Is Police Reform Even Possible? A TRNN Discussion
TRNN reporters Taya Graham and Stephen Janis lead a discussion on efforts to reform policing in Baltimore at Towson University, and some of the obstacles to reform they’ve uncovered in their reporting
TAYA GRAHAM: Since the uprising after the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent report from the Department of Justice on the Baltimore City Police Department outlining its use of racist and unconstitutional practices, The Real News has done in-depth analysis and reporting on policing and its consequences in Baltimore. One facet of that coverage has been the efforts to reform policing which has encompassed a wide range of stories on activists, legislation and the consent decree between the DOJ and the city. It was this topic Towson University asked Real News reporters Taya Graham and Stephen Janis to discuss with students who are studying the topic. Here are the highlights from this conversation.
STEPHEN JANIS: Obviously, the title is meant to be provocative, that’s sort of intentional. I’ve spent the past probably 11 years of my career as a journalist covering policing and law enforcement in Baltimore. It is the most defining government agency in Baltimore, and it is probably where Baltimore has put most of its resources in terms of social capital and actual money. Unfortunately, as you all probably know it hasn’t turned out very well for the city. As you may or may not know, we are having another record year of homicides. I think we’re at about 303, 304. We passed 300 this weekend. This would be the third year in the row, I think the third year, right, that we’ve passed 300.
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.
STEPHEN JANIS: We had the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent uprising. These are things we’ll go into detail later. We had the Justice Department report, which found that the Baltimore City Police Department practice unconstitutional and systemically racist strategies or tactics in the city. We had the gun trace task force indictments where seven officers, eight officers have been.
TAYA GRAHAM: Eight officers now. It was originally seven officers that were charged with racketeering, with theft, with actually stealing from members of the community as well as filing bogus over time. For example, one officer in particular filed for overtime saying he was on the job but was actually down at Rehoboth Beach playing golf. That’s an example of some of the ways they were stealing and taking from our community.
STEPHEN JANIS: The point being that, having been through this cycle many times, and we’re at a very fraught moment in the city to try to in some ways address crime and also fix the police department, which most people agree is broken. We decided to take a different kind of tactic in reporting about it, which was not to just look at it from the litmus of the immediate but put some contextual or historical, or try to look at policing in different ways. Right now the City of Baltimore is facing the dilemma of probably having to spend 50 to 60 million dollars reforming policing. This is on top of the fact that we already spend 500 million dollars on policing. This is on top of the fact that last year alone we had 50 million dollars in overtime, it was 40 million dollars over budget. The continued costs, the continued rise in crime, you would think would call for something radical but nothing really radical has happened.
We just approved a consent decree monitor who is part, let me explain, from the justice department report, we entered a consent decree with the federal government. We just entered in that agreement and picked a monitor, so to speak, who will be monitoring the police department to make sure they’re compliant with this particular agreement. However, that monitor will cost about 1.75 million dollars a year. You add that onto pension costs, which are about 125 million dollars a year, and you have a situation where the city is basically stuck. We’re stuck; we spend more in policing year over year. We spend more in policing than we spend on schools, recreation and parks and yet our crime is higher than ever.
In a way, the reason I approached it from this perspective was because I think that emphasis has, not just to do with money and law enforcement but a sort of cultural and social dominance of the conversation to the point where I don’t think we really understand what’s going on in Baltimore. Now, Joyce may remember I was here, how many years ago when I did that? That was four or five years ago. I talked about this is some form, fashion, but really no one paid attention at that time. It took the uprising and what happened with Freddie Gray to really get people to think about this. Clearly, clearly all evidence aside, if policing is the solution to the problems in Baltimore it has not worked. I think it’s worthwhile to not look at policing just as a function or a part of governance but to look at policing as a communal philosophy that has to be reconsidered.
To try to understand, the point of our reporting was to try to get beyond this idea; that we have a police department here that’s a perfect administrator of justice, and the city government here and then wrap around services. Somehow all these things will coalesce towards a solution but that does not turn out to be the case. The question is why; why is it that policing continues on this path that doesn’t seem to be helping itself or the community it’s supposed to serve, and why do we constantly get embroiled in this debate that doesn’t seem to move or really change?
TAYA GRAHAM Officers felt so above the law, so free to act with impunity and to take whatever they wanted from the community that even though the federal government was literally leaning over their shoulders, watching what our police department was doing, it didn’t stop them in the least.
STEPHEN JANIS: I want to take people back a little bit just to explain how we got here and how we got with our story. I started recovering policing in 2006 with the now defunct Baltimore Examiner. It was a newspaper that was started and stopped within three years. I was the senior investigator and reporter. During that time, I kind of caught the tail end of a policy that was called Zero Tolerance. Does anybody know about that?
