In Baltimore, Police Seem Everywhere and Nowhere at Once

The city could be accused of policing too much and too little.
November 2018
Police officer driving on a motorcycle.
(Flickr/Elvert Barnes)
By Scott Beyer  |  Columnist

Baltimore is suffering from a contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, the city is known for tough cops and citywide camera surveillance. On the other hand, it can seem at times like there are hardly any police around at all.

On a recent stay in Baltimore, I often saw people openly litter and urinate in such downtown tourist hot spots as Lexington Market and Shot Tower Park. At major intersections, there has been a return of so-called squeegee boys, who surround your car, clean your windows without permission and demand money. But beyond these popular neighborhoods, there are indeed large swaths of Baltimore that are still as dangerous as anything depicted in the TV series “The Wire.” Residents have complained that street prostitution and open-air drug deals go seemingly unchecked by police. Last year, Baltimore saw 343 homicides, a new city record for killings per capita. Only Chicago, a considerably larger city, had more.

How is it then that a place can seem both over-policed and under-policed?

The answer lies with the Baltimore Police Department itself and its overall dysfunction. “You’ve got corruption, excessive force and domestic surveillance,” says Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. These combine to create the city’s policing paradox.

On the surveillance front, the department, along with the aforementioned cameras, uses stingray devices to track cellphones and monitor calls. This led Wired magazine in 2016 to label Baltimore “America’s laboratory for spy tech.”

Cases of excessive force are rampant. In the four years leading up to the 2015 Freddie Gray riots, more than 100 people, who suffered broken bones, head trauma and even death in altercations with the police, won settlements costing taxpayers $11.5 million. The problems continue today, including in August when an officer was caught on camera repeatedly punching a passive Dashawn McGrier. 

But the biggest problem is corruption. The Baltimore Police Department was recently mired in an overtime scandal, where some cops were paid for days they didn’t work. The department spent nearly three times its $16 million overtime budget. Officers also have a history of planting drugs and guns on suspects. And this February, eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force -- an elite special unit meant to find illegal guns -- were indicted by the Drug Enforcement Agency for effectively operating like bandits in uniforms, robbing homes, harassing residents, reselling the guns and drugs they confiscated, and more.

The larger question is how such a dysfunctional department can be reformed. One Maryland state delegate, Bilal Ali, suggested disbanding it, an unlikely move. Even reforms that would bring more civilian oversight and accountability are difficult, since the department is state-controlled and union-backed. The best hope, says the University of Baltimore’s Ross, will likely come from the federal consent decree, which the city entered in 2017.

Perhaps a more organic reform is the gradual reduction of the department in size and relevance. The Baltimore Police Department employed about 41 officers for every 10,000 residents in 2016. That’s the fourth highest rate of any department with at least 500 officers, according to FBI data. Still, it has consistently seen attrition since 2002, and Baltimore’s wealthier neighborhoods are pursuing private security options. Johns Hopkins University recently tried to field its own force. 

But the poorer neighborhoods that need public safety the most must continue relying on the police. It is a relationship wrought with tension, aggression and surveillance -- and at street level, it seems, little actual policing.

CORRECTION: A previous version stated that the Baltimore Police Department employed about 41 officers per capita in 2016. It should have said that the city employed 41 officers for every 10,000 residents in 2016.