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The Baltimore Police’s ‘Summer Surge’ Scam

A former Baltimore Police officer says that a plan to flood the streets with local and federal law enforcement is likely to yield more of the same ineffective 'broken windows'-style arrests.

A Baltimore Police car patrols the Gilmor Homes one year after the death of Freddie Gray
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Baltimore Police’s ‘Summer Surge’ Scam

A former Baltimore Police officer says that a plan to flood the streets with local and federal law enforcement is likely to yield more of the same ineffective 'broken windows'-style arrests.

On June 18, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle announced plans for a “summer surge” by the  city’s police department and federal law enforcement partners “to disrupt and dismantle criminal activity in designated Baltimore neighborhoods during the early summer months.”

There has already been one such “surge” this year; in January, shortly after taking office (a position he held for only nearly four months because he was federally charged with tax evasion), Commissioner Darryl De Sousa announced “Operation Blitz,” in which additional officers were deployed onto city streets for 13 days in an effort to drive down crime. Within the first few days of the plan, De Sousa proclaimed Operation Blitz a success touting 55 arrests and 19 gun seizures.  But in that same time frame, there were four homicides and Baltimore police officers shot a man in the leg.

Typically, crime spikes when the weather is hot and more people are outside, so summer is  common time for such deployments, which are referred to within the department as  “all-out details” or “initiatives.” Last summer, after six homicides over just seven hours, then-Commissioner Kevin Davis—the department has had three commissioners in the last year—instituted mandatory 12-hour patrol shifts and pulled several officers out of administrative jobs in an effort to increase the number of officers on the street. Most of the additional manpower for these deployments is from detectives normally assigned to administrative or investigative units. Davis’s plan lasted for just a week, and made no discernible impact on the homicide rate. Baltimore finished 2017 with 343 murders, one of the deadliest years in the city’s history.  

I was a sworn officer of the Baltimore Police Department from June 1999 to July 2017 and during my tenure, I participated in several of these initiatives as a patrol officer, as a member of a specialized unit and as a detective. The normal routine for a shift on the initiative began by reporting for roll call where we were given instructions from command staff as to the purpose of the initiative and what sort of enforcement they wanted, like car stops or stop-and-frisks. We would be given packets with mugshots of wanted individuals or “persons of interest” to look for as we drove around or walked. There were lots of catchphrases and veiled references to making arrests for any infraction, like “We need to make our presence felt” and “You know who the bad guys are.” We were sent to “hot spots” to enact “targeted enforcement,” a sanitized way of saying we were deployed to already heavily policed, and predominantly poor and Black, neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore. Sitting in roll call, I tried to imagine a bunch of cops descending upon the largely white neighborhoods of Guilford or Roland Park to perform targeted enforcement of open container or loitering violations.

These initiatives placed a huge emphasis on stats. The primary goal was almost always gun arrests, but the reality was, arrests for anything would do. Commanders wanted arrests, and lots of them. We were instructed to look for any excuse to put Baltimore residents  in handcuffs. Most of the arrests I made or observed while working these initiatives were for minor offenses, like drinking in public, smoking marijuana, loitering, or trespassing. Some nights, we would stop everyone we saw, running their names to check for outstanding warrants. Cops love warrant arrests because, for the most part, they don’t require any paperwork.

In the summer of 2015, just a few months after the in-custody death of Freddie Gray—which later led to the department being placed under a Department of Justice consent decree to address systemic issues within the department like unconstitutional searches—I was assigned to one such initiative as an Internal Affairs detective. We targeted an area of Southwest Baltimore that had experienced an uptick in violent crime. Our detail was provided with a motorcade-style escort from headquarters to our designated deployment area, a procession of about 15 to 20 police cars, some with up to four officers each. Our commander gave us instructions over dispatch: “Hit the area hard.”

That night, I saw my fellow officers jump out of their cars and stop anyone who happened to be outside. I’m not a legal scholar, but I know enough about police work and the Constitution to understand that a random person walking down the street doesn’t expect to be suddenly surrounded by a handful of cops, and certainly doesn’t feel like they are free to leave or ignore the officers commands to stop. Over and over again, I saw cops “pocket surf,” a term we used for checking people without consent or probable cause.

