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by Peter Moskos

August 16, 2016

The DOJ is Right (4): The actual department is a mess (3/3)

[Continued from previous posts 1 and 2.]

F) And then there's the problem of recruitment and retention:
It appears BPD’s staffing shortage will not be resolved in the short term. We heard from officers, supervisors, and command staff that many officers join BPD to gain experience in a high-activity environment, and after three to five years, leave the Department for less-demanding and higher-paid positions with neighboring agencies.... This is a significant drain on the Department’s resources, as these experienced officers, if they remained, would be the future leaders of the Department, and critical to the success of the Department’s law enforcement efforts. The Department also appears to be confronting challenges in recruiting qualified officers -- it has only met a fraction of its goals for the 2016 Academy class. At least one of the Department’s background check processes -- its psychological testing -- has been investigated for allegedly rushing those evaluations, sometimes conducting psychological evaluations for aspiring officers in as little as fifteen minutes.
I totally aced that test. I still remember my doctor's name was "Doctor Outlaw," which I still think is a cool name for a doctor interviewing cops.

G) And equipment issues are more key than outsiders may suspect:
Officers suffer from being supplied with outdated, broken, or in some cases, no equipment. As one officer noted to the Fraternal Order of Police in a focus group, “How am I supposed to pull someone over for having a taillight out when my car has two?”

Officers have no computers in their cars, forcing them to return to the district station to type reports, and even those computers are often not working.... Taking officers off the street to type reports at the district takes away from time that could be spent on law enforcement or community building activities. It also creates inefficiencies for officers who often must write reports on paper in the field while their memories of incidents are fresh, and then type the same information into computer databases after arriving at the district station at the end of their shift.
H) There's good news and bad news about how easily some of these things can be solved:
Despite its budgetary issues, the City of Baltimore will need to make an investment in its public safety facilities and resources to ensure that officers have the tools necessary to properly serve the residents and businesses of the City.
The answer is money. Baltimore doesn't have too much of it.

Here's the thing. Cops work in a shitty environment. They know that. But accountability ends above the civil-service ranks. Why is that? Where is the leadership and accountability on high? Nobody blames the bosses -- the mayor and police commissioner in particular -- for the dysfunction of the department they control. This does so much to lower morale. It matters. Low morale is so much of the reason some cops become burnt-out assholes on the street. Where does the buck stop? Certainly not with the lowly patrol officer.

Now if your job were that shitty, you'd walk off. But police can't. The show must go on. No matter how bad things get, police have to go out there and make the best of it. Radios die, car transmissions don't work, your car gets a flat and there's no spare, computers are down, your uniform splits at the seams, and now body cameras are another can of things that can break. Despite all of that, one thing is certain: cops will go and answer the next call.

You can't fight City Hall. Cops get blamed for bureaucratic nightmares that not only do they have no control over. This dysfunction screws good cops and there's nothing they can do about it. You think cops like working with (the very small minority of really) bad cops? Hell, no. But the system has no way to get rid of them. So you make do. You have to. And then you get pissed off when one bad cop who should have never made it out of the academy, should have been fired, should not have been promoted -- this guy? He actually admits his racist crimes, and somehow people consider him the good guy and blames everybody else who was forced to work through his misdeeds.

I defend most police officers because I've been there. I've had to drive shifts with a car that couldn't go faster than 20 MPH. I've had to fill out forms. I've had to deal with citizens calling 911 to lie about me, I've had to work with cops I wouldn't trust as far as I can throw.

So fix it, dammit. Good cops want to, but they can't. They're tools in this system. And yet every day they get up from their bad dreams and go to work. It doesn't matter how bad things get, police will do their job, most of them professionally. If one thing is true is for police, it's that cliche: "the show must go on."

Maybe this DOB report will improve the department despite itself. Though I might be wrong, I doubt it. I suspect people will ignore this key section and just focus on eliminating discretionary proactive policing that saves lives. If policing taught me nothing else, it's that things can always get worse. Or, as has been said: "I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn't make it worse."


Andy D said...

" I suspect people will ignore this key section and just focus on eliminating discretionary proactive policing that probably does save lives. "

Well since that is ALL I have heard reported about the DOJ report (other than from you) I'm almost 100% SURE that is what will happen. But I'm a cop. we're cynical like that.

By the way this series of "the DOJ is Right" is by FAR the best reporting of this mess that I've seen.

Bill Harshaw said...

Does the police union not focus on resource issues? Or is it the case that the union works on protecting individuals against adverse actions and pay and benefits?

Adrian said...

as a non-unionized person in a police agency, my impression of police unions is like the boy who cries wolf. I remember growing up in a rich suburb and our police union was also whining about not having this or that (we had zero violent crime, they got brand new cars, etc.). So when a police agency really does need real support, that gets lost in the mix.

Unknown said...

Bill, police unions could and sometimes do focus on resource issues. Its a delicate balance though, every dollar spent on newer cars, working computers, etc. is a dollar that won't be spent on pay and benefits.

Unknown said...

"Low morale does so much to make cops burnt-out assholes on the street."

Hmmm. Something I've never really considered, but that makes complete sense if you think about it.

K said...

The idea of Baltimore finding more money for its police seems ... implausible. That said, surely something could be done for police to do their jobs more cheaply.

And beyond policing, lots of places decline economically (e.g. Detroit) and they really should be searching for ways to 'degrade gracefully' in terms of the services they provide. Maybe Baltimore could cede some territory to the county or state?

If the poorest neighborhoods had to create, and fund, their own police forces, what would they be like? Gangs?

Like a lot of other basic services (e.g. housing, education, healthcare), a lot of places don't really seem to be able to afford providing those services using 'best practices'. I'm inclined to cut those places a lot of slack – best practices can be very expensive! Instead a lot of those places seem to just never improve (because they can't really) and they also have to bear the brunt of opprobrium from everyone else in places luckier than them.