Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Baltimore suddenly a punching bag in justice-reform debates

When Grits thinks of Baltimore, three things come to mind: 1) soft-shell crabs in the summertime, 2) the musical "Hairspray" ("Good morning, Baltimore!") and 3) "The Wire," which the missus and I binge-watched this year for the first time since it originally aired. But in recent years, the city has also become a conservative punching bag over crime, suffering from high murder rates and an intractably corrupt city bureaucracy seemingly incapable of steering the ship.

In recent NY Times op ed, columnist Bret Stephens offered up Baltimore as an example of the risks of rule by liberals aimed at placating protesters. He pointed to this extensive NY Times Magazine feature on Baltimore from last year to support his thesis, so I read the whole thing. It suggests a more complicated picture than just Democrats-are-inept. In fact, it attributed the crime spike mainly to a union-driven ploy to punish the city for perceived insults as a result of protests over Freddie Gray, a young black man killed in BPD custody:
The department’s officers responded swiftly, by doing nothing. In Baltimore it came to be known as “the pullback”: a monthslong retreat from policing, a protest that was at once undeclared and unmistakably deliberate — encouraged, some top officials in the department at the time believe, by the local police union. Many officers responded to calls for service but refused to undertake any “officer-initiated” action. Cruisers rolled by trouble spots without stopping or didn’t roll by at all. Compounding the situation, some of the officers hospitalized in the riot remained out on medical leave. Arrests plunged by more than half from the same month a year before. The head of the police union, Lt. Gene Ryan, called the pullback justifiable: “Officers may be second-guessing themselves,” he told The Sun. “Questioning, if I make this stop or this arrest, will I be prosecuted?”
The result: "residents were pleading for police officers to get out of their cars, to earn their pay — to protect them."

Notably, this sort of targeted worker slowdown just what Austin Police Association boss Ken Casaday threatened to do in Austin in response to recent calls for accountability. He shouldn't have authority to enact such a policy. But he might.

The Baltimore police commissioner "admitted he was having trouble getting officers to do their job. 'I talked to them again about character and what character means,'" but to no avail. According to the Times Magazine story, this was a particularly inept and corrupt era of political rule in Baltimore, empowering the union to play hard ball with public safety.

This explanation amazes me: What other job affords employees so much authority to openly defy their bosses and refuse to perform their duties? In what other job would employees continue to be paid if the employer could not verify they were performing the functions they were hired to undertake? How can officers be that brazen and not just be fired?

Having just read the NYTM article on Baltimore yesterday, this morning I was interested when Jerry Ratcliffe's "Reducing Crime" podcast published an interview with Danny Murphy, who is the deputy commissioner at Baltimore PD in charge of compliance with the DOJ consent decree the city presently operates under. The Baltimore consent decree has 511 separate paragraphs with which the city must comply. Murphy had previously held a similar position in New Orleans.

Ratcliffe wanted to portray the consent decree as insulting to officers and something they'd automatically chafe at. Murphy agreed that could happen. But he pushed back on the idea that there was an inherent tension between reform and crime fighting. He cited his experience in New Orleans to say that rebuilding community trust could be central to solving serious violent crimes that rely on witnesses, informants, etc., coming forward.

Their conversation was notably devoid of specific references to "police unions," using implied allusions to describe their agenda and treating them like the Dark Lord in a Harry Potter book as "He who must not be named." 

Still, Murphy's sanguine view on the feasibility of reform lays in stark contrast to Bret Stephens' darker, partisan framing. Stephens blamed protesters for the Baltimore "pullback." From these accounts, one could perhaps more credibly blame the police union and a lack of professionalism and discipline among the Baltimore PD ranks. That's a more entrenched and difficult problem that can't be solved with a single election.

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