WHY BALTIMORE BLEW UP
It wasn’t just the killing of Freddie Gray. Inside the complex legal infrastructure that encourages — and covers up — police violence
BY MATT TAIBBI
When Baltimore exploded in protests a few weeks ago following the unexplained paddy-wagon death of a young African-American man named Freddie Gray, America responded the way it usually does in a race crisis: It changed the subject.
Instead of using the incident to talk about a campaign of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of illegal searches and arrests across decades of discriminatory policing policies, the debate revolved around whether or not the teenagers who set fire to two West Baltimore CVS stores after Gray’s death were “thugs,” or merely wrongheaded criminals.
From Eric Garner to Michael Brown to Akai Gurley to Tamir Rice to Walter Scott and now Freddie Gray, there have now been so many police killings of African-American men and boys in the past calendar year or so that it’s been easy for both the media and the political mainstream to sell us on the idea that the killings are the whole story.
Fix that little in-custody death problem, we’re told, perhaps with the aid of “better training” or body cameras (which Baltimore has already promised to install by the end of the year), and we can comfortably go back to ignoring poverty, race, abuse, all that depressing inner-city stuff. But body cameras won’t fix it. You can’t put body cameras on a system.
As a visit to post-uprising Baltimore confirms, high-profile police murders are only part of the problem. An equally large issue is the obscene quantity of smaller daily outrages and abuses that regularly go unpunished by a complex network of local criminal-justice bureaucracies, many of which are designed to cover up bad police work and keep all our worst behaviors hidden, even from ourselves.
Go to any predominantly minority neighborhood in any major American city and you’ll hear the same stories: decades of being sworn at, thrown against walls, kicked, searched without cause, stripped naked on busy city streets, threatened with visits from child protective services, chased by dogs, and arrested and jailed not merely on false pretenses, but for reasons that often don’t even rise to the level of being stupid.
“I can guarantee if you look up here and look down there, it might be five people who ain’t been fucked over by the police,” says Baltimore resident Shaun Young, waving a hand at a crowd of maybe a hundred people gathered at Penn and North, site of the protests. “It’s small shit — they get taken advantage of.”
A. Dwight Pettit, a legendary African-American civil rights lawyer in Baltimore, says he and others in the city’s legal community stopped pursuing what he calls “simple civil rights violations” years ago: the verbal-abuse cases, the humiliating cavity searches conducted in public, the non-lethal beatings. “We were dumping them on each other,” he says. “But we had to stop. There were just too many.”
Most Americans have never experienced this kind of policing. They haven’t had to stare down the barrel of a service revolver drawn for no reason at a routine stop. They haven’t had their wife and kids put on an ice-cold sidewalk curb while cops ran their license plate. They haven’t ever been told to get the fuck back in their car right now, been accused of having too prominent a “bulge,” had their dog shot and their kids handcuffed near its body during a wrong-door raid, watched their seven-year-old dragged to jail for sitting on a dirt bike, or dealt with any of a thousand other positively crazy things nonwhite America has come to expect from an interaction with law enforcement. “It’s everywhere,” says Christen Brown, who as a 24-year-old city parks employee was allegedly roughed up and arrested just for filming police in a parking lot. “You can be somewhere minding your business and they will find their best way to fuck with you, point blank. It’s blatant disrespect.”
This system, now standard in almost all of urban America, is Mayberry on one side and trending Moscow or 1980s South Africa on the other. Why? Because America loves to lie to itself about race. It’s able to do so for many reasons, including the little-discussed fact that most white people have literally no social interactions with black people, so they don’t hear about this every day.
Police brutality is tough to talk about because white and black America see the issue so differently, with white Americans still overwhelmingly supportive and trustful of law enforcement. But the current controversy is as much about how modern law-enforcement practices have ruined the job of policing as it is about racism. There are plenty of good cops out there, but the way policing works in cities like Baltimore, the bad ones can thrive. And disasters aren’t just more likely, they’re inevitable.
Baltimore is like a lot of American cities. It has a small, spiffy-looking downtown with a couple of nice ballparks and some Zagat-listed restaurants for the tourists to visit. But outside those few blocks, much of it is a dead zone. Whole sections of town are packed with crumbling, trash-infested row houses, and this pothole-strewn mess is where people are somehow expected to live. The drug trade has historically dominated Baltimore’s ghettos. But the city is so screwed these days, jokes one African-American resident, that “even the drug game is dead.”
