There’s reason to be skeptical of the NYPD’s claim it disbanded its notorious plainclothes units, says Brandon Soderberg, author of the upcoming book I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. Weeks of sustained protests against police brutality have been met with violent police crackdowns and growing demands to disband and defund the police. The New York Police Department says it’s getting rid of its notorious plainclothes anti-crime units. For decades these plainclothes units, called that because they don’t wear standard uniforms and are part of specialized tactical units which aggressively, or as they say “proactively”, go after crime related to violence or drugs, are a major part of many cities’ police forces. These units in New York and across the country have built a reputation for being corrupt, abusive, and trigger-happy.
The NYPD’s plainclothes unit was responsible for 30% of fatal police shootings since 2000 according to The Intercept, and while some are praising the NYPD’s move as a positive, necessary step, others note that similar reforms have been announced before, but have not amounted to systemic change. Well, now joining us to discuss this is Brandon Soderberg. He has a new book coming out called, I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. It’s about plainclothes cops in Baltimore who robbed citizens, dealt drugs, and committed a number of other crimes before finally being caught after years of carrying out these practices. Brandon, thanks so much for joining us.
Brandon Soderbe…: Well, thanks for having me.
Jaisal Noor: From a policing perspective, what is the argument for plainclothes policing? We know they’re glorified in TV shows and movies as kind of the good guys that can bust those criminals, and those bad actors, and keep us all safe.
Brandon Soderbe…: Yeah, that’s a really good place to start because I think we need to begin by understanding why major city police departments have installed these units as essential to their crime fight. That’s because the idea is that these guys are so-called, as you said, proactive police. They’re going out there and they’re finding bad guys. They’re finding crime. They’re generally drug or gun units. I mean one example would be, the book Clockers is a great example, or all those shows where you see cops that are not in uniform but are in vests with Police on them, wear cargo pants, they’re running around throwing people against the wall. That’s plainclothes units.
The idea behind them is that their style of enforcement, which is more aggressive, it’s essential to a crime fight because when you’re pushing this aggressive policing, you’re having people out there on the streets responding to so-called problem people in the community rather than responding to say 911 calls. They’re busting drug dealers. They’re searching people and those types of things. The theory is that they locate by being the especially militarized wing of the department, they can bring down the crime among the so-called scariest people. I’m starting by giving you the police line, because I think we’re going to really unravel that. The other side of that is they cause a ton of chaos. As this data shows, 30% of shootings.
What I think it’s interesting with these units is it’s a strategy that involves that kind of aggressiveness, and so it’s not like the squad of plainclothes that over time is committing 30% of the police shootings in New York are bad apples every time. It’s that those kinds of units and their war-like tactics, which is running people down, throwing them against the wall, searching them, all those things, are central to that kind of so-called proactive policing and are the reason why they get into altercations, why shootings happen. They’re encouraged to be as aggressive as possible against a drug fight. And more recently, in cities like Baltimore really, as we shift away from drugs towards the gun fights, waging a war on guns the way we used to wage a war on drugs.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting, that’s a really important point I think to hammer into because not only have the last couple weeks shown that police are willing to kill people on camera, but also brutally repress protesters. We just saw a video of an officer shooting a window of someone who was filming a protest. That’s all caught on camera, but what these undercover cops are doing is often not seen, so that’s another level of impunity that these officers use, and that’s something that you’ve just written about in this new book.
Brandon Soderbe…: Yeah. One way to look at them, and I’m going to be a little hyperbolic here, because they’re almost like a shadow police force within the police force. They’re not undercover in a conventional sense that they blend into the community. You see them because …
Well anyway they police almost primarily, almost entirely, black communities. They’re generally, a lot of them are big bulky white guys that kind of stand out. But also they basically just wear like civilian clothes with a vest. And especially if you live in sort of wealthy or middle-class neighborhoods, especially white neighborhoods, you don’t have a lot of, or any real interaction with these kind of cops.
