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Frank DeFilippo: The Trials of Policing

Baltimore Police Department website

Policing, or civic peacekeeping, is dangerous work and in serious disrepute. Any day in a cop’s life on the streets can mean a bullet to the head or a job-ending rebuke in the personnel file or, in the extreme, a costly and damaging legal defense.

Entire police departments, from one-squad-car Palookavilles in the South to militia-style forces in big cities, are caught between the shifting demands of “Black Lives Matter” protesters on the march to the legalistic discipline enforcers in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. America is in an anti-cop mood.

Yet when President Trump came calling to Baltimore last week, officials did not summon the Pied Piper of Hamlin to rid the city of rodents, though representations were very much in evidence as reminders of the anthropomorphic rat that was in town. They sent cops to join federal security and tactical forces to provide a protective blue line for the president.

Across the spreadsheet, the lack of interest in police work is revealing itself in statistics as well as questions about public safety. As the number of cops drops, the crime rate simultaneously goes up. In Baltimore, a city of 622,000 and the scene of riots in 2015 and the extended police trials following the death of Freddie Gray, the number of cops dropped 6.1 percent and the homicide rate soared 63 percent to 344.

The number of homicides has been above 300 ever since. So far this year, the number of killings is still apace at 241 (as of this writing) by contrast to 199 at the same time last year. The sustained spurt in gun violence and weekend body-counts comes as the debate over expanded gun control laws intensifies following the recent string of mass shootings in which more than 50 people were slaughtered. Twenty-three kids have been killed by errant gunfire in St. Louis.

Polls continue to show overwhelming voter support for tightening gun laws while Trump and the Republican Senate stand pat with the NRA against new restrictions of any kind and a fear of antagonizing the gun-toters among Trump’s base.

It’s difficult to get a fix on exactly how many police officers are on the payroll in Baltimore. Its current website lists 3,200 “sworn officers and civilians.” But that figure includes everyone from chaplains to dispatchers to “unsworn” auxiliary police personnel.

The Baltimore Police Department is currently trying to fill 90 vacancies and is advertising for “millennial, local, minority, female” candidates to replenish its ranks. (Baltimore County recently discontinued a test for police applicants after the Justice Department declared it discriminatory against blacks because of the number who failed it.)

By comparison, the city ended 2015 with 2,634 sworn officers, down from 2,805 the previous year, according to a report at the time. And in 2016, the police force was down another 6.8 percent to 2,445 cops, and due to budget cuts, the department was allowed to expand to only 2,629 positions. Yet according to a Washington Post chart, Baltimore is second only to Washington, D.C., among nine major cities for the number of cops on the street – 47 for every 10,000 citizens. D.C. has 61 for every 10,000 residents.

A recent report revealed that 42 percent of the cops on Baltimore’s streets were on overtime, with some earning many thousands more annually that in some cases more than doubled their actual salaries. For example, one patrol officer earned $123,994 in overtime in 2017 on top of his $82,326 base pay, for a total of $206,320, according to a report in Baltimore Brew. (Some cops were caught routinely padding their time sheets.)

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced by letter that he is sending the city an additional $21 million to muscle up its battle against crime, but noted that he is displeased with the crime-fighting plan developed by Police Commissioner Michael Harrison which is designed, in part, to meet DOJ compliance requirements.

The visible shortage of cops is nationwide. Part of the blame is the cops themselves for their often inexplicable conduct as agents of the government who are knowingly armed and dangerous and occasionally downright abusive with their authority and license to kill. The scandalous behavior of Baltimore’s gun task force is a recent example.

There is no justification for shooting an unarmed citizen in the back. In Las Vegas, for example, a dramatic spike in crime was blamed on a shortage of police (as well as an influx of ex-cops from California). Homicides are up 73 percent and overall crime is up 22 percent as the original sin-city’s police department lost 500 positions.

Put another way, Las Vegas has 1.7 cops for every 1,000 residents while the national average is 2.18 per 1,000. As has often been observed, there was less crime in Vegas when it was controlled by the mob.


Frank A. DeFilippo

The city of San Jose, Calif., is another extreme example. It had declared at one point a state of emergency so that it could override the police association contract and re-deploy officers to street duty. San Jose has only 10 cops on the street for every 10,000 people.

Cities and towns across Michigan scrambled to beef up their police forces and had considered asking the state legislature for funds to sweeten the attraction. A website called “U.S. Police Link” dramatized the case at one point with an alarming bulletin – “Police desperately needed in 10 U.S. locations.” One estimate has it that applications to police academies are down 50 percent nationwide.