It’s against the backdrop of abandoned cityscapes like this that the current policing controversy rages. The king of modern enforcement strategies, Broken Windows, isn’t designed to promote economic growth in these neighborhoods. It’s designed to prevent the “bad” neighborhoods from spilling into the “good” ones.
Broken Windows policing, which gained renown in the Nineties thanks to politicians like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is the mutant offspring of our already infamous race history, a set of high-tech tricks to disguise old-school discriminatory policing as cheery-sounding, yuppie-approved, Malcolm Gladwell-endorsed pop sociology. The ideas grew out of a theory advanced in 1982 by a pair of academics, James Q. Wilson of Harvard and George Kelling of Rutgers. “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” the pair wrote in The Atlantic, arguing in “Broken Windows” that disorder and crime were “inextricably linked” and that fixing the former would impact the latter.
The practical application of these ideas was simple. In the interest of public order, cops would stop people in troubled neighborhoods for any infraction, no matter how minor — a broken taillight, a hopped turnstile, an open beer — in hopes of deterring more-serious crimes.
Broken Windows was introduced in New York in 1990, when a Bostonian named Bill Bratton was named the city’s Transit Police chief. At the time, New York was plagued by street crime, with a murder rate north of 2,000 killings a year. Any idea that seemed like it had half a chance of working seemed like a good idea.
After Giuliani made Bratton his police commissioner in 1994, the two men took the Broken Windows approach to the next level. New terms entered the lexicon — “zero tolerance,” “stop-and-frisk,” “community policing” (an Orwellian euphemism every bit as preposterous as the Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives dreamed up by the Bush administration). These new, more interventionist strategies relied on endless streams of adversarial interactions between police and the subject population, stopping and sometimes searching people by the thousands.
Soon, the crime rate began to decline sharply, and the media rushed to laud Giuliani and Bratton for slaying the criminal dragon. Time put Bratton on its cover, dressed in a trench coat and standing at night on a New York street conspicuously empty of anything but a squad car. The headline: “Finally, We’re Winning the War Against Crime.” Of course, there would later be a tremendous controversy over whether these new policing strategies had anything to do with the drop in New York’s crime rate. Other cities that didn’t use these programs saw similar declines, in a phenomenon that criminologists are still at a loss to explain.
Bratton instituted a statistics-based system called CompStat, which required precinct captains to give regular reports to their superiors about numbers of arrests, stops and searches. As retired police Capt. Ernie Naspretto explained in a piece for the Daily News years later, it wasn’t enough to merely say you were out there on the street, executing mass numbers of field interrogations. “If it ain’t on paper, it ain’t,” he wrote. “Stop-and-frisk became a means for us to show we were still fighting crime.”
For the officer on the ground, stop-and-frisk meant a commitment to a new, highly interventionist kind of policing, and one that was inherently discriminatory. Sgt. Anthony Miranda is a retired New York police officer and president of the National Latino Officers Association. He’s a tall, powerfully built man who has the air of someone whose sheer size makes telling the blunt truth easier. He recalls a story from the early Eighties about how New York developed its two-faced zero-tolerance enforcement policy, one that would be imitated all over the country.
He walked a beat in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. During the High Holidays, he explains, many residents in the area refrained from using electricity or doing certain tasks, and police traditionally helped. But he was with a group of younger cops who didn’t want to just stand around. “So we used to go out there, and if you were parked illegally, bang, you summonsed them,” Miranda says. “We were doing what cops were used to doing — giving activity,” he adds, referring to tickets and arrests.
After doing that a few times, all of the young cops got called in. “They lined everybody up on the street, had commanding officers come down, and they said, ‘You’re not out here to give summonses. You’re not out here to make arrests. You’re out here for armed presence.’ ”
Miranda remembered that story later on when Broken Windows started under Giuliani. Like a lot of police officers, Miranda liked the idea at first. Broken Windows, he says, seemed like a good tool to bring a crisis situation under control. But after a while, the emergency abated, crime went down, and what he was left staring at as a police officer was a discrepancy. In affluent neighborhoods, that is, generally, white neighborhoods, police tended to show up only when they had no choice. “Domestic violence, a guy firing a weapon, a car accident,” he says. “Cases where, if a cop ends up responding, he has to take some action.” But, Miranda says, you weren’t supposed to go looking for reasons to arrest people in those neighborhoods.