TAYA GRAHAM: Zero Tolerance is based off of broken windows theory, which was a short essay written by two people that created the idea of the city community as a building. If there were broken windows, there we nuisance crimes. If you took care of the nuisance crimes, then the rest of the crime would follow. If you had broken windows-
STEPHEN JANIS: And you fix the window.
TAYA GRAHAM: And you fix those windows, then you’re going to fix the community.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right.
TAYA GRAHAM: Let me just add that.
STEPHEN JANIS: Oh, I’m sorry.
TAYA GRAHAM: With Zero Tolerance, just much like it is with school, it’s one strike and we’re out, and it’s for very small crimes. When I looked through, I looked through about a year worth of police reports for 2006 and seven. The arrests were for things like expectorating, which is fancy for spitting on the sidewalk, or having an open container of beer, or urinating in public; very small crimes that people were being taken off the street and taken to jail for. As you can imagine, flooding our criminal justice system with people for such small crimes, putting really an undue burden on the entire judicial system but it also really hurt these people.
You can imagine spending two days in jail doesn’t help you if you have a job where you’re paid hourly,it can cause you to lose your job. There are certainly landlords now, even though it’s illegal to do this, if your landlord finds out you’ve spent some time in jail, you can be evicted. Technically they’re not supposed to but that kind of things happens all the time. Zero Tolerance really had a terrible impact on the community. During the height of it, which I think was in 2009, there were around roughly 106,000 arrests. In a city of 630,000 people, imagine 106,000 arrests. Of course some of these were repeats but that’s an incredible number of Baltimore citizens to be arrested at any given time.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. The reason I go back is sort of to see how we got here. This policy was big turning point for the city because people had been arguing we need to go with community policing. Mayor Martin O’Malley said, “No, no, no, we’re going to arrest as many people as entirely possible.” What really struck me about Zero Tolerance is I’d been writing about it, talking about stories about people getting arrested for all sorts of crazy stuff. One day I got a call from a source of mine, I had sources in all the prisons because that’s where everything happens unfortunately in Baltimore. He called me, he said, “Stephen, you’ve got to come down here, you’re not going to believe, I’m staring at this kid.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He goes, “They just arrested a seven year old.” I’m like, “What did you arrest a seven year old for?” He said, “I don’t know, I have no idea but come down here.” What had actually ended up happening, when I got down there I rushed around, I met the mother, we agreed to go back to her house. I was sitting there, and I’m like, “Why did they arrest your son?” She said, “Well, he was sitting on his mini electric bike and police officer took it because dirt bikes are illegal, but it wasn’t really a dirt bike.”
TAYA GRAHAM: They’re illegal in the city, they’re not illegal in the county.
STEPHEN JANIS: It wasn’t a dirt bike. “I called the Sergeant to complain because it was my son’s bike and I wanted it back. They showed up an hour later and they arrested him for riding a dirt bike.” As I started to ask this child, who had just turned seven, he was six, about the story he started crying. We took a picture, and it became this huge story because it was just hard for people to believe that the city would arrest a seven year old. What really stunned me was the reaction I got as a reporter from this particular case.
TAYA GRAHAM: For some people it wasn’t hard for them to imagine arresting a seven year old. The type of blow back he received was really shocking. People emailed him, contacted his newspaper and said things like, “That seven year old is an animal. He’s a drug dealer in the making. He’s a thug in the making.” For reporting on it, Stephen was called, the nicest of the words was, race traitor. There was a lot of blow back saying that this young boy who just turned seven years old was somehow already a criminal and already a thug.
STEPHEN JANIS: That was a point in time when I started thinking differently about policing. I couldn’t really understand why we would arrest a seven year old for something. I guess if he shot somebody. What was amazing was this story was picked up by like 115 newspapers, because people couldn’t believe we did it. There also was the argument, and this was after Freddie Gray, because the officers were arrested; the argument that, and this is an interesting argument, that the reason crime went up was because police were no longer willing to do their job, they took a knee, which is interesting to think about. Another thing to think about in this discussion of how we philosophize policing, that they said basically, we’re not going to enforce the law because you held us accountable. Even after the justice department report, there was very little change. That’s when we started talking about, what are we missing from the story of policing.
Of course, we’re journalists, so being a journalist you have certain limitations on how you can report things. You’re not supposed to offer an opinion, and you’re not supposed to inter prelate certain kinds of things into your reporting, you’re supposed to be pretty straight forward. It felt like we weren’t really getting some way to tell the story so people understood that there’s something here more than a discussion of law and order, or discussion of right and wrong. All the rhetorical elements that comprise a discussion of policing didn’t seem to be addressed with straight forward reporting of, this is what happened, and this is what didn’t happen. No matter how many times … As Taya pointed out, that was a damning report. It was how many pages? 200 pages.
