David Simon on Baltimore’s Policing Nightmare

If you happened to miss it last week, go catch Bill Keller’s extraordinary Marshall Project interview with David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter, creator of the crime drama “The Wire,” and longtime Drug War critic. A few highlights:

I guess there’s an awful lot to understand and I’m not sure I understand all of it. The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. …

Probable cause from a Baltimore police officer has always been a tenuous thing. It’s a tenuous thing anywhere, but in Baltimore, in these high crime, heavily policed areas, it was even worse. When I came on, there were jokes about, “You know what probable cause is on Edmondson Avenue? You roll by in your radio car and the guy looks at you for two seconds too long.” Probable cause was whatever you thought you could safely lie about when you got into district court.

Then at some point when cocaine hit and the city lost control of a lot of corners and the violence was ratcheted up, there was a real panic on the part of the government. And they basically decided that even that loose idea of what the Fourth Amendment was supposed to mean on a street level, even that was too much. Now all bets were off. Now you didn’t even need probable cause. The city council actually passed an ordinance that declared a certain amount of real estate to be drug-free zones. They literally declared maybe a quarter to a third of inner city Baltimore off-limits to its residents, and said that if you were loitering in those areas you were subject to arrest and search. Think about that for a moment: It was a permission for the police to become truly random and arbitrary and to clear streets any way they damn well wanted.

Former mayor (and later governor and presidential candidate) Martin O’Malley instituted a mass arrest policy made possible by the ready availability of humbles:

A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way. And yet, back in the day, there was, I think, more of a code to it. If you were on a corner, you knew certain things would catch you a humble.  

“The drug war gives everybody permission to do anything.” One way Simon noticed things changing was that his own film crew members kept getting picked up:

…anybody who was slow to clear the sidewalk or who stayed seated on their front stoop for too long when an officer tried to roust them. Schoolteachers, Johns Hopkins employees, film crew people, kids, retirees, everybody went to the city jail. If you think I’m exaggerating look it up.

Under pressure from O’Malley to portray a crime reduction miracle, the BPD cooked its books to undercount serious crimes like rape and armed robbery while also going back to inflate crime numbers in previous years so as to simulate a bigger drop for which to take credit. Even as the arrest mill hummed, clearance rates for offenses like murder and aggravated assault were plummeting, the prolonged footwork needed to solve these crimes affording ambitious cops relatively few opportunities for overtime or advancement.

Meanwhile, the informal but understood street policing “code” was decaying. Under the old code, for example, “the rough ride [in the back of the van] was reserved for the guys who fought the police,” which Freddie Gray did not do, witnesses say.  The Baltimore Sun’s investigation of police misconduct payouts is frightening not so much because it shows patterns of abuse but because of its lack of patterns: “anyone and everyone” can wind up brutalized.

Policing in Baltimore may actually have bounced back from its low point, if Simon is correct, not only because newer police administrators are trying to refocus on serious crime rather than arrest numbers, but – crucially – because the public is now able to film the police: “The smartphone with its small, digital camera, is a revolution in civil liberties.” 

There is much more, in rich detail: which insults cops will informally shrug off, and which they won’t; why replacing white with African-American officers didn’t fix things; how the nightmare ends (“end the drug war”: it would help even if D.A.s just stopped paying cops overtime for penny-ante drug arrests.)  Read the whole thing.