But in poorer neighborhoods, cops weren’t waiting for people to call 911 — they were, in police parlance, “self-initiating” the action. “If it’s Bed-Stuy or some poor neighborhood in the middle of a ghetto,” he says, “it could be a Catholic church and they’ll find the priest and bang the shit out of him with summonses.”
The sociological idea behind Broken Windows was pitched as something much more benign, of course. It was supposed to be the government version of tough love. And it was an easy sell politically, particularly to white and upper-class New York. From the point of view of the uptown crowd, it was a cheaper solution to urban decay than creating jobs. It also had the advantage of blaming the subject population for the rot and destruction of crime.
The legal precedent for these policies dates back to a 1968 Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio, in which the high court ruled that police may approach, search and demand to see the identification of any person the officer has an “articulable” suspicion has committed, or is about to commit, a crime. Although the court ruled that this “suspicion” needed to be more than a mere policeman’s hunch and must be based on “articulable facts,” the reality is that a) Sherlock Holmes, Thurgood Marshall and Miss Cleo put together couldn’t tell you what qualifies as the “articulable” suspicion of a beat cop, and b) this decades-old precedent case essentially transferred the power of the state into the minds of street-level patrol officers.
Giuliani and Bratton, and later Bratton’s successor, Howard Safir, made themselves famous crime fighters by vastly increasing the scope and number of such “Terry stops.” Sweep up everyone, see what shakes out.
Community policing sounds harmless, like they were just sending patrolmen out to chat with old ladies on stoops about which neighborhood trees were most dangerous for cats. But in practice, it meant sending cops by the thousands into tough neighborhoods to, as Miranda says, “bang the shit” out of locals. Police braced people on sidewalks and in alleyways, asked for IDs, executed pat-downs, turned pockets inside out and emptied pad after pad of summonses.
A City University of New York professor eloquently described the mission creep of Broken Windows last year. “If the problem is a broken window, they should fix the window,” professor Steve Zeidman told Reuters. “But somehow we don’t fix the window, we just arrest people who start hanging out by the broken window.”
At the policy’s height, in 2011, New York cops were stopping more than 680,000 people a year (around 89 percent of whom were nonwhite, in a city whose population is more than half white) and issuing upward of half a million summonses a year. Though a landmark 2013 ruling by federal judge Shira Scheindlin would ostensibly outlaw the stop-and-frisk policies, many other cities — among them Philadelphia, Seattle, New Orleans and Boston — would create their own aggressive policing policies. “What New York developed,” says Miranda, “was the blueprint other states followed.” Smaller towns also adopted it, some with especial verve. A Miami exurb called Miami Gardens executed more than 99,000 stops in a five-year period, and reportedly stopped the same black man 258 times — including dozens of inexplicable arrests for trespassing at the convenience store where he worked.
Bratton moved to Los Angeles in 2002 and promptly launched a similar program there. By 2008, L.A. was making more than 870,000 stops a year, a rate significantly higher than was ever seen in New York. Chicago, too, was recently found to still be stopping people at a rate four times higher than New York at its peak.
Though academics were already claiming that stop-and-frisk tactics didn’t work, those critiques didn’t yet enjoy the consensus they do now. In fact, stop-and-frisk wasn’t just still hot at the time, it was intellectual chic. In 2000, America’s leading fast-food philosopher, Malcolm Gladwell, helped launch his career on the back of a half-baked analysis of Broken Windows in a book called The Tipping Point.
So when O’Malley started his version of Broken Windows, he had a mandate, and it’s not surprising that Baltimore’s program was wildly aggressive. At its peak, in 2005, an incredible 108,000 of the city’s 600,000 residents were arrested. Later on, critics like The Wire creator David Simon, would describe O’Malley’s police department as obsessed by statistics, determined to produce crime-reduction rates that were “unsustainable without manipulation.” The emphasis on stats, Simon said, “destroyed police work,” forcing cops into the roles not of investigators and protectors, but of strong-armers bent on producing numbers above all else. Zero tolerance also forced cops to behave in ways that were virtually guaranteed to piss people off on a mass scale.
