What Caused Baltimore’s Carnival of Violence?

There's a lot more to the story than riots and the death of Freddie Gray.

Today, the Department of Justice finally released its report on the Baltimore Police Department. The investigation finds a "pattern and practice of conduct" in BPD that violates the Constitution and federal law, including routinely making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; disproportionately targeting African Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people for exercising protected free speech.

The DoJ found that 96 percent of pedestrian stops in Baltimore resulted in no charges being filed, and blacks made up a disproportionate share of stops and searches. They also found "numerous instances" where "officers appeared to use force against individuals simply because they did not like what those individuals said." DoJ is seeking a court order to force BPD to reform its training and procedures.

At the same time, violence in Baltimore is once again out of control, bucking the United States' decades-long trend of falling crime rates. What is going on in Baltimore, and how did this city get the point where it needs law and order more than ever, but cannot trust its police to deliver it?

The Tipping Point

Last June, Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution noticed a disturbing phenomenon in Baltimore: police work was grinding to a halt, and crime was soaring.

In the weeks after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, the city was wracked by massive protests, which ultimately spawned rioting and numerous clashes with Baltimore police. At the same time, the Baltimore State’s Attorney rushed to charge six cops in connection to Gray’s homicide.

Murders increased by 150 percent.Soon after Gray’s funeral in late April, arrests in Baltimore fell by 40 percent, and crime went way, way up. The rate of homicides increased 150 percent, clocking over 1.3 murders per day — the worst in the history of Baltimore. Non-lethal shootings tripled; in May, the city averaged more than three shootings a day. Robberies increased over 60 percent. Auto thefts went up over 40 percent.

Tabarrok worried that the increase in crime could overwhelm police, who would be unable to solve cases fast enough, which would reduce the probability of criminals being caught, which would thus encourage more crime, which would further reduce clearance rates. He wrote,

With luck, the crime wave will subside quickly, but the longer-term fear is that the increase in crime could push arrest and clearance rates down so far that the increase in crime becomes self-fulfilling. The higher crime rate itself generates the lower punishment that supports the higher crime rate...

In the presence of multiple equilibria, it’s possible that a temporary shift could push Baltimore into a permanently higher high-crime equilibrium. Once the high-crime equilibrium is entered, it may be very difficult to exit without a lot of resources that Baltimore doesn’t have.

Baltimore is on track for nearly 300 murders this year.More than a year later, we can see what happened: Baltimore’s crime wave still hasn’t receded. With 178 killings already in 2016, Baltimore is on track for 294 murders this year — shy of last year’s total of 344 homicides, but well above 2014’s total of 211.

To quote HBO's The Wire, if Baltimore had New York's population, it would be clocking nearly four thousand murders a year.

Almost as important as what’s happened since, we can also see what led up to the carnival of violence that was the summer of 2015 in Baltimore.

The Arrests

To try to get some perspective, I dug through Baltimore PD’s databases of every crime reported to police and every arrest made by BPD.

The first finding is that the huge decline in arrests that Tabarrok noted around May 2015 was mostly temporary. Arrests rebounded to near (but not quite) their prior levels by July.


Not all arrests are good, of course, but all else equal, when crime is up, and cops are solving crimes, arrests should be going up, not down.

The Union

Last year, I suggested that this decline in arrests might be the “De Blasio effect.”

In 2014, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio criticized the NYPD over the killing of Eric Garner, which led the police union to organize a “work stoppage” — an unofficial strike — in retaliation. Within a week, arrests fell by 56 percent and criminal summonses fell by 92 percent. Work didn’t resume until the mayor sort-of apologized, and arrests gradually returned to normal over some weeks.

The Baltimore police union was similarly furious about the May 1, 2015, indictment of six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, and specifically critical of BPD Commissioner Anthony Batts, who had publicly stated that the officers violated his department's policy in Gray’s arrest.

"Our reform efforts will very likely see more police officers arrested."Appointed by the mayor to reform the notorious police department, Commissioner Batts had done battle with the union before, and on June 19, 2015, while crime was spiking, he published an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, stating bluntly:

Our reform efforts will very likely see more police officers arrested. We will have more officers who are forced out because their outdated, outmoded views of policing do not match the standards the community expects and demands.

I will not apologize for bringing professionalism and integrity to the forefront while eliminating greed, corruption and intolerance from the rank and file. ...

Continuing these reforms also means that organizations and individuals, who have profited, either materially or through position, will continue to fight against the reforms we are enacting. …

Reform is not easy. It comes with a cost. It is a cost we should be willing to pay for the future of our city.

A couple weeks later, the union issued a report eviscerating Batts and blaming him and the mayor for the rioting. Two days later, to preempt a city council vote of no-confidence, he was fired by the mayor, who said his presence was a “distraction” in stopping the crime wave.

City leaders said that Batts had lost the support of his officers. As City Councilman Brandon Scott summed it up, “It's very clear that the coach has lost the locker room. Once the coach has lost the locker room, it's up to the manager to the make the decision that either the coach goes or the locker room goes.”

The locker room wasn’t going anywhere.

The Slowdown, and the Stop

The union denied engineering a “work slowdown,” but numerous reports suggested that cops were in fact deliberately refraining from doing their jobs. Even the union admitted that there was a connection between the Gray homicide indictments and the drop in arrests. Cops, the union president said, were afraid to make arrests because they might be charged with crimes, like the officers indicted for Gray’s death.

There are other reasons arrests might have declined — many cops were injured during the riots, and police were temporarily redeployed from ordinary policing to handle crowd control. That surely played a part in the precipitous May 2015 decline in arrests.