Another common tactic we relied upon during these initiatives was called a “door pop,” where cops would come to a sudden stop in front of a group of people, and quickly pop open their vehicle doors. If someone ran, they were chased. If they were caught, they were searched and, at the very least, arrested for some sort of minor infraction like loitering. Earlier this year, when officers from an elite BPD squad called the Gun Trace Task Force went on trial in federal court on charges including conspiracy and racketeering, media reports highlighted “door pops” as one of several tactics used by the “rogue” unit. But I can confirm that “door pops” were and still are standard practice in the BPD.

Cars were pulled over for anything: broken tail or brake lights, dark tinted windows, rolling through stop signs, double parking. But these initiatives weren’t about writing traffic tickets or seizing weapons; ultimately, the goal was to find a “legal” reason for getting inside a Baltimore resident’s car to search for anything that would justify an arrest. One of the most common pieces of probable cause for a search was to note “the odor of marijuana.”  Read enough police reports and it would seem like every car in Baltimore reeks of weed, including those where no drugs were found.

Even back then, before I had become completely disillusioned with this heavy-handed policing, it didn’t feel like what we were doing had much to do with “fighting crime.” Instead, these initiatives seemed like apartheid policing where the citizens in certain neighborhoods, usually predominantly African American, were not allowed to move freely. Such initiatives also didn’t reduce crime. In 2015, Baltimore finished the year with 344 murders, at that time the deadliest per capita year in the city’s history.

After 18 years in law enforcement, and working at least a one of these similar initiatives each year, I don’t see any positive, lasting impact resulting from Pugh and Tuggle’s upcoming “Summer Surge.” These initiatives are about short-term non-answers for long-standing problems such as open-air drug dealing, nonfatal shootings and homicides. They are about the quick stat grab, an opportunity for the top police brass to hold a press conference to brag about arrests, a victory lap used to justify the outsize Baltimore Police Department’s budget. In a city whose citizens and police department have a contentious relationship, the militarized rhetoric of a “surge” designed to “disrupt” and “dismantle” will just trap the department in a loop of badly ineffective, biased policing.

Broad Anti-Trafficking Law Faces Its First Constitutional Challenge

Human rights groups, sex worker rights activists, a digital archive and others say they are already facing censorship.

President Trump displays the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act after signing it into law at The White House in April.
Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

Broad Anti-Trafficking Law Faces Its First Constitutional Challenge

Human rights groups, sex worker rights activists, a digital archive and others say they are already facing censorship.

The first lawsuit against the federal law targeting sex work online was filed late Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. On behalf of plaintiffs including Human Rights Watch, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, and the Internet Archive, along with an individual sex workers’ rights activist, the complaint argues that the law, Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (H.R. 1865), is a violation of the First and Fifth Amendments. The plaintiffs are also asking for a preliminary injunction.

The law has resulted in online censorship that conflates the practice of sex work with health and human rights advocacy for sex workers, the complaint alleges. “This law is casting great uncertainty, whether [that advocacy is] illegal,” said David Greene, civil liberties director and senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was among the plaintiff’s counsel.

This law, also known as SESTA/FOSTA, was signed by President Trump on April 11. It was touted by its supporters as a way to combat human trafficking. “Traffickers are using [the] internet to sell women and children,” Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said ahead of a Senate vote in March. Groups lobbying for tougher laws against sex work, like World Without Exploitation, helmed by former Brooklyn prosecutor Lauren Hersh, and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly known as Morality in Media), also pushed for the legislation.

SESTA/FOSTA goes further than targeting human trafficking. It also holds the operators of websites criminally and civilly liable if third parties were found to have posted content “to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” SESTA/FOSTA also gives state attorneys general the power to bring civil actions against the operators of these websites. But as the suit points out, SESTA/FOSTA “does not define what it means to ‘promote’ or ‘facilitate’ prostitution, nor does it specify what constitutes ‘the prostitution of another person,’ even though ‘prostitution’ is not defined in federal law.”

