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by Peter Moskos

February 13, 2018

Baltimore police trial: guilty

Yesterday the verdict came out. I wrote this op-ed for the Washington Post:
This current scandal is more than a case of a few bad apples, though bad apples they were. These officers acted with impunity until the FBI caught wind of their actions through an unrelated criminal investigation in Pennsylvania. A specialized police unit cannot survive for years as a criminal enterprise without the implicit — or overt — acquiescence of higher-ups. Effective leadership could have prevented this. Bad leadership has consequences.
Corrupt units tend to be specialized and selective. Once murky rumors begin about a unit or officer, good cops stay away for fear of trouble. The corrupt and brutal cops work together, as I once heard, as if pulled together by some magnetic force. You don’t just randomly get assigned to a plainclothes “gun trace task force.” This unit segregation removes officers from the otherwise corrective influence of the honest rank and file. There is no formal colleague review in policing; perhaps there should be.

Honest cops — still the vast majority — avoid trouble, as any citizen should hope. The rank and file cannot be blamed for keeping their noses clean, especially when unresolved questions remain about the integrity of internal affairs and the prosecutor’s office. These officers in Baltimore were guilty, but the systemic problems represent a failure of leadership, the same leadership that absolved itself of responsibility by inviting the Justice Department to investigate after Freddie Gray’s death.
Until 2015, policing and Baltimore had been getting better. After an excess of zero-tolerance policing in the early 2000s, Baltimore saw a sustained decline in both murder and arrests. From 2004 to 2011, murders declined from 278 to 197 while arrests dropped from 42 percent. People even began to move back to the city. After six decades of decline, the population increased. These civic and public safety gains reversed in 2015. Last year 343 people were murdered in Baltimore City, and the population and tax base is falling once again.

This year the police scandal is yet another black eye for a bruised city. Mayor Catherine Pugh, in a statement she later walked back, said she was too busy to follow the trial. The acting and presumed next police commissioner, Darryl De Sousa, is well-respected but will have his hands full. Corrupt police officers deserve special blame for committing crimes while in the public’s trust. But for a wounded Baltimore to rise again, city leaders, both elected and appointed, must accept their responsibility and get things done.
Go on, click through for the whole article.


Andy D said...

Prof, I know this has been addressed before but it comes up yet again: what is the honest cop to do? I'm sure they hear the rumors of what goes on in this unit. Maybe you are even approached to do something slightly unethical by the unit. You have no real evidence, just what you have heard. It bothers you. But you may not have full trust in IA or the prosecutor, you know that most likely there are command staff protecting these thugs, and you want to have a full career, not put yourself, your career, and your family in danger by reporting something disturbing and unsubstantiated. You turn away, say nothing, keep your head down and run your calls. But to the public you are part of some "blue wall of silence." The profession looks bad in the public eye no matter what you do.

Obviously you can do what some do: work a few years and find a better department somewhere else. But that doesn't help the city or the department get better.

Does Baltimore need a solution like Camden NJ used? Disband the whole mess, absorb it into a surrounding agency and only rehire those with (hopefully) higher standards of integrity?

Moskos said...

I don't know. It's the $64,000 question. But keep in mind that most cops did not know what was going on. That's good for the cop, but it doesn't solve the problem.

On a systemic level police departments need to stop using guns and drugs and arrests as a indicator of good policing. If you can lower crime by getting guns and drugs and arrests, great. But keep the focus on crime and not artificial measures of "productivity."

Good cops need somebody they can trust and tell truly anonymously without their name getting out. Because not every accusation will be correct. I mean, the officer will not even be 100% sure bad things are happening. I'm thinking something along the lines of a good system as what should be available for cops with psychological issues.

A few officers cycled in and quickly out of the squad. Presumably they wanted out because they didn't like what they were sensing. Who did they have to go to? Nobody. Good cops need somebody they can take their concerns to. But it's tough because at that point it is just a concern, a suspicion. There should be one person -- be it the police commissioner or some other "untouchable" (in the Elliot Ness sense) -- to whom officers can turn. Someone who is known who can keep a secret, and can act without overreacting. Or how about quick exit interviews when people choose to leave specialized units (and the department)? Q: "Why do you want to leave?"
A: "I don't like the hours and court."
A: "I don't get along with the squad. I don't like they way they work."
OK, go on...