You only see them on TV, or if you’re in parts of the city that are heavily policed. So that’s something to think about is that this style of policing is something that’s not seen by a lot of people, and so the kind of behavior that we sometimes get caught on camera. A, that often is plainclothes. Eric Garner was plainclothes. The cops who killed him were plainclothes. Sort of infamously, Amadou Diallo in the late ’90s was shot 41 times. He was killed by plainclothes. It’s this aggressive policing that you generally see in what then would have been considered high crime, or as we might consider them, over-policed communities.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, and Amadou Diallo is an important case because that helped change the conversation in New York, and he was reaching for his wallet. Right? Then the police said he had a gun, and then shot him something like 41 times. I brought that up because after his death, and after these other high-profile cases of police killings or abuse, we always hear these police saying that they’re going to reform, they’re going to disband these units. We’ve seen that in places like Baltimore. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that these units are going to go away, so should the public be wary about such announcements like the one the NYPD made this week?
Brandon Soderbe…: Yeah, I think so. Well first of all, what does make this maybe more of a sweeping announcement is it’s the alleged disbanding of all these officers. Now, whether those officers are going to go to other units, are they going to bring the tactics they’ve been taught and awarded for, to those units? That’s a concern, so if we’re just changing plain clothes in name, that’s possibly, presumably what this is. The Intercept’s Alice Speri wrote about this this week as well, and just kind of showed that that’s what we generally do. I can say, for example, in Baltimore, this has been a long-standing game where you dissolve a unit. For example, a long time ago there were these units called VCIS, Violent Crime Impact Section, VCIS.
They changed the name of the unit. They’re doing the same thing, but they changed the name of it. They’re making an announcement, “Hey. There’s been this scandal within this squad,” and they’re still trying to isolate it to a squad. The difference would be New York sort of saying, “We don’t like this kind of policing.” That’s more of a step forward, at least in rhetoric. The police union, of course, already opposed it, and whether that really means they’ll do that or not is questionable. I mean I can say, after the gun trace task force scandal here in Baltimore, which my book is about, just a bunch of plainclothes police officers really ran wild after the uprising. With that, after those guys were convicted in 2017, our commissioner at the time, Commissioner Kevin Davis here in Baltimore said, “I’m disbanding these units.” Then you read more into it.
It’s like, “Well, they’re going to wear uniforms. They’re going to do the same kind of stuff,” and so that might bring some kind of accountability. But there’s a real tendency to make these sweeping announcements, frame this as a shift, when really it just means re-imagining these things in the same way we’ve always done it, or spreading these hard-chargers from these units that are known for busting heads all throughout the department. And I believe they’re still keeping plainclothes in subways too, which is as we’ve seen all the time there’s plenty of interaction in subways in New York where someone hops a toll and suddenly they have a big guy in a vest on top of them tackling them.
Jaisal Noor: You know what’s interesting, I thought about the NYPD’s move is that it’s coming at a time when more and more people are demanding police get less resources and those resources get shifted to actually help address the reason why police are being called in the first place. For job creation, for education, for all these issues. I know in New York hundreds of current and former staffers of the mayor, Bill de Blasio, have called for defunding the police there.
And it seems like a big chunk of the leadership of the city council has also supported that call. They want a billion dollars diverted from New York’s $6 billion police budget. So it sort of seems to me like this is sort of a bait-and-switch, which we’ll see in other police departments too where there’s calls for more radical change. So this is being presented as like a sort of response to these greater calls, but as you said there’s reason to be skeptical.
Brandon Soderbe…: Yeah. I mean I think that, again, I think it’s worth acknowledging that saying you’re disbanding plainclothes entirely, or for the most part in New York, is a little better than what other cities have done. I don’t believe they’ll follow through with this. I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that other cities ever followed through with it. But it still does sort of shift the conversation from defund to, again, reform because of the … Again, this is 600 officers. I believe the strategy of plainclothes, which is to enter neighborhoods and cause chaos
… Remember, they don’t respond to calls. Their job isn’t to help you. Their job is only to bust you, or to bust people around you, and to create chaos. That’s what they do, and so disbanding that as an idea is great, but how that manifests or, where these 600 officers go …
Okay, so if 30% of shootings are because of these officers, well these officers are part of a unit that I think encourages that kind of behavior, but also they are officers that have done these things, and they’re generally going to keep their jobs. I don’t hear any more oversight over them, or there’s not sort of a … You know you almost need to retrain plainclothes in terms of the drug war, and show them the limits of the drug war because the entire idea behind plainclothes is investigative and aggressive in communities where the drug war is being waged most heavily. And so you have to almost retrain these guys to suddenly be shown like, “Hey, all the things you’ve been told to do, which is sort of versions of stop-and-frisk and all that kind of thing, you now need to undo.” That’s going to take more than just publicly saying, “Hey, this unit is disbanded.”