The broad language, the suit continues, could also extend to “persons who engage in broad categories of protected speech that makes sex work safer and easier, including speech advocating for the decriminalization of sex work, harm reduction, including speech identifying bad clients and other risks to sex workers, and speech seeking to reach sex workers to inform them of their legal rights, medical resources, or other informational material.”

One of the suit’s plaintiffs, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, a national human rights group whose mission is to “protect sexual freedom as a fundamental human right,” says it has had to censor its work supporting sex workers, which it does in part through an annual conference where sex workers lead workshops on health and rights. “Accordingly, in April, 2018, Woodhull initially responded by ceasing all online promotion of the sex work track workshops for the Summit,” the lawsuit states. “Woodhull has a well-founded fear that its efforts to promote information about sex workers on the Internet could be construed by an ambitious prosecutor or enterprising plaintiff’s lawyer as promoting or facilitating prostitution in violation of FOSTA.”

Another plaintiff, the international group Human Rights Watch (HRW), says FOSTA could impede its efforts to advocate the rights of sex workers, including its support for the decriminalization of sex work. “HRW relies heavily on individuals spreading its reporting and advocacy through social media,” Dinah PoKempner, HRW general counsel, said in a statement issued by EFF. “We are worried that social media platforms and websites may block the sharing of this information out of concern it could be seen as demonstrating a ‘reckless disregard’ of sex trafficking activities under FOSTA. This law is the wrong approach to the scourge of sex trafficking.”

Because of the law’s vagueness, other plaintiffs alleging harm include a digital library that would now need to scrutinize the millions of pages it compiles for any suggestion of sex trafficking and  a massage therapist whose business has been banned from Craigslist.

For years, EFF has lobbied against attempts to limit what the group calls “the most important law protecting internet free speech”: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Pro-SESTA/FOSTA groups said Section 230 made it impossible to hold websites like Backpage accountable if its users were trafficked. This was not the case, as was proved when the Department of Justice seized and shut down Backpage days before SESTA/FOSTA went into effect.

EFF sees FOSTA as “the most broadly based and comprehensive legislative censorship of Internet speech since Congress passed the anti-indecency provisions of the CDA in 1996,” the complaint states. This also isn’t the first time such online speech restrictions targeting information about sexuality, rights, and health have been challenged. After the CDA was passed in 1996, many of its original provisions, including one that prohibited the transmission of material “intended for producing abortion,” were struck down in court.

The broadness of the law led to a near-immediate chilling effect. Even before President Trump signed SESTA/FOSTA, some websites began removing sex workers’ content, along with any content they believed could be construed as a violation of the law. Some ad websites, like Cityvibe, went offline completely. Craigslist replaced its Personals section with a notice stating, “US Congress just passed HR 1865, ‘FOSTA,’ seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully. Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline.”

With these site closures and takedowns, groups and lobbyists who backed SESTA/FOSTA declared victory. At the same time, sex workers reported that as a result of the law, they lost access to “bad date” lists tracking abusive and violent clients, along with the ad sites that  allowed them to find clients independent of third parties. All this is why sex workers’ rights groups opposed SESTA/FOSTA, along with some anti-trafficking groups and women’s and LGBTQ rights groups.

Greene of EFF said he is concerned that the confusion the law has created is no accident. “The law is vague. It’s ambiguous. I think that’s completely purposeful by Congress,” he told The Appeal. “You don’t triple up on words like facilitate, support, assist, promote—unless you want to make sure you are going to capture all situations. But you can see how it’s at best uncertain whether advocacy for decriminalization [is] facilitating prostitution, because the law typically defines facilitation as just to make something easier. Are you making prostitution easier when you are offering resources to sex workers on how to do so safely?”

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Mayors Who Care About Child Separation Should Look in Their Own Backyards

Families are torn apart by the criminal justice system every day.

A bipartisan group of U.S. mayors visited a border crossing near El Paso, Texas, recently.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Mayors Who Care About Child Separation Should Look in Their Own Backyards

Families are torn apart by the criminal justice system every day.

Last week, about 20 mayors from across America, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, met in Tornillo, Texas, 35 miles south of El Paso and two miles from the Mexico border. The bipartisan group had traveled to the small town as a gesture of solidarity with the hundreds of children trapped in a government-run tent city there. The Trump administration had forcibly separated these children from their parents, and they were suffering alone, with no idea when they would see their parents again.

