A law enforcement strategy emerged in the 1990s that employed stepped-up policing of lesser infractions under the theory that people targeted under this approach would be prevented or deterred from committing more serious crimes. “Broken windows” policing was a phrase applied broadly to the strategy used in New York City in the 1990s in reaction to rising violent crime and an expanding illegal drug trade that plagued some of the city’s neighborhoods. The city experienced sharp declines in murders and other violent crimes.
But the approach fell out of favor among some elected officials and many citizens in the 2010s amid complaints about the police targeting of Black and brown communities and individuals. Some researchers argued that any correlation between the broken windows approach and lower crime rates was nonexistent or unproven.
Baltimore and other cities had adopted policies aligned with that overall approach, which was based on a belief that more police interactions and arrests for offenses such as minor property damage, illegal squeegee work and loitering would lead to reductions in more serious crimes.
But in 2016, the Department of Justice completed an investigation into Baltimore Police Department practices, finding that it engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional policing. The department has moved on to other sets of policies and procedures under various administrations and police commissioners as it struggles to reduce violent crime and crime overall.
According to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, violent crime in major cities, including Baltimore, is up 4.4% from 2021 to 2022. Homicides in Baltimore were up 4%, according to a June 2022 midyear review (179, up from 164), and robberies were up 8.5% (1812, up from 1526).
With these numbers, would returning to some form of stepped-up police engagement lead to a safer Baltimore? It seems now is the time to try, and Baltimore would certainly be an appropriate laboratory. Such engagement shouldn’t be a pretext for harassment of citizens, but it can work as a tougher, more effective approach for confronting people believed to be committing lower-level offenses and asking them the right questions.
After self-imposed changes from the DOJ’s report, an understaffed Baltimore Police Department has taken an approach that limits interactions officers can have with people, even if they are observed, or thought to be, engaging in some lower-level criminal activities.
More direct engagement by police could be carried out in a way that would make the community feel police are there to help, not hurt. Presence would help. Communication would help. Police have to do their part — call out bad cops and emulate good ones, and constantly be in touch with residents. Ask them what ails them. Keep the conversation going, every day.
Under Commissioner William Bratton in New York, crime went down dramatically, with murder going down by 72% and violent crime down by 51% from 1990 to 1998, according to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Bratton’s plan to aggressively police minor offenses, which some called “zero tolerance,” led to squeegee workers being targeted — as well as people living on the street, sex workers and loiterers — as a means of warding off more serious offenses. If police stopped the loitering, the drug dealing would be curbed, and so on, was the theory.
Baltimore tried this kind of approach under former Police Commissioner Ed Norris and Mayor Martin O’Malley. Under Norris’ leadership, crime rates fell, and homicides were under 300 for the first time in a decade. Norris, a former NYPD Deputy Commissioner, left the Baltimore Police Department in 2003 to become Maryland State Police superintendent. He then fell into trouble when he was federally convicted for misuse of a police expense fund. Also, the O’Malley administration was sued by the ACLU for its policing practices — and lost. But does that mean nothing can be salvaged?
Officers I have spoken with said they believed in what Norris was doing with Baltimore’s version of the zero tolerance policies. Such policies included efforts to address crime trends systematically. Under Comstat, set up by Norris, police officials met weekly to go over crime statistics, areas of biggest need and ways of implementing data to better combat crime. More police overtime and overtime pay were built into this approach.
But in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, the scandal surrounding the Gun Trace Task Force, and a 2016 consent decree related to unconstitutional searches, seizures and stops, is there room for any of this to return? The answer is that there must be. Too many police have lost any sense of morale because of a feeling they can’t do their jobs (make contacts, make arrests) without risking a civil rights complaint.
The status quo, however, cannot stand. Baltimore had 289 homicides as of Nov. 6 and is on pace to exceed its deadliest year ever — 353 homicides in 1993. A change of direction is needed. Police must feel that they are allowed to do their jobs but not be seen as harassing citizens of color in the guise of fighting crime. In other words, let the body cams be the best defender police have ever had — let body cams show police making lawful arrests and contacts.
It can be done, but not easily. Trust isn’t overflowing after Freddie Gray and GTTF, but better policy will increase morale, and then recruitment, and lead to less crime in Baltimore.
Tom Maronick Jr. is a criminal defense and personal injury lawyer and senior partner of Maronick Law.