By now the whole world knows something of the situation in Baltimore. A man in custody of the Baltimore Police department dies and the inevitable peaceful protests turn violent.
The reaction in the country spans the entire spectrum from “send in the National Guard and start shooting people to Baltimore brought this on themselves.”
Depending on where you fall in this spectrum, either the cops are thugs or those throwing rocks, looting, and burning buildings are.
As with most things, it is much more complicated than that, but complex problems and the required complex responses do not make for good TV sound bites.
Most wouldn’t, or sadly couldn’t read it anyway which is another part of the problem.
It is impossible to sum up the issue, let alone propose a solution, in a 140 character Tweet or other such social media forum. That doesn’t stop them from trying.
What I am about to say will likely be viewed by some of my friends and colleagues in Law Enforcement as heresy, but it falls upon them to refute it.
The character and nature of law enforcement has changed over the last several decades, mostly for the better but in several significant ways for the worse.
There was a time when the majority of law enforcement had daily, personal contact with the public not because of calls for service or responses to 911 calls, but from being out on the street walking the neighborhoods. That all began to change with the movement to motorized patrol in a quest for efficiency and speed of response.
But the laws of unintended consequences kicked in. We became faster in responding to problems at the cost of our separation from the public on a day to day basis, making us blind to the little problems as they developed. Those little problems eventually become big ones.
We didn’t see the gangs taking over corners until it had already occured.
We didn’t see graffiti growing until it was everywhere.
We focused on Patrol officers writing summonses for traffic violations and other such minor offenses as a way to measure efficiency. When crime statistics went down we claimed it was embracing the “broken window” theory, if they went up, we attibuted it to factors outside our control.
The second error we made, or at least went along willingly, was the war on drugs. The single biggest waste of resources ever. Police departments that had one or two officers assigned to drug units suddenly assigned two and three times that amount.
Federal task forces were formed. Federal, state, and local law enforcement officers brought in. The resources of the FBI, normally not tasked with drug cases, were added to the mix. We seized larger and larger amounts of narcotics. Put more and more people in prison.
We also created opportunity and incentive. An incentive to sell drugs and the opportunity to generate an income with little or no education or skills. All one had to do was accept the possibility of the occasional arrest and stint in prison.
We also created a need for those in the business to protect themselves and their territory, thus the proliferation of weapons.
And, we let natue take it’s natural course. If one is born into an environment where your family business is narcotics distribution, it is likely you’ll follow in those footsteps.
And you know what happened as a consequence of this policy?
The price of drugs dropped, the availability increased. Yet we all went happily along.
And do you know why we did these two things?
State and Federal Civil Seizure laws proliferated. Police departments siezed the cash, vehicles, and property of those we investigated. Sometimes, we moved to seize the property without even pursuing criminal cases because the legal requirements in court were easier than proving a criminal case.
Cities, towns, and states brought in revenue from motor vehicle violations and whole departments were created to deal with the influx of cash.
We did it with the best of intentions. No one embraced the philosophy of strong drug enforcement more than me when I was on the job. Being away from it and having the benefit of hindsight and mountains of evidence to validate this opinion has changed my perspective.
You cannot arrest your way out of a health problem. Just look at the number of overdose deaths from opiates, the numbers are rising despite our enforcement efforts.
What does this have to do with Baltimore? The riots and rage arising from these incidents involving the police are symptoms of the problem.
Whenever there is a violent encounter with the police, those that live in an environment of hopelessness see it as another example of how things never change. The system is stacked against them.
Those that are fortunate enough to live outside that environment only see the violence, they do not see the cause.
In the case of the Baltimore cops, there is another troubling aspect. The rush to judgement. These six officers are innocent of these charges and will remain so until such time as a jury finds them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
It is the foundation of our criminal justice system, the presumption of innocence. No one should forget that.
Opinions of their guilt are not only meaningless, they are dangerous. It is dangerous for anyone to assume the guilt of anyone absent a conviction in a court of law. It would serve us well for everyone to remember that.
Police officers assuming that those they have arrested are guilty and entitlted to less than humanitarian treatment by virtue of that arrest are as wrong as someone standing on the street hurling bricks at the police because they assume all cops are racist and prone to brutality.
Cops are human beings subjected to the same flaws as everyone else, although most learn to rise above that and perform admirably.
I hope that those in the position of authority in Baltimore, the prosecutor and those responsible for investigating what happened in the back of that police van, remember that truth is the goal not a politically expedient path of least resistance.
If the evidence supports the charges, and these officers are one day convicted then that will be justice. If, on the other hand, the evidence contradicts these charges then these officers are pawns in a game of politics that perpetuates the very problem of those in power deciding what is the truth.
If power determines truth, then this country is in deep trouble.