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.