What happens when LEOs—frustrated, angry, discouraged, vengeful, or apprehensive about anti-police outbursts from communities they serve—turn a blind eye to self-initiated, pro-active law enforcement?
The city of Baltimore is one place to look for an answer—and the newspaper USA Today has done just that in a recent investigative report with sobering implications.
Back in 2015, Baltimore cops came under siege after a black arrestee, Freddie Gray, died of injuries he sustained during transport in the back of a police van while he was handcuffed but not protectively restrained by a seatbelt.
Protests erupted, then fiery riots. Local politicians heaped invective on the police, within days prosecutors charged six officers for Gray’s death, and months later the federal DOJ loosed a hailstorm of accusations against the troops, alleging rampant and ingrained civil rights violations on the street.
“Immediately upon the riot, policing changed in Baltimore, and it changed very dramatically,” says Donald Norris, an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy who reviewed USA Today’s investigative findings.
The effect, the newspaper says, was “swift and substantial. Officers in nearly every part of the city appeared to turn a blind eye to everyday violations. They still answered  calls for help,” and did so as quickly as ever. “But the number of potential violations they reported seeing themselves [on-view offenses] dropped by nearly half. It has largely stayed that way ever since.”
“DRIVING WITH HORSE BLINDERS”
Digging through more than 5,000,000 police records from 2013 to 2017, USA Today researchers established plentiful evidence that officers, in the words of a retired detective, began “just driving looking forward [with] horse blinders on,” initiating far fewer encounters than customary.
- After the Gray incident, “dispatch records show the number of suspected narcotics offenses police reported themselves dropped 30%,” the newspaper reveals.
- The “number of people [officers] reported seeing with outstanding warrants dropped by half.”
- “The number of field interviews…dropped 70%.”
“Where once it was common for officers to conduct hundreds of car stops, drug stops, and street encounters every day, on May 4, 2015, three days after city prosecutors announced that they had filed charges against six officers over Gray’s death, the number fell to just 70,” the paper reports.
“The average number of incidents police reported themselves dropped from an average of 460 a day in March to 225 a day in June of that year, even though summer weather typically brings higher crime. By the end of last year, it was lower still.”
What’s up is crime. “The outcome of the change in policing,” says Prof. Norris, “has been a lot more crime in Baltimore, especially murders. And people are getting away with those murders.”
“Violence in the city [has] leapt to historic highs,” USA Today states. “The number of shootings in some neighborhoods has more than tripled.” The murder rate “reached an all-time high last year” when 342 people were killed.
“The surge of shootings and killings [has made] Baltimore easily the deadliest large city in the United States.”
Some other criminal activity has flourished as well, the newspaper reports. A minister whose church is in a neighborhood where at least 41 people have been shot remarks on “so many young men selling [drugs] so brazenly in so many places” now as lawbreakers take advantage of “a newly timid police force.” Drug dealers “are taking control,” the minister says. “We have a community that is afraid.”
Experts quoted in the paper’s report caution that there’s no proven cause-and-effect connection between reduced proactive policing and increased crime. But the correlation is described as “troubling.”
And, USA Today suggests, the situation in Baltimore is likely not an isolated phenomenon. The police reaction there “fits a wider pattern,” the paper says. “Nearly three-quarters of police officers who responded to a Pew Research Center survey last year said high-profile incidents had left them less willing to stop and question people…who seem suspicious.”
To a retired lieutenant from Baltimore, a retreat from aggressive policing is clearly understandable, given the tenor of the times. “Nobody,” he says, “wants to put their head in a pizza oven when the pizza oven is on.”
Click here to read USA Today’s published account of its research findings.
Editor’s Note: An academic research team is currently finalizing a study on the broad-based impact of “de-policing” related to high-profile suspect deaths. Their work will examine the phenomenon in 47 US cities, with an in-depth examination of circumstances in St. Louis. Their work is expected to show a Baltimore-like pattern of fewer arrests and spiking homicides after the protest-provoking fatalities of black suspects. We’ll be reporting on this study once it is concluded.
Meanwhile, at about the time USA Today published its Baltimore report, angry demonstrators in Chicago marched in protest of police fatally shooting an armed suspect who was reaching toward his gun as he wrested away from officers during a field interview. Some of the crowd hurled stones and glass bottles filled with urine at officers. Among their demands: the immediate abolishment of the Chicago Police Dept.