If the same person hears the same answer from multiple people, that smoke.

Then maybe you try and do some well executed integrity stings.

But without a clearinghouse for this information, each individual suspicion is just that. But if somebody hears such suspicions from multiple officers, well that's a red flag that can be acted on.

To make an analogy, it's less that police officers need a 911 emergency number than they need the equivalent of a beat officer in the organization they know, trust to keep confidence, and can communicate with. And this doesn't exist.

In this case the criminal cops were indeed protected by higher ups (the one probably most culpable just resigned) and, it seems, friends in both internal affairs and Mosby's prosecutor's office. This crime happened under what? Three mayors, three police chiefs, and two prosecutors? Given that, yeah, as an honest cop you can't change the system. So you turn away so that you don't see anything bad. What's good for the individual isn't good for the system. That, somehow, needs to change.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed said...


I'm a little late on this thread and I don't know if you're still watching it, but I am intrigued by your suggestion that cops need a procedure for anonymously voicing concerns about other cops' behavior. I guess I'm especially intrigued given that the LEO Bills of Rights being pushed by the police unions seek to prohibit anonymous citizen complaints (I don't know if this is the case in Baltimore). In fact, I understand that some of these Bills of Rights would positively give the "accused" officer the right to know the identity of the complainant before he is questioned on the accusations. Do you think the unions are wrong on this one? I assume you're not pushing for a two-tier system where cops may make anonymous complaints but citizens cannot.

Unknown said...

I know you have addressed our host directly, but please allow me to address you. You seem to see LEOBR as a nefarious thing, a thing that merely protects cops who do bad. It inadvertently does that, but it also protects you. Imagine if you are the victim of a crime and the perpetrator is "connected". The son of the mayor or something like that. Without LEOBR, the cop that tries to investigate your case can simply be fired without cause. Don't laugh, it used to happen. LEOBR allows the police to enforce the law without fear of backlash when the suspect has powerful (at least at the local level) friends.
Now I'm not so naive to believe that this is a perfect system, but I do think that LEOBR does more good than harm.
With that preface, I would also like to see where you read anywhere in the solution proposed by our host mentioned anything about anonymity for the reporting officer. I didn't see anything about that. But I'm just a simple police officer...

Ed said...


Thanks for the response. On your last point, if you look in the comment thread, at the comment of Prof. Moskos right before mine, he says (beginning of third paragraph): "Good cops need somebody they can trust and tell truly anonymously without their name getting out." He seems to feel that Baltimore cops--even with LEOBR/civil service protection--had sufficient fear for their careers that they were justified--or at least excused--in not reporting their suspicions of the "dirty squad" now convicted, and that an anonymous channel should be available for that purpose. My point was that unions/LEOBRs seem adverse to having such a channel available for citizens. Perhaps they (and you) feel that the number of unfounded anonymous complaints is so large that the cost/benefit ratio isn't worth it, and the occasional meritorious anonymous citizen complaint is so rare that it need not be thought of. But at least you should acknowledge--which was my point--that if policemen can be fearful of signing their name to a complaint against another officer, citizens can as well. Set the standard on anonymous complaints wherever you would like, but it should be one standard.

john mosby said...

Prof, what do you think of paul cassell’s statistical paper on the aclu effect in chicago?

Moskos said...

You just brought it to my attention. Many thanks!

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Anonymous said...


As someone actively pursuing a career in law enforcement, the topic of staying "clean" and honest is something I think about very often. While I believe that most individuals enter into the field of law enforcement with the best of intentions, it is no secret that sometimes values and integrity are cast aside, and even police are not infallible.

My question is, what should an officer do when confronted with a situation which he or she knows to be wrong? In your post, you mentioned that a good cop should avoid the troublesome units or officers, but shouldn't a good officer report anything that seems suspicious, if not overtly immoral? Even if the administration cannot be trusted, surely an agency like the FBI could be contacted?

In short, what I'd like to know is, how should an officer address allegations of corruption regarding his or her own comrades? To whom, if anyone, should it be reported?

Thank you for your time. As someone who is hopeful to begin his career, this insight is much appreciated.