How Zero Tolerance Policing Destroyed Black Communities in Baltimore
Ten of thousands of city residents were swept up in a policy that the Department of Justice says lead to illegal arrests and unconstitutional policing focused solely on African-American neighborhoods
TAYA GRAHAM: Zero tolerance. It’s a phrase that has made its way into the popular lexicon. A policing strategy that led to tens of thousands of illegal arrests here in Baltimore and was blamed in party by the Justice Department for the ongoing illegal practices of the police department. And the policy of making petty arrest for spitting on the sidewalk or drinking a beer, focused almost exclusively on the African American community. A fact that some people says means that zero tolerance was not just illegal and ineffective but actually responsible for the persistent violence and poverty that continues to afflict black communities in the city. So how did zero tolerance affect Baltimore and what are the long term implications of its implementation here? To help me sort this out we’re talking to two reporters that covered zero tolerance at its height and wrote about it extensively.
Luke Broadwater is an award winning investigative reporter for the Baltimore Sun. But previously he worked for the now defuncted Baltimore Examiner. And his former Examiner colleague and Emmy winning reporter, Real News reporter, Stephen Janis, also joins us. Thank you.
STEPHEN JANIS: Thanks for having us.
LUKE BROADWATER: Thank you Taya.
GRAHAM: So Stephen, I’ll start with you. We don’t have many firsthand accounts of how zero tolerance affected the community. Could you tell us a little bit about the reporting?
JANIS: Well I think one of the issue things that Luke and I always talk about when we started covering the Examiner was the absolute quantity of arrests. It’s hard to understand I think for people who live in communities that aren’t policed the way Baltimore is to understand you could literally walk outside your door and be arrested for absolutely nothing. In other words, there were people who were known as the Jump Out Boys because they would come into neighborhoods the night before comp stat which is where they’d sort of quantify and measure all the arrests and literally like walk people in African American neighborhoods, poor African American neighborhoods, in the back of a van for doing nothing. Then there were so many people and there were so many people they were trying to process at central booking which is where all the people were brought for arrests, they had something called a walkthrough which is where instead of actually being incarcerated you would simply just walkthrough so they would get the arrest and it would be recorded as a statistic but the person wasn’t actually incarcerated.
GRAHAM: So is this the [abetted] by arrest that you reported on?
JANIS: Yea that’s part of the concept was [abetted] by arrest. In other words, a cop would see someone spitting or sitting on a stoop or doing whatever and they’d arrest them and then prosecutors and Luke will talk about that later. He did big investigation on that. But the point was this psychology of the city was literally lunacy. You had 10 thousand people being arrested on a monthly basis. Totally responding to the statistical need to incarcerate people. But neighborhoods were pretty much under martial law. It was a horrible, horrible situation and people suffered.
GRAHAM: So Luke tell us a little bit about your reporting. What did you report on in relation to zero tolerance in Baltimore City?
BROADWATER: Well one of the first stories I did concerned the concept of release without charges. This is something that was happening to 20 thousand or even 30 thousand people a year in Baltimore. Those are people who are arrested, they’re taken downtown, they’re maybe held all weekend if they’re held on a Friday night, and then they’re released. They don’t know why they were arrested. They’re never told and they’re never charge with anything.
As someone who had covered the criminal justice system elsewhere, when I first came to start covering Baltimore at the Examiner with Stephen, I was sort of shocked that this was even a process. What do you mean release without charge? What do you mean arresting people without charges? And so of course then when I started digging into it more I started going to the other jurisdictions and saying do you have this? How many do you have and Hartford County for instance I think had 2 people arrested without charges not 30 thousand. Howard County had 0 people arrested without charges.
It was almost a foreign concept. This idea that you could arrest people without ever telling them what the charge is. Without ever getting a prosecutor to sign off on it or having evidence or facts to back up what you say. This is much different than being charged and then having the prosecutors drop the charges right? That’s a different process. This is people who are released without never actually being charged and it was happening to tens of thousands of people every year in Baltimore.
JANIS: I remember when Luke was working the story, there was this guy down in corrections, a corrections official down in Florida and we called him and we asked him about do you have abetted by arrest. And he goes what’s that? I go well it’s something we have here. Abetted by arrest where you get arrested but you’re not charged and then you’re let go. And he’d never heard of the concept and a lot of people haven’t. I’m not totally sure of this but I think it’s something that it was invented in Baltimore and it was a means of social control. You know we see you on the corner, we arrest you, and as Luke said, it’s like a foreign concept to other law enforcement agencies. They had never heard of something like this.
GRAHAM: So this policy at its peak, over a hundred thousand people were arrested per year. How do you think this affected the community?