The policy was ostensibly dialed back in court thanks to a joint NAACP and ACLU lawsuit filed in 2006. But Baltimore remains a place where police stop pedestrians, ask them for ID and sometimes take them for rides if they give the wrong answers. “First thing they say is, ‘Gimme your ID,’ ” says Malik Ansar, 44, who’s standing on the corner of Penn and North in the days after Freddie Gray’s death. “They look and say, ‘Oh, you live in ZIP code 21227. What you doing way over here?’ ”
Ansar points at a run-down town house behind him. “You can tell him you were born in this house right here. They don’t care. They say, ‘You live here now?’ And you say, ‘No, man, I moved outta here 17 years ago.’ And they say, ‘What the fuck you doing here now?’ ”
The way residents like Ansar describe it, if you’re not at the address listed on a photo ID, you go into the paddy wagon. But if you run, it’s worse. “Then, it’s an ass-whipping,” says a nearby bystander. “Believe me, Freddie [Gray] knew he was gonna get an ass-whipping if he got caught. . . . Everybody knows that. It may not be a real bad one, but you gonna get one.”
So most people go along, which at minimum is a huge waste of time. Ansar’s friend, who goes by the name of Big T, says if you get picked up at lunchtime, you’re lucky if you make it to central booking by five. You spend the whole freaking day in that hot, cramped van.
And once you get to booking? “You’re spending the night,” says Big T. “It’s just them saying, ‘We’re gonna get you.’ ”
Many of these “cases” of loitering, or disorderly conduct, or whatever, never amount to anything, and if they do, get dropped as soon as anyone with half a brain and a law degree sees the charging papers. But the endless regimen of street interrogations and “long rides” serves its own moronic purpose, being a clumsy, bluntly illegal method of intimidating residents and searching whole neighborhoods without probable cause.
“They hoping that a warrant pop,” says Ansar of the trips to central booking. “And then they hoping that your ass don’t be coming around here no more. Because the police be trying to build a reputation.”
People are focused on how violative these policies are to the population, but the flip side is that this high-volume, low-yield approach to enforcement is a terrible policy for good cops, too. “Right now, it’s like they’re saying, ‘We have a robbery problem, and we fixed it,’ ” says Miranda. “Actually, no, you didn’t fix it, you just arrested everybody. It’s lazy policing.”
As fig leaves go, articulable suspicion is a particularly skimpy one, as multiple studies of these tactics have shown. In Newark, for instance, a Department of Justice investigation found that more than 60 percent of police stops failed to articulate reasonable suspicion. An ACLU study of Chicago’s stop-and-frisk program found officers routinely cited bogus reasons like a prior arrest or an observable “bulge” as their articulable suspicion.
You can do the math yourself. If cities like Chicago and Los Angeles and New York were, or are, routinely stopping and questioning more than half a million people a year, and if as many as half of those stops lack real cause, then at minimum we’re talking millions of potentially illegal incidents.
Decades into this campaign of organized harassment, the worst thing that happened to the cops who stopped thousands upon thousands of people with no good reason was that they started to become the subject of academic studies. In 2013, New York University examined the data relating to CompStat and the Broken Windows arrests and concluded that they had little to no impact on the crime rate.
Despite such conclusions and lawsuit rulings that declared these programs discriminatory, nobody was ever punished. Giuliani didn’t show up in Bed-Stuy with a fruit basket. Malcolm Gladwell didn’t have to give back his Tipping Point royalties. And nobody had to apologize.
Lack of consequence rarely goes unnoticed in big bureaucracies. So it’s hardly surprising that police started crossing a new line: inventing reasons not just for stops and searches but for arrests.
Twenty-year-old Jaleel Fields lives in an East New York project not far from the one where Akai Gurley — if you’re keeping score, he was the young black man killed after Michael Brown and before Walter Scott — was shot in a stairwell by a rookie officer last fall. Fields’ case is typical in most ways, which is why you didn’t hear about it.
A thin young man with a quick sense of humor, Fields was heading to the grocery store in February 2013 and made the mistake of getting into an elevator with two police officers. A civil complaint he later filed describes how the problem started when he laughed as the police argued with another young man in the elevator.
