About halfway through Cop in the Hood , a new book about policing Baltimore, author Peter Moskos hits upon an important theme: The Police Department ought to do more to prevent crime, instead of simply reacting to it.
The department should give officers more discretion to lock up the truly bad guys on their beats and spend less time clearing the corners, he writes. Patrol officers should get more time to learn the neighborhoods so they can be aware of conflicts before they escalate into violence. Instead, he complains, officers are stuck chasing 911 calls and driving from crisis to crisis.
Unlike the typical academic, Moskos makes these observations with an air of authenticity because of the 14 months he worked as a patrol officer in the Eastern District. There, he says, he got a firsthand look at how the grand strategies formed at police headquarters at 601 E. Fayette St. morphed into something unrecognizable by the time officers in the districts got the word.
The era he witnessed was a time of revolving police leadership - he dealt with three different commissioners in organizing and executing his project. Each brought his own crime-fighting plans and his own coterie of command staff. Many officers and midlevel supervisors were unsure if today's boss would be out the door tomorrow. Amid this bureaucratic turmoil, the city's homicide total slowly, but steadily, rose.
Two more police commissioners have come and gone since Moskos worked for the Police Department.
But in the past year and a half there's been a wholesale change in the political leadership in the state and the city, and (another) commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, took office.
Unlike his recent predecessors, Bealefeld worked his way up in the department, and one of his first moves was to install a well-spoken and respected commander to lead a patrol division that had seen much turmoil. And the current batch of police commanders (the commissioner calls them Team Bealefeld) either has addressed or is addressing many of the problems Moskos writes about.
Still, Moskos worries that the Team Bealefeld message will not make it down to the patrol officer level - a theme in his book. The department's bureaucracy is so rigid, he says, that ideas formed on high can become unrecognizable by the time they make it to the rank and file.
"They can have all the great ideas," Moskos said of command staff. "But it didn't change my experience at all. Part of the problem is, how do you get all of these thing to filter down in the department? At the level of patrol, it just didn't matter."
Of Bealefeld, Moskos guessed that most in patrol follow a simple mantra: He will be out in a few years, and you don't want to make waves.
Moskos graduated from Princeton University and then enrolled in Harvard University's graduate sociology program. He was working toward his doctorate when he approached big-city police departments to see if he could shadow a patrol unit for a year.
Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier approved the project, but left office before Moskos started. The next commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel, told Moskos he'd have to join the department as a cadet if he wanted full access.
Moskos agreed and, on an accelerated schedule, was accepted into the training academy in 1999. After he completed the six-month program, the department assigned him to patrol the Eastern District on the midnight shift. It is, and was, considered one of the most crime-ridden sections of Baltimore.
His book gives a few examples of the resourcefulness of good patrol officers. One officer, for example, watched a drug organization that used walkie-talkies to communicate. The officer went home, took a set of walkie-talkies from his children's playroom and listened in as the dealers conducted business on the streets. But it's too bad the book doesn't have more examples like this, as such street-level innovations rarely get told.
Moskos writes most passionately about the arrest policy under former Commissioner Edward T. Norris, claiming that commanders in the Eastern District wanted arrest quotas. Every officer had to make at least one arrest in a 14-day work period; later, the number was boosted to two arrests.
"For the department, arrests are a way to quantify police productivity and efficiency," Moskos writes. "These are your tax dollars at work. If the homicide numbers aren't going down, at least arrests show that police officers are doing something."
Norris, who denies that that was his policy, had a lively debate with Moskos last week on his radio show.
In 2000, when Moskos patrolled the city, police arrested 71,000 people. That number jumped to 105,000 in 2005 under Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm.
This year the department is on pace to arrest about 80,000 people, Bealefeld said in a meeting last week. "We can't make a priority of all 80,000," he said. "We're trying to get the baddest of the bad guys."
Bealefeld, speaking to a group of police commanders from Prince George's County and Washington, said his ambition was to move the department beyond the reactive crime-fighting strategies of the past. "We're trying to anticipate geographical areas and groups of people to tell us where we should be in advance of the next [crime]," he said. "Where we're going is putting together who is linked to victims of crime and who in the potential universe of suspects should be watched.
"We're not there yet. Now we need to turn the [police] force into this [intelligence]-driven machine, not this reactionary throwing up crime tape and trying to figure out whodunit after the fact."
Bealefeld is also proposing freeing patrol officers for set amounts of time each week or day simply to walk around their neighborhoods without the pressure of responding to emergency calls.
He took a shift of officers from the Northern District off the streets for a month and sent them for training - in part to focus on their communications skills so they know what to do and how to behave when they do get out of their cars.
Though there's been an uptick in violence in the past two weeks, Baltimore is still on pace for the lowest homicide total in two decades. In fact, the Eastern District, which Moskos patrolled so long ago, is seeing a 53 percent drop in homicides and a 33 percent drop in nonfatal shootings over last year. Those are among the largest decreases in the city.
Moskos was unfamiliar with the city's crime reduction, but he approved of the commissioner's new strategies. "If Baltimore can get murders down below 200 for two years, that is a real change, and that would make my book dated," he said. "We'll see if this is a real reduction."