- - Sunday, June 7, 2015


By the standards of history and current national practice, the Baltimore riots were mild, and controlled with relative ease. Some officers were injured by thrown rocks, but there were no gunshots at or from the police. No substantial violence was directed at reporters or other citizens, and the burning and looting of stores was minimal; the bulk of the city was untouched. This was the work not of vicious adults but of undisciplined and untutored children, students from three local high schools.

But the damage to the Baltimore Police Department is the work of conscious and determined adults, and it has only begun to appear.

Most important is a fracture in the trust that is the heart of the compact between citizens and their police. Police do not command citizens, who in Baltimore outnumber sworn officers by well over 200 to one, and in the nation by more than 450 to one. Police instruct, advise and counsel citizens of all types and categories. Only in the rarest of instances do they arrest or physically restrain citizens; and when they do make an arrest, those arrested resist physically in fewer than 1 percent of cases.

This is why wise and experienced officers say that talking to people in all their infinite variety — witnesses, offenders and their victims, dope sellers and stoners, informants, public officials, corner kids and grandmothers, teachers and pupils, nurses, businessmen and beggars, bartenders and drunks, truck drivers, sanitation men, prostitutes and reporters, other cops and prosecutors — is the one essential police skill, and the most important part of the job. This is how police learn what is going on. This is how they find criminals to arrest, victims to protect, and community problems to work on.

But people will talk to police only if they trust them. And the public authorities of Baltimore during this civic crisis have told their citizens, and particularly their black citizens, that police officers are not worthy of their trust. The state’s attorney told black teenagers that their riotous “protest” had been necessary to cause the department to be investigated and charged with wrongdoing. Even before the death of Freddie Gray, the mayor and the police commissioner had pronounced themselves unable to control the supposed misconduct and racial prejudice of their own officers. After the riots his death triggered, they asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute the police department that is by law under their own command. The City Council and other officials eagerly piled on.

And the state’s attorney then indicted six officers, although she has offered convincing evidence of criminal activity against not a single one.

What can citizens believe when their own elected representatives tell them their police are not to be trusted?

Just as important, many Baltimore police have lost trust in their commanders and in the political leaders of the city.

That is the plain meaning of the miserable facts of the last month. Arrests are down to half their previous level. Homicides have nearly doubled. Violence and disorder spread. Citizens complain that officers are not patrolling, not clearing their streets and corners. Officers are not on strike, but neither are they working with energy and initiative; they understandably fear that putting their hands on criminals may lead instead to their own arrest and prosecution. The mayor and the commissioner tell us they are hopeful that the police will get back to work. They are completely at sea.

This is what can happen when you lose the trust of your police officers. Just as officers cannot command obedience from citizens, mayors and police commissioners cannot force performance from officers. Police in America are protected by the time-honored and entrenched laws of the civil service. They cannot be held to even a standard of average performance; the most on which their supervisors can legally insist is performance at the level of the lowest common denominator. So if their commanders accompany officers on the street and order them to arrest a particular individual, officers must and will make that arrest. But they cannot be forced to act, much less to act aggressively and on their own initiative, when out of the direct vision and control of their superiors.

In evident desperation, the mayor and police commissioner are turning once again to the federal government. Having just sicced the feds on his own department, the commissioner now asks for federal drug agents and prosecutors to do the work his officers are avoiding as a result. But the feds have neither the manpower nor the knowledge and skills to police the streets of Baltimore. Still less are they able to push local police officers into meaningful action on the street. By punishing and prohibiting much effective police action, the feds have shown their ability to produce paralysis in many police departments, but that is not much help to citizens needing protection from crime.

Can anything be done? The Baltimore Police Department has many courageous, dedicated and brilliant officers. But even these cannot rebuild the essential mutual trust of the city, unless political leaders are willing to reverse their horribly misguided course and start supporting the police and the people who depend upon them. The time is very short.

Adam Walinsky is president of the Center for Research on Institutions and Social Policy.

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