Police claimed that Fields blocked the elevator door, then made things worse after he left the elevator by elbowing a police officer, hiding his hands and struggling. Fields’ story is different. “He just came, pushed me straight back to the corner,” he says. “He’s like, ‘Oh, you think you could bump a cop and get away with it?’ I looked at him like, ‘What? I ain’t touch no cop. I ain’t touch no cop. What are you talking about?’ ”
Fields got charged for resisting arrest, attempted assault in the third degree, disorderly conduct, and harassment in the second degree. He had to spend a day in jail. No one outside his family and friends would ever know a thing about this case, except for the atypical part of the narrative, which was that the action in the elevator was captured on video. (The NYPD says it can’t comment on a sealed case.) The video clearly shows that Jaleel Fields not only didn’t block the elevator door, he expressly stepped aside to let people on and off and stood in a corner for most of the ride. Fields’ real crime seems to have been laughing near a couple of cops.
If you live in the other America where this stuff doesn’t go on, and you didn’t know the context of these “self-initiated contacts,” you might look at Jaleel Fields, and his arrest for resisting, and think he was a criminal. You might especially think that if you didn’t see the video. “Most people think that there’s a high burden for getting arrested, because maybe for them, there is,” says Martha Grieco, Fields’ attorney. “But they don’t pick up kids in these neighborhoods because they do anything. They pick them up as a form of social control. . . . We want your fingerprints in the system. We want your iris scans in the system. We want to know your tattoos.”
You can walk into any public defender’s office in the country and find stacks of arrest reports in which police say they saw something that common sense tells you almost certainly couldn’t be. There is even a name for it: “test-a-lying.” One lawyer tells a story of police smelling weed in a closed Ziploc bag from some 150 feet away. Another is representing the estate of a man, ultimately shot by police, who authorities said marched into a state police barracks reeking of marijuana (“Because everybody smokes a huge joint before they go to the police station,” the attorney says, noting that no marijuana was found in the victim’s system at autopsy). A third has a handful of clients who all apparently made furtive motions in the direction of an officer’s gun. “It must be epidemic in New York, these furtive movements for police guns,” he says.
Against the Fieldses of the world, the lies of police officers generally work as intended: as effective pretexts to get people searched or fingerprinted and create real criminal records. But the lies almost never cut the other way. In city after city, the laws are set up to make police misconduct of any kind, from a lie in an arrest report all the way up to outright brutality, disappear down a variety of bureaucratic rabbit holes.
Say you live in a large American city — Baltimore, for example. Police stop and search you, something goes wrong and you end up getting your ass kicked. You don’t die, and more to the point, nobody films you not dying, which means CNN doesn’t show up the next day.
You’re hauled off to jail. Sometime between a few hours and a few days later, you learn the charges against you. It’s usually a hell of a list, which is part of the game. On what Ansar describes as “that motherfucking paper they slide under the door,” you might find yourself charged with resisting arrest, assault against a police officer, criminal possession of marijuana, criminal possession of a weapon, reckless endangerment and whatever else the on-scene officers can think of.
The case is weak, however, so a few days or weeks later a prosecutor tells you charges will be dropped. In being processed, you sign a paper. It reads:
I, (name), hereby release and forever discharge (complainant) and (law enforcement agency), all its officers, agents and employees, and any and all other persons from any and all claims which I may have for wrongful conduct by reason of my arrest, detention, or confinement on or about (date).
This General Waiver and Release is conditioned upon the expungement of the record of my arrest. . . .
You sign, and your “criminal record” disappears, which is great for you. But so does the incident, which is expunged from the public record. And, except in very rare cases, the same police go right back out on the street. The only results of the entire episode are things that can hurt you: Your prints might now be in the system, you might attract future attention by the same police, and your employer might be upset by the whole situation.
This expungement trick is the way it works in Baltimore. To make the charges go away, victims often end up overtly forfeiting a right to sue (by signing a paper to that effect) or effectively doing so by pleading guilty to lesser offenses (undercutting, say, any federal civil rights case they might later want to bring).
If a Baltimore case is bad enough to warrant a financial settlement, the gory details usually end up disappeared behind a nondisclosure agreement. A. Dwight Pettit and Baltimore trial lawyer Larry Greenberg can’t tell me about most of their worst cases, because they’re sealed. In other words, if the victim takes the city’s money after a beating or a false arrest, then the city typically gets to dispose of the incident without apologizing or even publicly acknowledging it.