Baltimore had just seen a huge decline in arrests.But what’s really suggestive is that this was actually the second major fall in arrest rates in Baltimore. The first and arguably more significant decline began in October of 2014, nearly seven months before Freddie Gray.

This chart shows the average number of arrests in Baltimore per day, by month, from 2013 to 2016.


And comparing year over year, month to month:

Arrests were already down 30 percent before Gray died.The data shows that arrests were falling in Baltimore, long before Freddie Gray. In fact, arrests in 2015 were down by a third, year over year — before Gray’s ride downtown, before the riots, indictments, and spiraling crime.

The decline first shows up in October 2014, and arrests slid through the end of the year. Something happened in October or late September to trigger a “work slowdown” in BPD.

What was happening in Baltimore in the early fall of 2014? Not protests, riots, or a rash of injured officers. Instead, it was a public scandal, of the sort sadly typical for Baltimore, involving police.

The Beating

It started with video, as it often does. In June 2014, city surveillance cameras caught BPD Officer Vincent Cosom launching a brutal and apparently unprovoked beating of a man named Kollin Truss at a bus stop.

After punching Truss in the face several times, Cosom and two other officers arrested him. To justify the arrest, Cosom falsified his report, claiming that Truss had attacked him, resulting in Truss being charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.

When prosecutors saw the video, they dropped all charges against Truss — but Cosom remained on the job for three months, undisciplined, even though both police and prosecutors knew that he had beaten a man needlessly and perjured himself in order to file false charges.

It wasn’t until Truss’s lawyers released the video to the media that things changed:

What made this story different from hundreds of others was not that a Baltimore cop beat someone up, or that BPD ignored it, or that the media reported on it, or that BPD’s reputation for violence eroded the community’s trust. What was unusual was the response: officers rarely face criminal charges, even when the taxpayers can pay out millions in civil suits for their actions.

Beyond this particular case, the city brought in federal investigators to evaluate its policies and practices, and the commissioner pledged a real effort at accountability — including reform for excessive union obstacles on investigating and disciplining cops. Body cameras became politically viable again. The mayor even suggested amending Maryland’s “Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights,” a special set of legal protections for cops under criminal investigation.

The effect was dramatic and obvious: police didn’t like it. Arrests in October fell 20 percent below the prior year. By December, they were down 28 percent. Arrests stayed about 30 percent below average until Freddie Gray’s spine was severed in the back of a Baltimore police van in April 2015.

The Crime Wave

After Freddie Gray’s death, massive protests wracked the city, overextending police personnel and providing great cover for rioting. Riots allow more violence and crime while police resources are overwhelmed.

As cases stack up, detectives face backlogs that make each additional case harder to solve. This reduces the probability of punishment, which encourages more crime. And given that the victims of crime are often criminals themselves (think drug dealers), they must resort to retaliatory violence, leading to still more bloodshed.

In May, 4.6 people were shot or killed each day.The huge fall in arrests after Freddie Gray’s funeral and the large scale rioting combined to create a perfect climate for violence. Aggravated assault, robbery, and auto theft all spiked. Shootings and murders hit record levels.

Violence went up but did not come down.Even more concerning, when arrests sort-of rebounded around July, crime did not go back to where it was. Violence continues, well above its pre-rioting levels. Murders and auto thefts are down somewhat from the insane highs of 2015, but not enough to offset last year’s increases or get the city back to where it was. Shootings, aggravated assaults, and robberies have not declined at all. They seem stuck at the levels they were catapulted to last year.


Baltimore Can Change 

When arrests initially fell by a third in late 2014, there doesn’t appear to have been a significant increase in crime (although maybe there would've been, in time). However, once the riots kicked off, and arrests fell by a further 40 percent, violence spiraled. When arrests rebounded again to “only” a third below their historical average, that was no longer enough to handle Baltimore’s soaring new crime rates.

Tabarrok’s fear that “a temporary shift could push Baltimore into a permanently higher high-crime equilibrium” looks to be borne out. Crime shot up due to temporary factors, but once those factors receded, the police were been unable to cope with the new status quo. Baltimore’s vicious crime cycle remains stuck in high gear.

If BPD can stop making arrests, they can start making them again.The good news is that the second part of Tabarrok’s concern — that it may be impossible for Baltimore to get out of this high-crime equilibrium without a lot of new resources — isn’t obviously true. In 2014, Baltimore police were making 40 to 70 percent more arrests than they have in 2016, with much less crime and virtually the same resources. If BPD can stop making arrests, they can start making them again.

The question is, will they? Is it impossible for police in Baltimore to solve crimes while respecting civil rights? Is it unreasonable that an officer accused of a crime be treated the same as every other citizen? Is it unfair that police not be allowed to investigate themselves? Is it outrageous that the Department of Justice investigate allegations of a pattern of abuse?

People shouldn't feel that silence is the price of safety.It shouldn’t be. But if police in Baltimore find it impossible to do their jobs while being criticized, or filmed, or investigated, they’re in the wrong profession. The union’s paper-thin pretext that cops are afraid of being randomly indicted for legal arrests has no basis in fact, but it reveals the level of absolute discretion that the union wants in exchange for protecting citizens.

Police have a very difficult job, no question. Cops in ultra-violent cities like Baltimore or Detroit have an even tougher job. Dealing with drunk, obnoxious, and sometimes violent people every single day is hard; doing it without losing your cool or taking shortcuts must be more taxing than most people can appreciate.

But we should not forget that that is the job: catching criminals and upholding the Constitution. It’s not impossible, and it’s not unrealistic. The people of Baltimore expect and deserve an organization that delivers it.

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