What To Do In Baltimore (And Elsewhere)

David Simon, the bard of Baltimore, walks a fine line between the essential and the insufferable in both his art and his commentary, but with his native city roiled by riots I think this interview with Bill Keller for The Marshall Project falls on the “essential” side of the ledger. The whole thing rewards reading, but let me excerpt from passages in which Simon is critiquing the policing strategies – basically constant mass arrests wherever the drug trade existed, a kind of drug-focused “broken windows” policing on steroids — embraced during the mayoralty of Martin “Carcetti” O’Malley, because it bears on the policy responses to what’s been happening in Baltimore, and the lessons for other cities:

In these drug-saturated neighborhoods, [cops] weren’t policing their post anymore, they weren’t policing real estate that they were protecting from crime. They weren’t nurturing informants, or learning how to properly investigate anything … they were just dragging the sidewalks, hunting stats, and these inner-city neighborhoods — which were indeed drug-saturated because that’s the only industry left — become just hunting grounds. They weren’t protecting anything. They weren’t serving anyone … And once it’s that … there’s no incentive to get better as investigators, as cops. There’s no reason to solve crime. In the years they were behaving this way, locking up the entire world, the clearance rate for murder dove by 30 percent. The clearance rate for aggravated assault — every felony arrest rate – took a significant hit. Think about that. If crime is going down, and crime is going down, and if we have less murders than ever before and we have more homicide detectives assigned, and better evidentiary technologies to employ how is the clearance rate for homicide now 48 percent when it used to be 70 percent, or 75 percent?

How do you reward cops? Two ways: promotion and cash. That’s what rewards a cop. If you want to pay overtime pay for having police fill the jails with loitering arrests or simple drug possession or failure to yield, if you want to spend your municipal treasure rewarding that, well the cop who’s going to court 7 or 8 days a month — and court is always overtime pay — you’re going to damn near double your salary every month. On the other hand, the guy who actually goes to his post and investigates who’s burglarizing the homes, at the end of the month maybe he’s made one arrest. It may be the right arrest and one that makes his post safer, but he’s going to court one day and he’s out in two hours. So you fail to reward the cop who actually does police work. But worse, it’s time to make new sergeants or lieutenants, and so you look at the computer and say: Who’s doing the most work? And they say, man, this guy had 80 arrests last month, and this other guy’s only got one. Who do you think gets made sergeant? And then who trains the next generation of cops in how not to do police work? I’ve just described for you the culture of the Baltimore police department amid the deluge of the drug war, where actual investigation goes unrewarded and where rounding up bodies for street dealing, drug possession, loitering such – the easiest and most self-evident arrests a cop can make – is nonetheless the path to enlightenment and promotion and some additional pay …

There are two arguments woven in here (and amplified elsewhere in the interview). First, that just constantly “rounding up bodies” is terrible for police-community relations, for reasons that should be apparent even without a crystallizing tragedy like the case of Freddie Gray. And second, that it’s a strategy that actually leaves more real crimes unsolved, because there’s little incentive to actually work a murder or any other case … and that, too, increases the community’s hostility toward the police, because people are constantly getting jailed and hassled while the crimes that most people in the neighborhood really want solved are left to languish unattended.

Both points dovetail in important ways with one of the more interesting recent books on inner-city crime, Jill Leovy’s “Ghettoside,” whose thesis you can find distilled by the author herself in this op-ed and by my friend Reihan Salam here. Basically, her argument is that even in our era of mass incarceration, aggressive policing lengthy sentences, police tactics in inner-city areas — a Los Angeles Times reporter, Leovy focuses particularly on L.A. — are focusing on the low hanging fruit, rounding up the usual suspects, and leaving remarkable numbers of serious crimes unsolved. In other words, after decades of tough-on-crime policies and militarized policework, there’s a solid case that many poor, violence-ridden communities are actually being underpoliced.