JANIS: Well you know like I said before I think it was beyond just a criminal justice issue. It became a psychological issue. I think you had an entire community under siege. A community that was constantly being disrupted. You can imagine if you’re a person or an individual looking for a job or trying to work your way out of entrenched poverty in the city, that if you got arrest 5 or 6 times a year for absolutely nothing how would it disrupt your life? How would it disrupt your family? How, as Luke said, you could end up being in central booking for a weekend or for even longer because you don’t know what the bail the person’s going to set is completely random. So I think what you had some of the problems that we were trying to solve in the city, entrenched poverty, violence, I think it’d end up exasperating them. Because it was basically like we were in a Soviet bloc nation. You could be detained and arrested as Luke said without cause. That is so un-American. I mean what Luke is saying is absolutely unconstitutional. You’re always supposed to know why you’re being arrested. You’re supposed to be charged. But in Baltimore City in the confines of the city you literally can be detained, your freedom taken away without any cause, and that is something I think that is traumatic for people. You’ve got to think about it. It engineered long term psychological effects.
GRAHAM: Well, Stephen you also wrote about one of the most egregious examples of zero tolerance. The arrest of a 7-year-old boy named Gerard Mungo. He was arrested for simply sitting on a dirt bike. Now can you tell us about your interview with him when was him when he was a little child and your interview with him years later.
JANIS: Well that case became emblematic in some ways of the excesses of zero tolerance. There was a young man name Gerard Mungo who was sitting on his dirt bike waiting for his father to pick him up and the police came and confiscated his dirt bike and brought the child inside to his mother and said he can’t be on dirt bikes and they took it. So the mother called the supervisor to complain and all this came out in a lawsuit later.
He had just turned 7. He was 6 just turned 7. So the mother calls the supervisor to complain and they get on the phone with each other and they decide they’re going to arrest him because to retaliate for the fact that the mother complained to the supervisor about taking the dirt bike. So they come in and they handcuff him, this kid and he’s literally a child. The handcuffs don’t even fit and they bring him down to juvi booking and interrogate him and finally he is released. And we went to interview him and he started to cry. And it became sort of a worldwide story and very interesting because it sort of exposed to the absurdity.
Like what kind of society would arrest a 7-year-old? What kind of city would think that this were any productive outcome to arresting a 7-year-old? He was traumatized and I actually talked to him about a year ago and he’s still traumatized. But I think it was one of those cases where and actually mayor, Sheila Dixon at that time, actually publicly said it was wrong. So it was sort of the first case where it was so extreme that people finally said that wow this is really absurd. People who had probably not cared about it before.
GRAHAM: What kind of feedback did you get for this story?
JANIS: Well it was a lot of hate mail and a lot of people saying the kid was a drug dealer or was going to be a drug dealer and was very, very hostile towards the kid. And that’s the way a lot of this stuff and I’m sure Luke can tell you about it, when we write zero tolerance stories that he would respond in really horrible ways about it because he thought the city was crime infested and there was no other alternative.
GRAHAM: Now Luke you did a story which caused quite a stir within the police department. You did an investigation where you surveyed experts who said that zero tolerance was actually being botched. What did you uncover?
BROADWATER: That’s right. So what we saw in Baltimore was Governor O’Malley, then Mayor O’Malley had gone to New York and then he had tried to bring down New York’s zero tolerance strategies and implement them in Baltimore. Some people called this the broken window style of policing. Where the idea is that if you catch a turn style jumper or someone who breaks a window, likely they’ve done 10-20 other bad things and you’re going to get them on oh wow they also have a warrant out for shooting someone.
But what we saw in Baltimore is what these experts said is a misuse of that practice. That they were simply locking up whole blocks of people. Driving around arresting people seemingly at random which is what the prosecutors Patricia Jessamy office said was happening. And in fact now we see the Department of Justice report agrees was happening. It’s not the proper use of the broken windows theory. And as we reported this story and called multiple people who agreed with that, we got a lot of pushback from the Baltimore Police Department. A lot of anger and personal attacks.
But at the same time I’ll say we got a lot of support from the community. I remember Stephen and others at the Examiner as well would go to various events and they would say thank you for telling the story the right way. For years we’ve been made to appear to be all criminals or everyone out here, every young man is doing something wrong and that’s not the case. Many of these guys are being arrested for little or no reason and their lives are being knocked off course.
If you’re arrested, over the weekend you can’t go to work. Well, guess what you might lose your job. You can’t study for that big test or whatever if you’re arrest. So now you’re falling behind in school, you’re missing class. So it did have a residual impact on people’s lives. Also when you’re in jail you tend to meet guys you wouldn’t necessarily meet otherwise. You can be grouped in with people and learn bad habits that you wouldn’t necessarily if you were out in front of your mom’s house.
So It had this spiraling affect and I’m glad we’re talking about this today because Department of Justice report that just came out recently said all of these things and I felt like we were reporting on this stuff a decade ago and it sort of brought it all home and said yes that was one of the origins of our modern day crisis.