In short, the competition for cops is a national race. Sizeable signing bonuses have become common enticements, as much as $25,000 in Palo Alto, Calif., on top of salaries that start at $100,000.

Trying to achieve balance between adequate law enforcement and protection of civil liberties is the never-ending swing between tyranny and anarchy. Here are the numbers behind the numbers that show why being a cop has lost its appeal.

So far this year, 630 Americans have been shot by police, according to a running tally on The Washington Post database. The total killings by cops for 2018 was 992. In most cases, fatal shootings involving police are ruled justifiable homicide. But in a reverse demonstration of lethal gunplay, there have been 37 cops killed by gunfire so far this year, including those slain in Texas massacres.

Most memorably, there were five cops in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge who were gunned down in retaliation for the police shooting of blacks. According to the FBI, there are an average of 85 police officers killed every year in the line of duty by various means, 37 by gunfire. (In the trials of five officers indicted in the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, one ended in a hung jury, two were found not guilty and all remaining charges were dropped by the Baltimore City state’s attorney.)

But let’s not romanticize cops. Police departments are para-military organizations, and among their members are many bullies with badges who seem to have learned their codes of conduct from “Dirty Harry” movies. Much of the antagonism against police departments, especially those in cities with large black populations, is a reaction to tough police practices of two decades or more ago.

That is especially true in Baltimore, where Martin O’Malley (D), a former prosecutor, was elected mayor and governed for two terms (1999-2007) as a “zero tolerance” gangbuster. Yet O’Malley has been implicitly bum-rapped in the Justice Department review of the Baltimore Police Department for the black community’s hostility toward police, much of the blame being out of historical context. What seems like a bad policy now was considered trailblazing police procedure back then.

Zero tolerance, or arrests for even the pettiest of offenses, was considered enlightened law enforcement of its day. It was developed by the New York Police commissioner Bill Bratton and exported to other cities, notably Baltimore, with two highly compensated consultants and the enforcer that O’Malley would name police commissioner, Ed Norris.

Zero tolerance had rescued and resuscitated New York from crime and grit and O’Malley was convinced it would do the same for Baltimore. (New York City paid out more than $500 million to settle police brutality claims during Rudolph Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” reign as mayor, according to The New York Times.)

And surely worth noting, the administration of President Clinton funded zero tolerance with millions of federal dollars that helped to expand the police presence in Baltimore and elsewhere across the country. It was the hey-day of modern policing, and with it came “Compstat,” the computerized crime-mapping strategy that guided police to troubled areas of the city.

Norris and his Janissaries, pushed on by O’Malley, drag-netted street corners and alleys, arresting young and old for anti-social actions such as loitering or spitting on sidewalks. Most objectionable was the “stop and frisk” policy that even police complained to their union was being overused.

Few spent time in prison. Even fewer ever went to trial. But the victims, nonetheless, were charged and branded with criminal records as well as a paper trail that would follow through life. Many records have since been expunged by action of the General Assembly. The crime rate dropped dramatically during O’Malley’s two terms, by 48 percent, but it’s difficult to explain exactly why, according to criminology studies of the era.

During the Freddie Gray riots, O’Malley, then a candidate for president, lent his presence to the smudged neighborhood of Pennsylvania and North avenues to try and help restore calm. Instead, rightly or wrongly, he was the target of insults, threats and blame by young blacks for introducing the police policies that helped contribute to the conditions that led to violence and destruction.

But yesterday’s policing is today’s guilt trip. In place of zero tolerance, the Pentagon began arming police departments with surplus war-zone equipment and Baltimore was being surveilled surreptitiously by a wide-angle lens in the sky that could gulp 32 square miles of the city in one shutter click. (The city is only 80.9 square miles of land.) Hogan is demanding a return of the eye-in-the-sky as part of his difference with the city’s crime-fighting strategy.

(The spy plane experiment was funded through a grant from Texas billionaires John and Laura Arnold and filtered, in part, through the Baltimore Community Foundation, whose board, incidentally, includes O’Malley’s former chief of staff, Matthew D. Gallagher, and former mayor Kurt Schmoke, a former state’s attorney.) The secrecy of the aerial trial-run was one more reason in the case of distrust against police.

The cop on the beat, if there is any longer such a thing as a beat, is no longer the familiar policeman casually swinging a baton (in old Baltimorese known as an espantoon) who mediated neighborhood, even family, disputes.

Today, they are likely to be heavily recruited out-of-towners who prowl cities in a kind of underground war against denizens who are better armed than they are. And that’s one more reason why nobody wants to be a cop anymore.


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Frank DeFilippo: The Trials of Policing