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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 GrayChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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.