from the kindly-shut-your-noisehole dept
In response to the killing of a Baltimore police officer, the head of the Baltimore police union, Mike Mancuso, has decided to accuse everyone who doesn’t love cops as being responsible for her killing. The statement from the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) was delivered via Twitter, portraying itself as an “Open Letter to the People of Baltimore.”
It’s not really an open letter. It’s a rant that makes false claims, punctuated with one particularly meaningless statistic to drive its point home: the Baltimore PD no longer feels it has the support of the city government, nor the people it serves. FOP President Mancuso is probably correct on both counts. But nowhere does he even hint that part of the problem might be the Baltimore Police Department.
Here’s where the letter goes off the rails. It starts in the second paragraph which means you won’t have to read much of the “open letter” [PDF] before your eyes start rolling. Let’s turn it over to the head of the FOP:
In this time of contemplation, I have come to realize that Baltimore and its citizens have reached a crossroads in the path toward the future. You can no longer be still, as the path ahead has so completely diverged as to make silence no longer an option. The politicians running Baltimore and Annapolis have defunded the police in a now obvious way allowing attrition and recruitment to be ignored, causing our ranks to fall some six hundred officers short of what is needed.
First off, there has been no defunding. This claim is clearly contradicted by the city’s annual budget numbers, which are posted publicly. Mancuso obviously hopes no one will check his math. Certainly the choir he’s preaching to won’t.
The Baltimore PD has never been defunded. It didn’t happen during the recent wave of defunding efforts across the nation. And it didn’t happen during any of the years Macuso has chosen to bracket his arguments with:
What has happened to our city is devastating. Since 2015, there have been 2318 victims of homicide and 4848 victims of shootings, all while in conjunction with a mass exodus of dedicated members of our agency.
I wonder what happened in 2015 that would have possibly led to (1) more gun violence and/or (2) a mass exodus of Baltimore police officers?
On April 12th, 2015, a 25-year-old black man from the west side of Baltimore named Freddie Gray was arrested for possession of a “switchblade,” put inside a Baltimore Police Department (BPD) transport van, and then, 45 minutes later, was found unconscious and not breathing, his spinal cord nearly severed. Following a seven-day coma, Gray died on April 19th; his untimely death and citizen video of his arrest, which showed Gray screaming in pain, prompted both the peaceful protests and headline-grabbing riots. The subsequent two-week police investigation ultimately concluded that Gray’s injury happened sometime during the van’s route – over six stops, with two prisoner checks, and another passenger pick-up.
This killing of Freddie Gray by BPD officers resulted in protests and backlash against the police department. The intervening years did nothing to improve the PD’s reputation nor its relationship with Baltimore residents.
In 2017, body camera footage of an officer planting drugs led to a department-wide investigation that resulted in the indictment of eight officers on racketeering charges for stealing money, fabricating evidence, and other misconduct. Hundreds of criminal cases were dismissed.
At that point, the PD was already subject to a consent decree from the DOJ, following its investigation of the department, which found:
BPD engages in a pattern or practice of: (1) making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; (2) using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans; (3) using excessive force; and (4) retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.
By 2020, the number of indicted or convicted police officers had reached 14, adding in even more allegations (many sustained) of evidence theft, evidence planting, falsified paperwork, and a ton of rights violations.
So, it was not simply the backlash caused by the “rough ride” death of Freddie Gray, a man arrested for carrying a legal knife. The results of the DOJ’s investigation were published in 2016. The consent decree arrived January 2017, followed shortly thereafter by reports of corrupt cops planting drugs and stealing evidence.
Back to the FOP’s president’s statement. He claims the PD has been shedding officers steadily since that point. According to Mancuso, it’s the city holding the department back by somehow preventing the department from recruiting or hiring cops. But there has never been a hiring freeze. Some expenditures were put on hold during the COVID crisis. But, for the most part, the PD has had five out of the last six years to hire as many officers as it can.
There are several reasons the BPD might be leaking cops. Some of its worst officers might have left the force, realizing even a minimal amount of scrutiny might uncover their wrongdoing. Others may have left the force because they no longer wished to be associated with the corruption observed in several high-profile cases.
The same can be said for the PD’s inability to outpace departures with new hires. Good cops most likely would prefer to steer clear of a department with a reputation as terrible as Baltimore’s. Bad cops most likely steered clear of the BPD because officers were being overseen by a DOJ consent decree and the heightened scrutiny that always follows massive scandals. Realizing it might be more difficult to engage in lawless behavior, potential officers likely looked elsewhere.
