Baltimore's Riot, But a Nation's Dilemma on Policing

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It’s oddly reassuring when regular citizens—and by that I merely mean Americans whose occupation is neither politics nor punditry—reveal how much more sensible they are than the country’s government officials, politicians, and other so-called opinion leaders.

This truism is sometimes on display in political campaigns, but also during tipping-point cultural moments, big news events, and, yes, urban riots. The spotlight shines on political posturing, but also on ordinary Americans who rise to the occasion. Both have been present in Baltimore.

A single mom named Toya Graham found her 15 minutes of fame for slapping and berating her 16-year-old son in the heat of a riot. In ordinary circumstances, she might have been cited for child abuse. But this was not a normal situation: masked and wearing a hoodie, the boy was readying to throw bottles at police. Instead she chased her son home—and was hailed as “mother of the year.”

More substantively, one night of rioting and arson by punks whose mother is not named Toya Graham was enough for Baltimore’s community leaders, activists, and parents. Linking arms, they walked the city’s roughest streets as night fell, literally serving as human shields between the mob and cops as a mandatory curfew approached. These civilians exhorted those prone to violence not to repeat the destruction of 1968, when riots chased away businesses that have never returned.

The city’s police department seems to be stuck in a time warp of its own. If one thing has become clear over the last three decades, it’s that demonstrations don’t usually just “dissipate” after they turn violent. Once that line is crossed, things inevitably get worse: buildings are looted, police cars torches, and rocks—if not bullets—fill the air. This happened in Baltimore, while police stood by idly.

Meanwhile, the facts emerging about the cops’ treatment of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man whose spine was severed and his larynx crushed while in police custody, suggests that if it hadn’t been Gray, it would have been someone else.

For several decades, the criminal justice system has debated the merits of two rival theories of policing. One is the data-driven, zero-tolerance—and often harsh—“proactive policing” methods credited for reducing crime in New York City, but also for helping spawn the 1992 riots in Los Angeles.

The intellectual underpinning of this technique is the “broken windows” theory proposed by famed political scientist James Q. Wilson. The short-hand explanation is that if broken windows aren’t replaced in a declining neighborhood, it sends a signal that the forces of lawlessness and decay have the upper hand. One notorious, but effective, proactive policing tool is systematic frisking of suspicious-looking young men (with attendant arrests and convictions) to stop crimes before they start. It works, too, but as Americans are learning, it comes with a social cost.

An alternate approach, “community policing,” entails building relationships between law enforcement officers and residents of the community, embracing “problem-solving” concepts rather than bulk arrests to keep order. The symbol of community policing, cited once by Bill Clinton himself, is the friendly neighborhood bicycle cop. The two methods are not mutually exclusive—and when Clinton was president he sometimes used the terms interchangeably—but this confusion seems to have reached its apotheosis in Baltimore, and not in a good way.

According to witnesses, Freddie Gray ran away after locking eyes with police Lt. Brian Rice precisely because the two men knew each other, and had a history. It was not a happy one. Rice knew Gray as a drug offender with a long rap sheet for petty offenses. According to Gray’s friend Michael Robertson, Gray “had a history with that police beating him.”

In Baltimore, it seems, police were practicing an ad hoc form of law enforcement that combined the worst features of proactive and community policing. In the aftermath of the riots, some residents blamed Martin O’Malley for this state of affairs. Over the past 16 years he was the two-term mayor of Baltimore and two-term governor of Maryland. As mayor, he imported the data metrics used by the New York City police, and ran for re-election largely on a record of reducing crime.

O’Malley left office in January. His current project, running for the 2016 presidential nomination in the Democratic Party, necessitated a visit to Baltimore last week. He was not greeted warmly. Some residents heckled him. Others carried signs, one reading: “Broken Windows Are Not Worse Than Broken Bones.”

For his part, O’Malley focused on how Baltimore’s residents had pulled together to restore order. This was true, notwithstanding the worry that with the official probe into Freddie Gray’s death still ongoing, the city is not out of danger. In Baltimore, you never know anyway. The place has a history.

In 1975, a cabal of advertising executives, acting at the behest of Mayor William Donald Schaefer, dreamed up a campaign to dub Baltimore “Charm City.” This never fully caught on, perhaps because for the better part of two centuries the city’s unofficial nickname was “Mob Town.”

This wasn’t owing to organized crime, but to the denizens’ habit of rioting, generally with underlying political motivations. Newspapers were razed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, once for the crime of disrespecting George Washington. In 1812, there were at least two riots in Baltimore, one to protest taxes levied at the point of cannon by a British sea captain against an American ship importing gin imported from Holland. In 1835, the practices of a local bank sparked a riot; four years later, a convent was nearly burned to the ground in the Nunnery Riot that started when an escaped mental patient donned a nun’s habit and conjured up tales of abuse at a Carmelite Convent.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the “Know-Nothing” Party frequently often ran amok in Baltimore for reasons now forgotten, and the Pratt Street Riots during the Civil War predated the unrest in 1968 by a century.

For liberals, 1968 has been a touchstone. More than one liberal commentator blamed Richard Nixon and his vice president, former Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, for the 2015 riots—almost as if the “war on drugs” had been abandoned when they left office. Progressives invoked the usual suspects: poverty, joblessness, a hollowed-out urban core, with some going so far as to say that rioting is a productive and responsible political act.

Notwithstanding such dubious contentions, it became clear that anyone with serious presidential ambitions, Democrat or Republican, will be pressured to address America’s festering problems about the police. This is as it should be. These public policy challenges start with ensuring public safety, amid widespread mistrust of police in minority communities. It also encompasses the rippling social costs of America’s stunningly high rates of incarceration.

Hillary Clinton discussed these issues in a lengthy New York City speech on Wednesday. Friendly news outlets praised the speech, but actually Clinton did little more than state the nature of the problem. She embraced the law enforcement fad du jour—requiring cops to wear body cameras—but this is an idea requiring more study and thought, and probably shouldn’t be decided at the federal level.

Some criminologists believe body cameras would result in higher incarceration rates for minorities, not the lower ones Clinton called for in her speech. She offered no specifics on how such a result would be achieved, and glossed over the inconvenient fact that eight years of her husband’s policies and public statements greatly contributed to the orgy of mass incarceration this nation is known for—and that while in the Senate she did not address this issue.

But a conversation previously limited to journalists and liberal criminologists has now forced its way into the political discourse. Politicians as dissimilar as Eric Holder and Rand Paul have expressed misgivings about the effects on social stability of removing so many young men from the community and thereby separating them from their families. Holder and Paul have specifically questioned long prison terms for non-violent drug offenders.

As flames lit up West Baltimore last week, many conservative commentators wondered, where are the fathers of these looters and arsonists? That is not a simple question, but one part of the answer is that they are behind bars. It’s time to rethink these policies. It’s time to give women like Toya Graham more help.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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