A new report from USA Today suggests that Baltimore police officers "stopped seeing crime" after facing harsh criticism — even from their own mayor — following the 2015 death of a man in their custody, Freddie Gray.
Gray died after receiving injuries in the back of a police transport vehicle; three officers were put on trial for the incident and later acquitted. Prosecutors dropped their case against three other officers. The Justice Department opened an investigation into Baltimore's police department at large and accused "Baltimore’s police of arresting thousands of people without a valid legal basis, using unjustified force and targeting black neighborhoods for unconstitutional stops," according to USA Today.
Civil rights activists say they had hoped the DOJ's findings would encourage Baltimore's law enforcement officials to improve their policies and adopt a kinder and gentler form of policing. Instead, fearful that they might be indicted for any wrong move, Baltimore's police force stopped moving at all.
“These guys aren’t stupid. They realize that if they do something wrong, they’re going to get their head bit off. There’s no feeling that anybody’s behind them anymore, and they’re not going to do it,” a retired officer told the paper. “Nobody wants to put their head in the pizza oven when the pizza oven is on.”
"Police questioned fewer people on the street. They stopped fewer cars," USA Today reports. "Police officers reported seeing fewer drug dealers on street corners. They encountered fewer people who had open arrest warrants."
The breakdown correlates with a rise in Baltimore's murder rate. Since Freddie Gray's death, Baltimore has become the nation's most dangerous city, and last year it set an all-time record with 342 homicides.
The data seems to indicate that law enforcement officers are still responding to calls and following up on investigations instigated by crime victims or witnesses, but they're taking a less proactive approach to fighting crime. They don't seek out criminal behavior and instigate fewer investigations on their own.
"Millions of police records show officers in Baltimore respond to calls as quickly as ever. But they now begin far fewer encounters themselves. From 2014 to 2017, dispatch records show the number of suspected narcotics offenses police reported themselves dropped 30 percent; the number of people they reported seeing with outstanding warrants dropped by half. The number of field interviews – instances in which the police approach someone for questioning – dropped 70 percent," USA Today reports.
The Baltimore Police Department acknowledges the change, but also says fewer people want to be out on the beat, and that they're suffering from a shortage of patrol officers. Drug dealers now "rule the streets" and the murder rate has skyrocketed, and "police hands are tied," they say.
The report underscores a problem Attorney General Jeff Sessions identified at the beginning of his own tenure: that letting the ACLU run police departments has disastrous consequences, and that protests against police officers — the vast majority of whom do not engage in racial discrimination or violent behavior — makes Americans less safe.