With that out of the way, we can get back to looking at the department’s budget, which the FOP claims has been “defunded.” The stats are easily available, compiled and published by the City of Baltimore. Here’s how the years in question break down in terms of dollar amount and number of officers, which are the only stats the FOP cares about.
2017 (report for this year returns a 404 error, est. budget from 2016 request listed below)
The FOP’s statement about defunding is a lie. So is its count of officers. It claims 600 have walked away and never been replaced. At best, the actual numbers show the BPD has shed less than 300 employees (not all of them officers) since 2015. As of last August, the BPD was only short 108 officers, nowhere near the number stated by the FOP.
Meanwhile — despite lower labor costs — the department’s budget has increased by nearly $81 million over the past five years. There was a slight dip between 2020 and 2021, but that dip is purely conceptual at this point. The BPD may end fiscal 2021 having spent more in 2021 than in 2020. Its budget may have been slightly lower than 2020 but its actual expenditures have yet to be tabulated.
There is no evidence of defunding here. And there’s no evidence the situation — in terms of officers — is anywhere near as dire as the FOP portrays it.
These are the factors the FOP ties to the increase in homicides. One has been exaggerated. The other is nonexistent.
It’s true the murder rate in Baltimore has been climbing since 2015. The FOP boss wants to blame it on everyone turning against the cops, resulting in a mass exodus of officers (isn’t happening) and the stripping of funding (isn’t happening either). Baltimore’s murder rate is the highest its been since the mid-1990s, which was a highwater mark for criminal activity almost everywhere in the country.
Maybe the explanation is closer to home than the FOP wants to admit. It could be the murder rate is rising because would-be murderers know the odds are with them. Even at its own, self-reported best, the PD only solves half the murders committed in Baltimore.
The official clearance rates for those years have been reported as 51% (2017), 43% (2018), 32% (2019), and 40% (2020).
At worst, the odds are even better for murderers. These clearance rates are inflated, according to the former Deputy Attorney General of Maryland, Thiruvendran “Thiru” Vignarajah. Vignarajah has examined the BPD’s reported crime stats and has some insight into how the department handles clearances. A cleared case doesn’t always mean the perp has been arrested or convicted. In some cases, the clearance means nothing has happened.
Vignarajah calculates it — without “exceptional clearances” and without arrests in homicides from previous years — the clearance rate for each of those years was much lower. “Less than a quarter [24%] of all 1,336 murders from the beginning of 2017 through the end of 2020 resulted in an arrest,” Vignarajah says.
Even if we give officers credit for closing cases that began the previous year, the abuse of “exceptional clearances” allows the PD to overstate its effectiveness.
The most common use of “exceptional clearances” is to pin murders on corpses. Subject only to a cursory review by supervisors and prosecutors (both of which clearly benefit from higher clearance races), investigators can claim a body in the morgue was responsible for the death of others. Sometimes they may be correct. But it certainly looks like an easy way to juice clearance rates, all without having to actually prove the cadaver committed the crime.
The actual number of exceptional clearances may seem small compared to the ~300+ murders committed in Baltimore every year, but it’s enough to turn a disappointing number into something that appears to show a supposedly undermanned and underbudgeted homicide unit is exceeding expectations.
The number of cases closed by exception in Baltimore has increased in each of the last four years, data obtained by The Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request show, from 11 in 2014 to 18 in 2015 to 26 in 2016 to 34 last year. The practice has helped police improve their homicide clearance rate over that time, from 30.7 percent in 2015 to 51.4 percent last year.
In 2018, there were 309 murders in Baltimore. The PD allowed more than 10% of those cases to be closed by blaming it on someone who could no longer defend themselves against these charges. In some cases, this may have been true. But the easy out dead-ends investigations and allows the PD to rack up unearned wins. It also, obviously, allows some murderers to go free.
All of this undermines the breathless conclusion to Mike Mancuso’s open letter. If the claims he makes and the correlations he implies are false, then this is all just pro-cop agitation, completely devoid of meaning.
This is not a political issue of left vs. right, nor is it a rift between Baltimore’s citizens and their sworn protectors. This is simply a fight between good vs. evil, and we must decide where we stand.
Sorry, Mr. Mancuso. The PD has proven capable of housing plenty of evil. And the murder stats cited are meaningless without the uncomfortable context that the BPD is just kind of terrible at solving murders. The claim about defunding is flat-out false. If the PD can’t find a way to attract and retain officers despite remaining fully funded for the last half-decade (this includes the governor’s $150 million budget boost for 2022 — one delivered by the governor with verbal attacks on defunding efforts), the problems are mostly internal. Heal thyself, BPD. And kick this ridiculous charlatan to the curb. He’s useless and he’s a liar.