Why Urban Policing Cannot be Reformed
The Real News talks to reform advocates, defense attorneys, and former cops who say policing cannot be reformed without fully understanding its underlying imperative
Stephen Janis: The mood inside the Morgan State University Student Center was serious, four candidates who want to monitor the consent decree between the Baltimore police and the Department of Justice making their cases to the community. Among the attendees, skepticism.
Lawrence Grandpre: It’s not a panacea. Constitutional policing just means treat everyone equally. It does not mean dismantle the policing-industrial complex or the prison-industrial complex.
Stephen Janis: Perhaps that’s because missing from the discussion was a fundamental question. What is policing, and what does it do, and why is it so fundamentally resistant to change that all these efforts are necessary but seem to have little effect? Since the Justice Department concluded its investigation, determining Baltimore police used racist and unconstitutional tactics, scandals continue to emerge.
Rod Rosenstein: What you see is a lack of respect for the system, particularly in these discussions about overtime, when the sergeant is away on vacation and the officers are allegedly at casinos and various other places billing overtime.
Stephen Janis: Seven officers, part of a gun trace task force, were recently charged with money laundering, fraud, stealing from residents, and drug dealing. This body camera footage, showing officers placing drugs and then staging the discovery for the cameras, garnered national attention last month. Perhaps at some level, reform has proved so difficult because it fails to grasp a simple truism about policing in urban America. It’s essential function in cities like Baltimore is not law enforcement. If it were, tens of thousands of crimes would not remain unsolved.
Instead, it seems organized to provide a damning narrative arc to the country’s social and racial conflict. It’s a process that is fueled by symbols, like the narrative of stories that we see on the news nightly of alleged black failure, urban despair, a symbolic conjugation of the country’s lingering but still potent racial divisions, all told in the tale of arrests and busts, populated with imagery of officers in Kevlar vests and African-Americans in handcuffs. Only policing can write this narrative in a way that connects with the country’s deep-rooted racism, and only policing can embed this animosity in a legal system, which it translates into fear, self-rationalization, and ultimately incarceration.
A case in point in how this works is this body camera footage of a controversial car stop in west Baltimore in 2016.
Joshua Insley: They pull him out of the car. They say, “We saw you conduct a narcotics transaction,” they say that to the passenger Mr. Davis, “down the street.” Then they stop the car. They pull him out of the car, they put handcuffs on him, and they start searching the car.
They tear the car apart, and I mean literally. They’re pulling out the radio, pulling apart the doors, looking under the seats, all that stuff. After a while they don’t find what they’re looking for. Then the cameras basically stop. Before they stop, though, you can hear one of the officers who went back to the house, the yard, say, “Glen’s freaking out.” He’s yelling, “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” and all this other stuff on the radio because they can’t find the stash.
Police (from camera): There’s some [inaudible] money in front of you. 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80.
Joshua Insley: The cameras start up again, and they’re back at the car. This time, Glen’s there. He wasn’t there for the first search. He was still in his covert location. This is when the 30-second rollback gets to be important, because what many officers didn’t understand back then, which everybody is pretty clear on now, is when you start the body cam, the video will start from 30 seconds before you started it, and the audio will start from pretty much the time when you hit record. What a couple of them catch is officer Glen now is in the footwell of the car. He’s down there mucking about, and he comes back out, and he stands there, and then the sounds start clipping on. After that, it goes for a couple of seconds with the sound. You hear one of the officers go, “Are we all right?” Yeah. They stand there for another second, and then they say, “Oh, did we check here?” Then a different officer goes in and comes out with this bag.
I know what the police position is, which is basically it was a legit find, but I can only say what I see in the video, which is it doesn’t look good. It looks at the very least to have some sort of staging in it. Planting drugs is a very serious allegation. What I can say, as an attorney, it looks very bad.
Stephen Janis: Since the footage emerged, the charges were dropped, even though the police commissioner defended the officer’s action.
Kevin Davis: I think we just have to have a frank conversation with the community that we’re still in the midst of some growing pains. I think we all have to remember this. It’s the job of criminal defense attorneys to raise doubt. When those gaps in video footage exist, it’s ugly. What was there? I don’t know. I didn’t see it. The camera was on. Now it’s off. Does that mean that when the camera was off, some type of criminal misconduct was taking place by police officers? I think that’s a conclusion that we just can’t jump to because a camera is off.
Stephen Janis: For example, there are five officers on the scene, all part of what’s called specialized units, plainclothes officers who work without supervision, much like the aforementioned gun trace task force. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in overtime for this, stopping a car and searching because they smell marijuana. Before they find anything, two people are arrested, the car is towed, two lives disrupted and destroyed, and headlines that appear in emails and nightly news about drugs captured.
Meanwhile, the city continues on a pace for record murders, so why are they stopping cars, and why aren’t they investigating and solving cases? Former police commander and outspoken critic of the war on drugs Neil Franklin says he thinks he knows why.
Neil Franklin: There’s this willy-nilly group of folks who have come together to do whatever they want to do and tie it to drug enforcement. A lot of times, we were deciding upon what car to go after, or what target to go after, what person to go after. We were making that decision upon the value of their assets. We’d do financial workups on people. It wasn’t always about how much dope they’re bringing into the county. As long as they were bringing dope from somewhere or selling dope illegally, then we’d look at what’s their value, financially. That’s how we would target a lot of these folks.
Stephen Janis: Devon Stevenson is a staffer at the Real News. He remembers how the city handled violence in Cherry Hill during its experiment with mass arrests and zero tolerance.
Devon Stevenson: Man, we was sitting off that , ain’t gonna lie, just finished rolling a blunt. We hadn’t even started smoking it yet. We didn’t smell like weed or anything. We’re sitting out back in the car, and just because the narcos know who we are and know us from the area or whatever, they come slow-rolling up the alley, and jump out of the car. Mind you, I’ve got the grill going, got some steaks on the grill. They pull up. My brother’s car is parked across the grass right here. It’s parked sideways across the grass, and they just jump out, smash us out of the car, lock us up for the blunt.
Stephen Janis: Just for a blunt?
Devon Stevenson: A blunt and a jar of grass, all three of us. All three of us got locked up for that. They would come through my alley like … during the day, in both shifts because there’s two shifts. On the 7 to 3 shift, they’re going to come through the alley about three or four times.
Stephen Janis: These were knockers?
Devon Stevenson: Yeah. Every now and again you get the rollers that come through, but on that 3 to 11 shift, man, they’re coming through here. You’re going to see them ridiculously.
Stephen Janis: The tactic did nothing to address violence. It only made his life more difficult, another chapter written by police in the story of chaos and failure that pervades the city, not because Baltimore’s poor are murderous but because its police department is constructed on a premise that until it is fully understood will make it nearly impossible to change. This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore.