society's current ills. The millions of respectful interactions between communities and cops are invisible, while any negative interaction is broadcasted to the entire country and held out as representative of some larger problem.

The current narrative is a bit like blaming the bullet for someone's death without paying attention to the gun that fired it, not to mention the person who pulled the trigger. What I would like is for influential people like you to emphasize the real causes and solutions for broken communities.

Above you say that the solution to bad policing is better hiring, training, and so on. But you know as well as I do that bad policing is not the root cause of Baltimore's ills, or even a proximate cause. The causes go much deeper and involve to a much greater extent the laws City, State and Federal governments choose to criminalize and the real kicker--how our governments choose to punish those who violate what has been deemed criminal.

Extended incarcerations and hefty fines, coupled with the stigma of felony convictions, makes avoiding a cycle of crime more than a little difficult. It also means kids will grow up without one or both of their parents as a positive role model for extended periods of time. And a bunch of kids grouped together without positive role models to guide behavior will adopt the norms and behaviors of those around them--gangs and drug dealers. It is as simple as that.

The biggest problem with blaming the police is that the solutions of better policing fail to address the actual problems facing broken/criminalized communities. We need to overhaul our criminal justice system starting with the myriad of laws in place criminalizing our behavior. We need to start with lady justice herself.

Moskos said...

I did, for what it's worth, write a book about our broken justice system and over-incarceration. "In Defense of Flogging." Almost nothing to do with police. Check it out.

Anonymous said...

"More than ten percent of black men in Baltimore's Eastern District are murdered! .....The risk of death is astoundingly high. .... more than 10 percent of men in Baltimore’s Eastern District are murdered before the age of thirty-five."


In the minds of many, this level of carnage does not justify instrusive, pro-active policing.

OK, then, what level of carnage (if any) WOULD justify it?

What if it were your neighborhood?

The way I see it, the inner-city majority is being terrorize by the thug culture minority.

It's too bad we can't have the Great Silent Majority of law-abiding people in the hood vote: Do they want proactive policing or reactive policing?

...keeping in mind, from a realistic standpoint, that proactive policing in a ultra-high-crime neighborhood will necessarily be intrusive and annoying to the citizens there.

Jay Livingston said...

PCM. I'm curious as to how police prevent homicide. I may be misreading the graph, but it looks like it covers about 20 days post-riot. That's 30 homicides -- 15 more than expected under the pre-riot average. Could you look at those cases and explain what cops might have done but didn't do thanks to the new policy, to prevent 15 of those homicides?

Moskos said...

Clear drug corners is what first comes to mind.

Anonymous said...


The de-policing of Baltimore has led to the increase of homicides. If your a police officer who feels your community, i.e. mayor/district attorney, are exploiting the Freddy Gray situation for politics and aren't going to treat you fairly, why in God's green earth would you do one iota of pro-active policing? Handle your calls, do the minimum, and wait for retirement. I believe we haven't yet begun to see the negative impact the politicians response to Gray will have on the BPD policing strategies for Baltimore. Stay tuned....


Matt said...

@ Jay Livingston,

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that you weren't being obtuse and merely didn't read any of PCMs many posts on clearing drug corners and the effects of such police activity.

Here is a National Institutes of Justice study on Hotspot Policing and the crime reduction effects:

Basically, the majority of crime happens in small, isolated, identifiable areas of a city. Police can use this information to proactively contact people in these areas where crime is most likely to occur, and the mere act of contacting these people, or harassing them as many call it, has a crime reduction effect. Think of it this way. If you are a burglar casing the business you plan to break into, and a cop rolls by, stops you for tossing a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, and identifies you, you are a lot less likely to burglarize the place you were just identified standing in front of while looking suspicious enough for a cop to stop you.

The same goes for other crimes. Cops use training, experience, and recent pertinent information to spot and stop potential criminals, identify them, maybe search some, maybe find a gun or other such contraband, but regardless of outcome, those who were stopped are more likely to pack it in for a while in light of the fact that a cop just identified them at a location and time making tracking them down later when a crime occurs nearby easier. Are people not prone to criminality going to get caught up and feel harassed? Yeah. Are criminals not intending to engage in criminal activity at that exact moment going to feel like they were being harassed? Yeah, but come on, really?

It is this proactive policing that has slowed in Baltimore due to the understood reality that all policing has the potential to go south and a justifiable worry by cops that they will be charged with a crime when things do go south. Just like the less you drive, the less likely you'll get in a crash: the less a cop does, the less likely he or she will have a situation go bad.

