Before heading off to San Francisco to be installed as president of the National Conference of Mayors, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expressed some urgency about the simultaneous massive increase in violence and drastic drop in arrests in Baltimore since the funeral of Freddie Gray six weeks ago. She said she told the Fraternal Order of Police that if officers want to cash their paychecks, they need to do their jobs and suggested that some members of the force are engaged in a work slowdown that could lead to disciplinary action. Certainly if it's true that some officers are deliberately shirking their duties out of anger that six officers were indicted in Gray's death, they don't deserve to wear a badge. But it would take a lot more than a few bad apples to produce a 43 percent drop in arrests from one month to the next, and we're not sure that the vast majority of the rank and file are going to snap to attention based on a scolding from the mayor.
FOP President Gene Ryan insists that there is no work slowdown. Rather, he reiterated this week that officers are hesitant to stop suspects or make arrests for fear that they will be prosecuted. We believe that concern is overblown. That said, it is not at all clear that the mayor, police chief and state's attorney's office are on the same page with regard to what the rules of engagement for officers should be.
On June 10, Mr. Ryan claimed that State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby had told officers they could "no longer use handcuffs to detain suspects without probable cause for arrest." Ms. Mosby did not contradict him at the time, though Police Commissioner Anthony Batts sought to clarify the matter by saying, "I don't think the state's attorney ever said that you can't use handcuffs. They said if you had the opportunity to chase someone, No. 1, you have to articulate the reasonable suspicion for chasing someone, and then if you catch them and you choose to put them in handcuffs, that you have to articulate why you took that action."
An editorial Tuesday repeated Mr. Ryan's claim, and on Wednesday a spokeswoman for Ms. Mosby objected, saying in an email that the state's attorney had not told police they could not use handcuffs unless they had probable cause for an arrest. But the spokeswoman declined to say what advice Ms. Mosby had given. That is unfortunate; the public has a right to know how she interprets the legal standards under which the police operate, which is an issue separate from and larger than any one case.
Police can do their jobs without resorting to anything like the kind of conduct the indicted officers are accused of in Gray's death — including at least two alleged violations of departmental policies. The police union appears to be focusing on charges related to Gray's initial detention, which Ms. Mosby had characterized as an "illegal arrest." Initially, three of the officers were charged with false imprisonment, but Ms. Mosby did not present those charges to the grand jury that recently brought indictments against all six. Mr. Ryan insists that police are more fearful that they will be sent to jail based on an honest mistake in their work than they are of being killed in the line of duty, but that concern is beyond far-fetched.
There are bigger issues here that should not be lost. The public reaction to the manner in which Freddie Gray was handled by the police is indicative of a broader sense in many of Baltimore's communities that officers routinely treat residents roughly and disrespectfully, and that sentiment has resulted in the increased scrutiny Commissioner Batts says officers are facing now even when doing the most routine work. Meanwhile, the city is sickened by a level of violence we have not seen in decades, and while a variety of factors may be involved in the rash of shootings — including four more on Wednesday — the change in police behavior indicated by the drop in arrests is surely one of them.
Reconciling those two things is the real challenge facing the city. If Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Batts have evidence that some officers are engaged in a "blue flu" action, they should bring it and deal with those individuals swiftly. But what we really need is for them to bring about a new era of policing that is effective without being dehumanizing. The mayor and commissioner insist that's what they've been doing for nearly three years, but their efforts obviously aren't working. Administering a tongue-lashing to the FOP isn't going to change that.