It’s the street-level equivalent of the “neither admit nor deny” settlements that Wall Street offenders made infamous after 2008. A bad thing happens, but somehow nobody is guilty of anything — money just changes hands.
But here’s the next catch: It’s not much money. There’s a liability cap in place in the state of Maryland, limiting victims to $200,000 per person, $500,000 per incident (though there are plans to roughly double those amounts). Other states, like Pennsylvania, Illinois and Colorado, have similar caps.
On the streets of Baltimore last week, African-American residents were furiously repeating the statistic about the city paying out more than $6 million in abuse settlements since 2011. But that number is actually quite small. In New York, which does not have a cap, abuse victims have received more than $420 million since 2009.
But even getting to a settlement is contingent upon the victim acting quickly. In the city of Baltimore, a victim has to file notice of a suit within six months. There are plans to expand that limit to a year, but it’s still a tight window. If you don’t hire a lawyer right away, you’re probably not going to make the deadline.
The game is set up so the only real end for the victim of police abuse to pursue is a check from the government. This brings us to the most shocking and probably most under-reported aspect of the police-abuse story: In most cities it’s close to impossible to get a police officer removed for lies, abuse or other forms of misconduct.
A grotesque example is Chicago, where statistics about police abuse leaked out via a civil lawsuit called Bond v. Utreras. In that case, it was revealed that in a two-year period between 2002 and 2004, Chicago police received 10,149 complaints of misconduct, which resulted in only 19 total acts of meaningful discipline (defined as a suspension of seven days or more).
A similar statistical pattern emerged in New York, where after last year’s Eric Garner case, the NYPD’s Inspector General’s office and its Civilian Complaint Review Board both conducted evaluations of chokehold incidents. The upshot of the reports is that between 2009 and the first half of 2014, New Yorkers complained of 1,048 incidents involving chokeholds, which had been banned by the NYPD for more than a decade. Of those complaints, the CCRB “substantiated” only 10. And none of those offending officers saw significant repercussions.
The reason for this is that unless a police officer is criminally indicted after an abuse case, which very rarely happens, the discipline procedure at big-city police departments is generally handled in-house. In New York, a civilian complaint usually has to be substantiated by a review panel, which will either suggest punishment itself or refer the case to a pseudo-court at the police department. There, judges — who are employed by the department — may recommend discipline. But many of these recommendations can be overturned by the police commissioner.
What this means for the people on the streets of urban neighborhoods is simple: For all the hundreds of millions of dollars paid out by cities to abuse victims, very little is actually done to discipline rogue police officers. Cops caught lying in court by judges are not fired. They’re back in court giving evidence the next day. “The downside [to lying] for the police is just that the evidence gets tossed,” says Pettit, who notes that the problem is especially pronounced in civil courts. “There’s no personal accountability. There’s no reason not to lie again.”
This problem — of police almost never facing consequences — was the obvious subtext of the Baltimore revolts. It’s the reason the one thing that calmed the city down was the curiously rapid decision by the new state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, to file sweeping charges, including manslaughter and murder, against the six police, three white and three black, involved with Gray’s arrest.
Pettit notes that Mosby’s decision was a rarity in that three of the officers were also charged with false imprisonment. She essentially described the entire arrest as improper and illegal, even going so far as to assert publicly that the pocket knife Gray was carrying was legal. The legal fight to come will therefore put the entire rationale behind Broken Windows on trial, in the sense that prosecutors will argue — if the case actually makes it to court — that the six officers never should have been doing what police have been asked to do in mass numbers every day for 15 years now.
If an individual police officer does have a record of abuse or lies or some other misconduct, most cities make it nearly impossible for anyone on the wrong side of the blue wall to find it.
Every regional police force is governed by its own legal procedure, but New York and California offer excellent examples of the uphill climb toward transparency. In both of those states, a defense lawyer staring at what looks like a bogus police statement has to file a motion to the court asking for disclosure of a police officer’s personnel file. In New York, it’s called a Gissendanner motion; in California, a Pitchess motion. But to win these motions, you essentially need to have that information already. It’s yet another Catch-22. “In 99 percent of these cases, I get nothing,” says Nikhil Ramnaney, a Los Angeles defense attorney, stressing that he can’t speak for others’ experiences.