JANIS: It got so absurd, we were talking about Gerard Mungo and two weeks after Gerard Mungo was arrested they arrested his mother. They broke down the door in his aunt’s house, chasing someone, legal entry and decide to arrest his mother. And I was down in central booking waiting for her to come out and I’m behind central booking and there’s a guy in a wheelchair coming out and I’m like what happened to you? He’s like I got arrested. Why did you get arrested? And he goes because I was drinking a beer outside my house. I said but you’re in a wheelchair. He said yea they brought in this special truck and they hoisted me up and they arrested me. They arrest a guy in a wheelchair for drinking a beer. That’s how it was almost like trolling for people. You know when you fish and you troll, not a net, you literally just bring in anyone you could. Like what Luke was talking about. Yea it was like you might have a job and then you get out 3 or 4 days later and you’ve lost that job. It deeply affected the city.
GRAHAM: So the Department of Justice report has shown that our police department has illegally and unconstitutionally arrested people. How much do you think is the legacy of zero tolerance playing in here?
JANIS: Luke you want that?
BROADWATER: Well I don’t think it’s the sole cost but it’s one of the very large causes of the disconnect between the community and the police. I do think larger concepts such as the drug war as a whole are in play. But zero tolerance is really the ramped up effort of the drug war. I mean really who are the people they’re supposedly going after. It’s supposedly the drug dealers. It’s the people whose drug fueled wars cause the shootings. So when you ramp that up to its’ logical conclusion, now you’re arresting everybody.
So this isn’t me saying it. This is the Department of Justice who pointed the finger squarely at the policies of former Mayor O’Malley and you know former Governor O’Malley apparently still thinks these are the right policies because as little as two years ago he was publicly arguing with the current mayor who’s his longtime ally that she wasn’t arresting enough people. So this is almost a decade later he still believes that is the right thing to do.
JANIS: And I think one thing I want to add on to what Luke said, I do think that the culture that was created by zero tolerance where people were being judged, Luke and I did stories about arrest quotas where we got a hold of documents that showed that they literally had quotas. Like every district and every unit in that district was judged by literally the number of arrests. So that culture of stats, the arrests and in and of itself doesn’t matter who you arrest and for what reason, I think continued to persist. They had VSET which was a violent impact crime division which was kind of zero tolerance in a bottle which run around and did the same thing. I think they really believed that if you went into a neighborhood and arrested 30 people, that was what you did when there was homicide there because that’s a way to stop the violence. So I think it created a culture that carried on and certainly informed the Justice Department report.
GRAHAM: Well this is the last question and I’ll pose it to both of you. What do you think has been the long term impact of the zero tolerance policy?
JANIS: Well I think, I really believe that the violence it was purporting to solve, it actually had an effect of exacerbating it. I think by disrupting people’s lives, by making it difficult, giving them arrest records where they can’t get a job, by turning neighborhoods into literally warzones where you have military occupying force. I think you have made people more violent. Literally it’s the reason that Baltimore continues to lag the nation in decrease in homicides and why we still have this legacy of violence.
I think it really did the exact opposite of what Martin O’Malley and the people who use this police promised it would do. And I think that’s a long term legacy.
BROADWATER: And I would say the other legacy is that it had a fundamental effect of changing how the police do their jobs by relying on this data. What gets tracked and what gets measured it what gets done. And by making arrest the primary goal of the police officer you promote a perverse incentive that has a very damaging impact with the community. It would be interesting to see whether other measures could be used. Like positive interaction with a citizen, you get rewarded for that or something.
But yea the legacy has not been a good one according to the Department of Justice. I think that Governor O’Malley, what he points to when he talks about this stuff he points to that there was reduction in murders during this time. And he sees that as a positive thing. I will say that that’s his point of view. But the Department of Justice has clearly said that the larger story is that while murders did go down temporarily and now they’ve come back up, the rift between the community and the police was vastly hurt.
JANIS: And when we [inaud.] it is important in terms of the community. The community was concerned about this. And other than us writing about this in the Examiner it was kind of ignored by other media. Other than if we did a story. And I think the community, I think that created deep wounds in the community in terms of like the media and other people not responding to the concerns and just prosecuting this police policy which was ultimately destructive.
BROADWATER: One thing I–if I could just make–there’s one great story we didn’t talk about which was Stephen did a story called Why Did They Arrest Me. And he interviewed people, I think you had 5 case studies. Because we can talk about a hundred thousand people arrested every year but when you saw people who were getting arrested for having a backyard barbeque or for spitting on the sidewalk on a hot day.
JANIS: And a guy from Hopkins coming out on his porch to see what was happening.
BROADWATER: Then it really strikes home the absurdity of some of these arrests and you can’t say well you know they’re locking up bad guys. When in fact–.
JANIS: Yea thank you for pointing that out.
GRAHAM: Wasn’t there pastor couple that was arrested? The wife was made to walk home by herself.
JANIS: A pastor was arrested on his way to church and they arrested him and left his wife on the sidewalk.
GRAHAM: To walk home by herself. Well thank you both so much for joining me. This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
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