In terms of a policy conversation that’s actually responsive to the immediate reasons for Baltimore’s unrest (not just whatever happened to Gray, but the wider ways the city’s police are accustomed to using force), these issues seem like a better place to start than the predictable big-picture places a lot of politicians and commentators have headed. (No links, deliberately.) I say this as someone as interested in the endless culture/economics/politics tangle as anyone: By all means let’s debate race or class or family structure or economic policy or social programs (I’d rather not debate the alleged case for rioting itself, even when sonorously phrased, but your mileage may vary), but if we’re trying to avoid a series of long hot summers and all that would entail, civic leaders need a more immediate response to the discontent currently percolating, and boiling over wherever a bad cop is caught on cell-phone video or a routine incident just goes badly wrong. And that response, long before we get to the most sweeping societal questions, probably starts with thinking about specific changes to the way policing is currently conducted and overseen.

Not that such changes are necessarily simple and straightforward. Simon makes a strong case against overemphasizing “the easiest and most self-evident arrests a cop can make.” But in general the case against the excesses in this kind of misdemeanors/petty crimes/quality of life policing is a lot stronger than the case against it as a strategy, period; likewise, the related assumption that we can easily “end the [expletive] drug war” (to quote Simon) outright without any downsides for civic order also seems … rather too sanguine. The term “broken windows policing” has become a capacious catch-all for some very different approaches, whose actual applications can vary in wisdom, prudence and justice. But the basic case for doing policework with public order in mind, not letting misdemeanors pile up and making obvious arrests even when the infractions are quite minor, still seems to have a substantial amount of plausible evidence on its side. And speaking as a past resident of Baltimore and a present resident of Washington D.C., I don’t think the extent to which simple perceptions of safety matter to urban revival should be underestimated, and a strategy that ends up neglecting “the easiest and most self-evident arrests” in the name of more serious police work could easily be disastrous for cities trying to sustain their comebacks from the long years of white flight.

So the challenges are first, not to just give up on broken-windows policing, but to find a healthier balance between the real good that “self-evident” policework can do and the temptation to just round up bodies regardless of the human cost; second, to establish (much) stronger mechanisms of legal oversight around those temptations, so that cops have more reasons to avoid them and citizens have a sense that they’re dealing with accountable public servants and not untouchable occupiers; and third, to set up priorities and incentives that ensure that serious crimes are more likely to get the attention and policework they deserve.

The first challenge should be a little easier for politicians and police commissioners to meet than it was in a higher-crime era, when knocking down the crime rate as fast as humanly possible was an understandable imperative. The second challenge requires reckoning with the outsize power of police unions, which — as we know from other policy arenas where unionized public employees enjoy public sympathy and significant political clout — is no easy task. The third challenge involves the details of strategy, personnel, and performance incentives, but it also might be easier to meet if cities simply had a mandate to hire some more cops (a policy hobbyhorse of mine).

Again of course all the deeper issues still matter more than any of this in the long run. There is no policing strategy that’s going to turn West Baltimore into a prosperous middle-class enclave, no homicide clearance rate that’s going to undo the problems created by segregation’s legacy, family breakdown’s costs, and whatever economic trends or policies you prefer to single out for blame.

But right now, for mayors and police chiefs and governors around the country, it’s a good time to focus on the things that can be changed on their initiative, at their level of authority, in the short or medium term. They can’t solve the deep problems, but they can do better at getting ahead of potential crises, and cooling off situations that might be poised to suddenly boil over. And addressing the most legitimate discontents with the way today’s policework is conducted seems like the best way — maybe the only way — to prevent more Fergusons, more Baltimores, in this and many years to come.

Summonses for Minor Crimes Keep Falling, Report Says, but Many Still Lead to Arrest Warrants

In 2003, police officers in New York City issued 557,570 summonses for the lowest-level offenses, like drinking in public or riding a bike on the sidewalk. A decade later, in 2013, the annual total fell to 439,029, and it continued to drop last year.

But throughout those years, one measure remained relatively constant: More than a third of all summonses, year in and year out, resulted in arrest warrants for failure to appear in court, according to a report released on Monday by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“Something is inherently wrong,” when nearly 40 percent of “generally law-abiding people” fail to show up to court after receiving a summons, the state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, said at the breakfast gathering where the report was released. To address the problem, he said, some offenses currently handled by the criminal court system could be dealt with administratively, much like traffic offenses.