“Police are always complaining about the ‘Don’t snitch!’ campaigns,” says a Baltimore resident named Kato Simeto, an aspiring clothes designer and inventor. “But you almost never see police informing on each other. They’re more into ‘Don’t snitch’ than people on the street.”
Of course, where bureaucracy fails to cover things up, simple racism often steps in. Just ask Makia Smith, a 33-year-old accountant who grew up not far from where the Baltimore protests broke out. “I was on my way back from Wendy’s,” she says, recounting an incident in East Baltimore from March 2012. “My two-year-old daughter was in the back, in a car seat.”
Caught in traffic, Smith noticed a commotion, with a gang of police officers surrounding a young suspect. As she later alleged in a civil complaint, the boy was on the ground and one of the cops seemed to be getting dangerously aggressive. Concerned, Smith opened the door of her car and held up her phone as though filming the scene. “I was hoping that if they saw me,” she says, “then maybe they would stop doing what they were doing.”
Instead, she alleges, the following took place: An officer, later identified as Nathan Church, rushed at her, screaming, she says, “You want to film something, bitch? Film this!” Frightened, Smith tried to get back in her car. Church took her phone, smashed it on the ground and kicked it down the street. Then he dragged her out by her hair, at which point she momentarily blacked out. Eventually, she claims, police threw her on the hood of her Saturn, where she snapped awake and saw her two-year-old wailing in the back seat. She began to panic: If she got arrested, who would take care of the baby?
According to Smith’s complaint, police told her, in about the least reassuring manner possible, that child protective services was coming to take her daughter. It’s an example of how completely black America distrusts the police and the government that Smith chose to allow a little girl standing on the side of the road, a stranger, to take her baby for her, rather than give the child to CPS. As she was dragged off to that seemingly omnipresent paddy wagon, Smith called out her mother’s cellphone number, so that the little girl could get in touch with the baby’s grandmother.
Smith ended up in jail overnight and didn’t reunite with her daughter until 24 hours later. Playing the usual game of police-abuse chicken, authorities hit her with a list of charges, ranging from assault in the second degree against a police officer (“They say I took on four healthy male officers,” she says), to resisting, to a host of traffic offenses.
Smith, an educated young woman, did everything right after the incident, hiring a lawyer and successfully navigating the traps and land mines designed to make cases like hers go away. She never signed away her right to sue, never allowed the case to be expunged, never took a pennies-on-the-dollar deal that would have let the police off the hook.
And what happened? The police denied her allegations, claiming the arrest was legitimate, and she watched her case implode in what’s supposed to be the corruption-proof stage of the process, a trial by a jury of her “peers.”
“The cops’ defense team struck every black witness,” she says, and her case was heard by an all-white jury, which ultimately found the police innocent of misconduct.
Broken Windows has left a major footprint on modern American society, primarily on the 65 million or so people who have criminal records in this country. That’s a population roughly the size of France.
You can easily find the collateral damage from this vast illegal war on crime just by walking into certain neighborhoods and asking. From bad arrests to beatings to broken bones, there are enough horror stories to fill a thousand Ken Burns documentaries. But good luck finding any of that misconduct and abuse on an official record. What you mostly find when you search are a lot of convictions and a whole lot of statistical noise. The dirt, as it often is in this country, is mostly hidden away.
The real problem with Broken Windows is that it brings the same attitude to neighborhoods that corrections officers bring to prisons. “You have guys locked up for serious crimes, you’re supposed to be controlling them,” says Anthony Miranda. “But in neighborhoods, you’re not supposed to be controlling people. You’re supposed to be working with them. You’re supposed to be serving them. And that attitude is what’s missing.”
As a former minority officer, Miranda says he and others like him are especially motivated to find solutions: “We’re on both sides. We’re in the force, but we also live in these neighborhoods. So we need to find an answer.”
But the numbers game has rotted the police system to the point where it can’t see the forest for the trees. “They don’t see it,” says Miranda. “They’re too ignorant, and it’s a shame.”
From The Archives Issue 1236: June 4, 2015
“Signed…An Educated Brother!”