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Crime & Justiceby Brew Editors7:18 amAug 12, 20160

Clearing corners: “Path to promotion and avoiding discipline”

An excerpt from the Justice Department report on the Baltimore Police Department (Pages 42-43)

Above: Baltimore police officers in Hampden earlier this summer. (Fern Shen)

Over the next few days, The Brew is going to reprint some of the more powerful parts of “The Department of Justice Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department,” released Wednesday.

Here’s a section on the persistence of the “Zero Tolerance” approach, including one officer’s ill-fated attempt to act on it alone.

(Sub-head and boldface emphasis ours).

“One of the reasons that the intended move away from zero tolerance policing has not sufficiently curbed BPD’s practice of unconstitutional street-level enforcement is a persistent perception among officers that their performance continues to be measured by the raw numbers of stops and arrests they make, particularly for gun and drug offenses.

Many officers believe that the path to promotions and favorable treatment, as well as the best way to avoid discipline, is to increase their number of stops and make arrests for these offenses. By frequently stopping and searching people they believe might possess contraband, with or without requisite reasonable suspicion, officers aim to improve their statistical output, which will in turn reflect favorably in their performance reviews.

During shifts observed by Justice Department investigators, patrol officers actively sought out corners to clear and indicated that they believed they were obligated to move groups of people standing on sidewalks, whether or not the individuals in the groups appeared to be engaged in criminal conduct. Several officers demonstrated a mistaken understanding of the law, expressing that a group standing in front of a business or a vacant lot was necessarily loitering or trespassing on the property.

These views are reinforced by BPD’s mid-level supervisors, many of whom served in the Department during the height of the zero tolerance strategy and continue to embrace its principles. Some officers we interviewed expressed frustration with supervisory pressure to prioritize drug and gun arrests over community policing and longer, more intensive investigations. One officer acknowledged the futility of breaking up a crowd of “loiterers” because the crowd would simply relocate to a different store or corner.

Yet supervisors still encourage officers to “clear corners” and engage in blanket enforcement of low-level offenses, as demonstrated by the incident discussed in Section II.A., supra, in which the officer’s supervisor encouraged him to “make something up” in order to disperse residents who were gathered peaceably on a street corner. Other officers told us that they were denied the opportunity to work overtime because supervisors believed they did not make enough stops and arrests.

This pressure from supervisors not only contributes to constitutional violations, but can also result in poor tactical decision-making that imperils the lives of officers and innocent civilians.

Officer Shoots Bystander

In one incident we reviewed, an officer observed a gathering of people talking, eating, and waiting for food outside a late-night restaurant after bars had closed. None of the people appeared to be committing any crimes. But rather than monitoring the group or calling for backup in case of trouble, the officer decided to attempt to disperse the gathering alone.

The officer reported that he decided to do this because he believed his supervisor would not be happy if he saw the area had not been cleared. As a result of his decision to clear the corner, the officer ended up in a physical altercation with a man who refused to leave. Alone and surrounded by an unfriendly crowd, the officer fired his service weapon at a man he feared was about to kick him.

The bullet struck two people, at least one of whom was not involved in the incident. Despite the officer’s serious tactical mistakes, reviewing supervisors did not report any errors and concluded that the officer had acted appropriately.”

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