The argument of whether proactive policing is worth it or not is valid. In this very thread, Adam links to an op-ed he wrote questioning the value of this style of aggressive policing; if you haven't read it, you should. To say, however, that police patrol practices have no effect on crime seems willfully ignorant.

bacchys said...

A cop who witnesses a crime has no duty or responsibility to act if it's a fellow officer?

bacchys said...

Bad policing isn't the root cause of Baltimore's ills, but bad policing isn't rendered a non-problem because Baltimore has other problems. What looks to be going on in Baltimore right now is a semi-mutiny by the police department because some of their number are credibly charged with committing crimes. Baltimore's not the first city where this has happened, and it's not going to be the last.

This is a republic. The community doesn't work.for the police. The relationship is (supposed to be) the other way around.

bacchys said...

A cop who witnesses a crime has no duty or responsibility to act if it's a fellow officer?

Anonymous said...

Let's be clear, the main impetus of the police slowdown is not the concern that something will go south; the main impetus is that when caught doing something criminal while policing, they will be held accountable. My employee handbook states that when I come to work and don't work, it's theft.

Jay Livingston said...

Matt. I wasn't being obtuse, and I can see how proactive policing can reduce crime. But I also have the impression that homicide is different. Robbers and thieves may be looking for opportunities, and a cop can be a deterrent. But I don't think that murderers are out there looking for a chance to kill someone. Maybe I'm wrong about that. That's why I asked about the specifics of the 30 or so homicides in Baltimore and how proactive policing might have prevented them.

bacchys said...

A lot of things seem to get blithely swept under the moniker "proactive policing." The stats from New York's "Stop and Frisk" suggest the NYPD is either especially bad at spotting criminal activity or they didn't care if they had reasonable suspicion.

It's not sufficient to say "I know who the bad guys are." Because sometimes the judgement is wrong, and simply because someone is a "bad guy" doesn't mean he's up to "bad guy" stuff 24/7. One would also hope for more than "dehumanizing stare" or "furtive movements" as a basis for a stop. "Walked slowly," "Walked too fast," "Looked at us," "Didn't look at us"; these aren't really reasonable suspicion on their lonesome.

Vincent Cosom wasn't "proactive policing" when he assaulted Kevin Trull and then arrested him for assaulting a police officer. Or maybe he was. And maybe it was "proactive policing" that caused at least two of his fellow Baltimore police officers to assist him in assaulting Trull and falsely arresting him. It may have been proactive policing that prompted his other fellow officers who viewed the video of his assault on the city's blue light cameras to either stay mum about it (Batts's contention) or what the BPD brass was doing for three months that they sat on the video and did nothing to hold Cosom accountable in any way...except to further the prosecution of Kevin Trull for the crime of hitting Cosom's fists with his face. Of all of them, only Cosom is facing criminal charges (he pled guilty to misdemeanor assault), so I suppose he's the only "rogue cop." An isolated incident.


Matt said...


Sometimes murder is planned, sometimes it is opportunistic. Either way, stopping and identifying the potential murderer can encourage him to reconsider/delay for the moment, which can be enough. Stopping the potential murdered person can encourage him to leave and remove himself from the potential line of fire. Think of a drive-by scenario: stop the car before the shooting and maybe one guy has a warrant, you make an arrest, find the guns, etc... or you clear the corner where the would-be victims are standing and force them inside for a bit, that drive by is effectively stopped.


Do cops get it wrong sometimes when they attempt to profile criminal activity? Absolutely. Are some people better than others at some things? Obviously. Should we hold cops accountable for mistakes and downright bad/criminal behavior when attempting to profile criminal activity? Absolutely. Should we expect cops to be better at self-reflection and re-evaluation when it comes to developing their profiles of criminal activity? Absolutely. The difficulty in addressing all the "should" questions is what leads to opinions like Adam's that say it's all not worth it because, and I'm putting words into his mouth here, it is too hard for a lot of cops to do it both effectively and correctly. Cops want to be effective, but many just aren't good at it and haven't been trained properly on what to look for so they are over eager and make bad decisions. The key part of the problem is that the entire concept of profiling is taboo and training on the skill is left to the Field Training Officer/recruit relationship. Some FTOs have no skill or even interest themselves and recruits are left to figure it out on their own. A solution is to legitimize and formalize profile training by involving the communities of high crime neighborhoods and having citizens provide input as to what their own profiles are for danger/criminal activity in their neighborhoods when they're walking around. Then incorporate that information into the agency's formal training doctrine. Also be sure to follow up with the community regularly to review results and experiences and revise the training. I just don't think we should throw out the proactive policing baby with the poor profiling bathwater.