The findings come amid public debate over how the city and its police should handle low-level offenses at a time of diminishing street crime yet increasing tension over police tactics, especially in minority communities.


A new report found that the number of summonses police wrote to New Yorkers for low-level crimes has fallen significantly since 2003. Credit Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Roughly 14 percent of summonses issued between 2003 and 2013 still had outstanding warrants open as of December, the report found, representing potentially hundreds of thousands of people who remained entangled in the criminal justice system because of minor violations from years before.

Reform advocates have pointed to the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men who are given summonses or arrested on low-level offenses. A John Jay report last year found that the bulk of misdemeanor arrests in the city involved racial minorities.

But the new summons report provides no such racial breakdown because, since 2006, the courts stopped collecting racial data on those given summonses.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Judge Lippman said this month that the city would soon amend the summons form to add information about the race of the person cited, and clearer instructions on when to go to court. The changes are aimed, in part, at reducing the number of warrants.

At the same time, the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, an East Harlem Democrat, and the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, have publicly differed in recent days over a proposal that would alter the legal framework for treating misdemeanor crimes and violations that are currently dealt with using a criminal summons.

The goal of the proposal, which Council officials said was still being worked out, is to keep those accused of the low-level offenses, most of whom are racial minorities, out of the criminal justice system.

“There is a recognition,” said Councilman Rory I. Lancman, a Queens Democrat and a proponent of the changes, “that the system is broken.”

In one version, the Council would change the law to make the most common minor offenses — including public urination, public alcohol consumption, riding a bike on the sidewalk and fare evasion — punishable by a civil summons. Top police officials have complained that doing so would tie the hands of officers, who, without the threat of an arrest, would be unable to compel violators to provide proper identification so the summons could be completed accurately.


Mayor Bill de Blasio at a news conference in December. Credit Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, has resisted taking a firm position on the Council proposal. But last week he aligned himself with Mr. Bratton and a focus on so-called quality-of-life policing. “I want to emphasize my vision of quality-of-life policing and my vision related to the broken-windows strategy is the same as Commissioner Bratton’s,” the mayor said.

The Police Department is set to unveil its own study of enforcement of low-level offenses, covering the period since Mr. Bratton took over the department in 2014.

Mr. Bratton, for his part, has increasingly pointed to the lower number of arrests this year and spoken in recent weeks of a “peace dividend” being paid to New Yorkers in the form of less police action amid historically low levels of crime citywide.

But he said that police officers must retain the power to arrest people for low-level offenses. “If you lose those powers to arrest, that’s where Pandora’s box is opened and the 1970s, 1980s, have the potential to come roaring back again,” he said on Monday, adding that the department is in “very active discussions” with the Council.

As far back as 1977, city judges contemplated treating some minor offenses outside the criminal court system. “Much of that which is brought before the court belongs before an administrative tribunal,” Richard A. Brown wrote in a memo that year, when he was a supervising judge.

Mr. Brown, now the Queens district attorney, said in an interview on Monday that he “doesn’t see the downside” in pursuing that approach. “For those of us that remember the old traffic court, it has improved substantially since the creation of the administrative tribunals.”

The report found that one in five summonses ended up in a guilty plea or a finding of guilty. The rest were either dismissed by a judge or thrown out by the court, either because they did not contain necessary information, or because the basis for the charge was found to be lacking. (The defendant entered a plea of not guilty in an exceedingly small fraction of cases.)

Of the cases in which the person pleaded or was found guilty, nearly all resulted in fines, a figure that rose to 99 percent of cases in 2013 from 82 percent in 2003. (Summonses for public urination and public intoxication can be settled by pleading guilty by mail and sending in a fine, as little as $25.)

The city imposed fines totaling $7.3 million in 2003; that figure fell to $5.3 million in 2013. The report did not say how much of that had been collected.

The largest drop in summonses from 2003 to 2013 was seen in those given to teenagers, especially for disorderly conduct.

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