TAYA GRAHAM:: 163 pages I think.
STEPHEN JANIS: If we as journalists had report about us like that, we would have been fired.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely.
STEPHEN JANIS: Nothing happened to the police department. In fact they got more money, they for $40,000,000 in overtime.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. As a matter of fact, Mayor Pew, the consent decree and the independent monitor kind of fell into her lap. Initially they were talking about, well, it might be $9,000,000 we need to give the police department. First it was six, then it was nine, then it was 12.
STEPHEN JANIS: 10 per year.
TAYA GRAHAM: Then she said it’ll be as much as they need.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right, so they’re talking about another $50,000,000 to increase training, to buy better equipment.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right, improve technology.
STEPHEN JANIS: Certainly, some of these things are legitimate. The question is, where does it end for this community, where do we come … Why can’t be get beyond this sort of rhetorical wall that all this money and everything is all going to be productively spent or encourage productive outcomes. That’s what is the heart of what we were talking about, and why we came up with the idea to do some stories that were a little bit off the traditional journalism framework. We can show you one of them right now. What precipitated this specifically was body camera footage. Go ahead Taya, sorry.
TAYA GRAHAM: I was just going to say we are finally have body cameras implemented in Baltimore City, which I think is a very positive thing. You may have seen some clips of the footage that seem a bit strange, it seems as if police officers are either … There’s two ways to view it. You could say they are reenacting how they discover evidence, or you could say they are planting evidence, depends on what side of that you land on. Either way, it is interfering with the chain of custody, you are not supposed to reenact placing evidence. What’s happened is, now that this body worn camera footage has come to light, the city states attorney’s office, Marilyn Moseby’s office has had to throw out a ton of cases, because you can’t interfere with the chain of custody like that.
STEPHEN JANIS: It’s caused a great amount of controversy because the police have been defensive in saying their officers were just, they got drugs, and later on they were just simply staging. Obviously the public defender and the defendant say no, they were planting evidence, which of course is pretty bad. What struck me about the footage, and the reason I use it in these stories, is it also told another narrative. In the city with hundreds of unsolved murders, why do we have police officer’s rummaging around the back of a row home in trash for four hours?
TAYA GRAHAM: For gel caps, which is worth about $40.
STEPHEN JANIS: This is the question, I want to pose this question, I think it’s an important question. We have people being murdered every day, yet this is our elite units, specialized units … Actually the one that came up after the gun trace task force, it’s called the District Action Team; they’re elite narcotics units, and they spend their time rummaging around in the back of Ro-home going through trash. What would be the point of that? I guess for the first time seeing it. I mean you see the hours that they’re spending to get like two gel caps. In fact, there’s one case that was covered where they arrested this man who have $5 cash. He ran and he dumped a little cigarillo pack, or what was it?
TAYA GRAHAM: Yeah, it’s like a cigar pack that had a little zip top.
STEPHEN JANIS: It had like five or six gel caps in it.
TAYA GRAHAM: Yeah, at the most.
STEPHEN JANIS: Later on, they couldn’t find it, so they tapped his phone. When they tapped his phone they sent out another four officers, who then staged finding it. Think about that, do you know what that costs to have seven or eight or 10 officers focused on this, to have people rummaging through. It just struck me as a total exercise in futility and we weren’t really understanding what it mean. The one thing we should mention in all this discussion is the war on drugs, right?
TAYA GRAHAM: Yeah.
STEPHEN JANIS: The war on drugs is a big part of that because it’s a very specific type of criminality. The war on drugs gives a police officer the power to arrest somebody for being proximate to a substance, for being in possession. It can be a crime of intent simply by volume, but when you think about it, if Taya was sitting here and there was more than 10 ounces of weed, she’s a criminal. Not 10 ounces, 10 grams.
TAYA GRAHAM: 10 grams.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right, sorry.
TAYA GRAHAM: If 10 ounces, I might be distributing.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. Just before they decriminalized marijuana, we did an analysis of marijuana arrests in Baltimore City for minor possession. There were 6,000 in, I think 2014. What do you think the racial breakdown on the marijuana arrests were, anyone want to take a guess?
The point is, the point is that you have this instrument in criminal justice to arrest people for proximity to a substance. From that, you get grants and money, and it generates a lot of money, and you can go into backyards and rummage around for hours, because as long as you find something, you have criminality.