Even within spitting distance of the tent city, there was little the mayors could do. They tried to enter the camp, but were unsurprisingly denied access. Instead, they left pairs of children’s shoes on the sidewalk outside. The hope, although surely not the expectation, was that the shoes would be given to the children in detention. Then the mayors held a press conference. “They don’t know when they’re going to see their parents again,” de Blasio said. He and his peers surrounded the microphone, shiny from sweat in the 102-degree heat. “These kids have been traumatized. These kids are suffering physically and mentally.”

The U.S. Conference of Mayors official statement echoed the same sentiment, calling on the Trump administration to “immediately reverse these destructive policies and allow families apprehended to remain together to the extent possible, to help avoid the heartbreak and irreversible trauma of forced separation.”

It was a supportive gesture on the part of the mayors, an effort to bring more attention to the terror these children are being subjected to. The sound of children calling for their parents, unsure if they will ever see them again. The pictures of terrified, tired, and traumatized children. All of it is unbearable.

But it is not exactly unprecedented. As many have pointed out over the past few weeks, the separation of children, especially brown and Black children, from their parents has centuries of precedence in American history. During slavery, children were regularly taken from their parents arms the minute they could turn a profit. They were very often never reunited with their loved ones, even after slavery had been abolished. And America also ripped Native children away from their parents, sending them to “boarding schools” whose primary goal was assimilation.

And it continues. De Blasio’s statement in Texas was breathtakingly unaware. In cities across the country, including Los Angeles and New York, local elected officials are facilitating family separation every day.  

In America there are 10 million children who, at some point in their lives, have had a parent incarcerated. Not all of these parents have actually been convicted of a crime. Many of them spent days or weeks or months in jail just because they couldn’t afford to pay bail. Like the parents apprehended at the border, many of those jailed or imprisoned in the U.S. are simply accused of a misdemeanor. And, again, children of color are more likely to suffer: One in nine Black children has a parent in prison or jail, compared to one in 28 Hispanic children, and one in 57 white children.

Much of this parental incarceration happens in the very cities these mayors represent. In New York, about 17,500 people are arrested each year for marijuana possession, and 86 percent of them are people of color. Meanwhile, in 2016, almost 4,000 people at Rikers Island at any given time were in jail because they couldn’t afford bail. Los Angeles County has the biggest jail in America, housing an average of 19,000 people at any given time. But just last week the county approved the construction of another $2.2 billion facility. Meanwhile, Garcetti has pushed for one million more hours of policing over two years.

There are some major differences between what’s happening at the border and what happens in our jails and prisons every day. Of course, when parents are arrested we don’t round up their children en masse and throw them all in one facility. There’s no massive tent city solely for the purpose of housing children whose parents have been locked up.

But children with incarcerated parents often suffer harmful and disruptive consequences that have long-lasting impact. This is especially true of those with incarcerated mothers. Those harms are only expanding: The incarceration rate for women has exploded 700% since 1980, and 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. Studies have shown that 90 percent of children with incarcerated fathers live with their mothers. But only 25 percent of children with incarcerated mothers live with their fathers. Having an incarcerated father means a child is significantly more likely to be homeless. Having an incarcerated mother means they are more likely to be in foster care.

Most mayors, of course, can’t directly enact criminal justice policy. That is often done on the county level. (New York’s structure gives de Blasio more power than most mayors to impact the criminal justice system.) But these mayors also can’t impact federal immigration policy. Yet, they are speaking out against how our government is treating families simply because these parents are accused of committing a minor offense. If they feel compelled to speak out at the border, why are they not compelled to speak out at home?

The idea of separating a parent from their child over a mere misdemeanor offense—whether marijuana possession or illegally crossing a border—is reminiscent of authoritarian regimes, not a free democracy. And yet, it happens every day. Perhaps next, de Blasio can go to Rikers Island and ask about the children of those inmates. What he despises in Texas, he encourages in New York.

Mayors all have the ability to speak out about the policies that exist in their jurisdiction, and call for reform. They know how many children are parentless in Torillo. But what about their own hometowns?

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