Today’s relationship between the Baltimore police department and the city’s black residents was determined by neither Obama Administration statements nor New York Times editorials nor liberal hashtag activists. Rather, it was determined by years of interactions between residents of black neighborhoods—the law-abiding majority and a criminal minority alike—and Baltimore police officers, including many who behaved like thugs (and many more forced into the impossible position of being asked to wage an unwinnable war on drugs). Law-and-order conservatives are happy to acknowledge Baltimore’s criminals but ignore the part of local police culture that is thuggish, brutal and lawless because it is incompatible with how they want people to think of authority.
Had the treatment of Freddie Gray been unusual, his killing at the hands of Baltimore police officers most likely wouldn’t have sparked a day and night of riots. But many Baltimore cops had been abusing residents in just that way for years. In Baltimore police culture, cops practiced “rough rides,” failing to put seat belts on arrestees and then deliberately driving in a way intended to injure them. And many others within the police department failed to stop their colleagues for doing so.
“Rough rides” were far from the only kind of abuse.
Ten days before the riot, “hundreds of Baltimore residents gathered to air grievances over years of harassment, beatings and other mistreatment they say they have endured from city police,” the Baltimore Sun reported. “They turned out for a meeting convened by the Department of Justice to investigate, at the city’s request, complaints about Baltimore’s Police Department. When a former San Jose, California, police chief hired to lead the meeting told the crowd he wanted to know whether they ‘trust’ the city’s police, a woman shouted ‘No.’ From that point on, dozens of residents—most of them black—inundated federal officials with their assertions that city police have been brutalizing residents with impunity.” Why do “law-and-order” conservatives almost totally ignore this key factor?
Hundreds of black people gathered to beg help from federal law enforcement, complaining that local police are brutalizing them with impunity, and prominent law-and-order conservatives want to blame antagonism toward cops on Al Sharpton?
Law-and-order conservatives talk about a “Ferguson effect,” with protests of aggressive policing leading to meeker cops and a corresponding uptick in violent crime.
There is a “Ferguson effect,” but rather than describing a spike in violence after undue criticism of police, the term should denote an erosion of respect for police authority caused by years and years of abhorrent behavior by cops and enabling political officials who incentivize and then all but ignore blue-on-black crime. It is no accident that the cities to experience the most intense unrest after police killings of unarmed black men, Ferguson and Baltimore, were ones where even cursory scrutiny reveals severe law enforcement abuses. Circa 1992, one could have as easily called it an LAPD effect, when decades of egregious abuses supplied the gasoline and the Rodney King verdict the spark. The federal consent decree that significantly improved policing here may not have directly caused the subsequent decline in crime, but certainly did not appear to impede it. Perhaps aggressive federal intervention is needed to reduce abuses in Baltimore.