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, and then New York is interesting because the NYPD’s budget continued to increase even as crime had fallen and remained low so they’re really facing some questions about how they can justify this $6 billion budget, which I think I read was larger, it’s a larger defense budget than dozens of countries. Like dozens of countries spend less on their militaries than New York City spends on its police force. But the situation in Baltimore is different because it does have a very high violent crime rate, a high murder rate, and so that’s where some of the pushback is from these calls for defunding the police in Baltimore and other high-crime cities is that, “Look, we can’t do that. It’s a different situation than in places like New York or L.A.” What’s your response to that?
Brandon Soderbe…: I mean I think that from a certain point I understand where they’re coming from, which is, it is certainly easier to disband a violent unit in a city that has way less of a crime rate. But we also don’t know what it looks like because we never tried it, and that’s the bigger problem. To Baltimore I’d say, again, I’m kind of just explaining the police logic of this here, is that you want a plainclothes unit because they’re getting the bad guys, the guys that are doing the worst things, the big drug dealers, the shooters, or whatever. You believe in this theory. I just want to make it clear. This is where they are standing. So the idea is that if you provide them with that freedom, you don’t have to have a lot of oversight.
That’s another problem, is that Baltimore City in particular has terrible accountability, and so previous police command and things I’ve spoken to have said, “Well, when you do these kinds of units, you need to really watch their eyes because their whole job is running wild. You have to really rein them in.” There’s not a lot of evidence that Baltimore can do that, and I don’t think New York has been doing it either just in terms of knowing the shootings, so that’s the idea. So I can see why from a city like Baltimore that’s never tried it we’d be nervous. But I think that we need to start understanding these plainclothes units are very close to war units in terms of how they deal with the citizenry, and that they create a lot of chaos, and they create a lot of crime, and they’re given a lot of freedom to do that, to do what they want to do.
The result of that is, they tend to be really corrupt because they are in it together. It’s four or five of them together every day, all day busting heads. They tend to trust each other. In Baltimore at least, I was told that part of plainclothes generating trust was stealing money together. So that kind of war mentality mixed with their tactics is going to have some real problems, and I think that if we could understand how to undo that a little bit, or begin to undo it, we’d be better off. I think that if you start to think these guys do prevent crime, you’re going to push back.
We start to realize that I think they cause a lot of chaos, which I think creates a lot of crime, especially with the most corrupt, like the guys I’m writing about. They are stealing from people. They’re arresting someone for a gun, handing him the gun, and stealing the guy’s $10,000 or whatever. That creates violence in a community. That guy doesn’t have money. He can’t pay his plug or whatever, so they really do create chaos. And I think they’re intentionally creating chaos even when they’re so-called aboveboard and not being corrupt, because you sort of see them coming. You see it in The Wire. Herc and Carver knock, and so they run out of their car and they tackle people.
They traumatize the communities. It scares communities. It disrupts economies, especially underground economies which are crucial to these communities because of how we’ve policed, and they just create a lot of chaos. So I think the trade-off of that chaos would be a concept that maybe crime would increase even more in a city like Baltimore is a trade-off that I think politicians at least need to start thinking about and not be like, “We can’t get rid of these hard-chargers because then crime will go up.” Well, crime has been continually been going up in Baltimore since 2015, and we’ve certainly given these plainclothes units a lot of freedom.
Jaisal Noor: All right, Brandon Soderberg, thank you so much for joining us. The next time we have you on, we’ll be talking about your upcoming book, I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad, which is a absolutely fascinating story in itself, but will have lots of implications and lessons for the conversations we’re having today as they unfold. You know, we’re at an historic point I feel like in this country around these conversations. A growing number of people want some real change in the police force, and in police forces across the country. And the police are not helping their own case by the way they’re treating nonviolent protesters around the country. I feel like even more and more people are getting on board with the need to have some systemic change of the police forces around the U.S. Thank you so much for joining us.
Brandon Soderbe…: Thank you.
Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
General Assignment Reporter
Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent.
Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.