There is a sense in which the news in the Department of Justice’s report on the Baltimore police last week is so bad it’s good.
Not that the situation described in the report is good. The situation is horrific.
On the streets of Baltimore’s black neighborhoods, people live in the dystopia that John Adams portrayed in his closing argument in the Boston Massacre trial: a world where people are forced to learn that “Whether I do well or ill is of no account, because innocence itself is no protection.”
Adams warned that when this recognition takes hold in the mind of the citizen, “That will be the end of all security whatsoever.”
In Baltimore, Adams’ nightmare has come true.
In black Baltimore, whether he was innocent or not, a young man was going to be stopped and frisked. Over 96 per cent of the thousands of pedestrian street stops in Baltimore turned up nothing at all.
The great virtue of the DOJ’s Baltimore report is that it finally makes it clear, once and forever, that “safety” can’t be captured by crime rate data alone. To be “safe “ you have to be safe from criminals, but you have to be safe from crime-suppression policies and practices too.
A fascinating aspect of the DOJ report—a feature with important implications for the future—is that it applies to the Baltimore context the same approach that safety experts in industry, aviation, and medicine use in analyzing latent dangers.
This decision to treat criminal justice practice as a safety problem is a leap in the right direction.
The DOJ Baltimore report, using safety principles, does not stop with “The cops on the street are racists”. It widens the lens to recognize that every harassing stop, every use of excessive force, every strip search, is a system failure: an “organizational accident.”
Yes, the street cop is responsible for his acts and should be held accountable. But if we want to change things, we have to account for people far from the scene: people who set up that cop’s working environment and provided his incentives.
If we don’t do that, the next cop will face the same situation, and is all too likely to react to it in the same way.
The DOJ report exemplifies a rigorous “forward-looking accountability” that recognizes the roles of the supervisors who demanded “outputs” and pushed for unconstitutional stops, the trainers who failed to transmit Constitutional values, the policy-makers who demanded “zero tolerance” enforcement in black neighborhoods, even of the housing industry and lending moguls whose red-lining practices created a “Two Baltimores” reality in which crime control free-fire zones flourished.
The safety approach helps make it clear that the Baltimore situation was not created because someone sat down one day and decided to create it. Confront the Baltimore authorities with the results of their work and they will say in all honesty that this is not what they wanted.
But by employing the safety lens we can begin to understand how everyone’s actions, up and down the line, contributed in some little measure to the outcome.
The Baltimore situation was created— as many disasters (the launch of doomed space shuttles, or the crash of a poorly maintained airliners) are—by a process of drift, by “the normalization of deviance.”
A political slogan (“Zero Tolerance”) becomes a policy. Middle managers struggle to devise tactics and techniques for applying that policy, but only in African-American neighborhoods. To take one example: the practice of “arrest-and-release”, where a resident is taken into custody on no basis, held for a few hours or overnight, and then released.
The cops on the street then execute the policy as they understand it and try to satisfy their managers as best they can.
In any organization under pressure, frontline people make a million small decisions that drift closer to the margins of safety (or legality). When nothing drastic happens that they can see, a “new normal” is created, and that normal provides the point of departure for the next small downgrade in safety (or legality).
Trying to make your Compstat numbers, you perform an intrusive street search on a little less than “reasonable articulable suspicion.” Nothing bad happens, and your supervisor is still screaming about “outputs.” So, you’ll perform the next search on a little less evidence than the first.
This isn’t unique to the police. Workers everywhere develop “covert work rules” that help them do the “real” job their supervisors demand even when formal rules forbid those actions.
But if you are asking a street cop to do 20 street stops on Tuesday, issuing a new policy that asks him to reappear as Officer Friendly on the same streets on Wednesday won’t work. He will decide that his goal must be to “own the street.” Pretty soon you inevitably face the colonial city Frantz Fanon described in French Algeria, divided into separate halves that communicate with each other by a language of “terror, counter-terror; violence, counter-violence.”
The key lesson from the safety experts is that announcing new rules, penalties, and components won’t permanently answer these problems. Those “fixes” will be under immediate attack from their environment, just like the last fixes.
But safety thinking also provides another, more hopeful, lesson: access to a new practice that might provide a ladder we can climb out of the hole that we’ve dug.
What we need—as industry, aviation, and medicine have learned—is progress toward a new “culture of safety” in which all of the players recognize their individual responsibilities for a safe collective outcome, and work continuously—everyone, all the time—on improving safety practice.
Yes, we have to discipline rogue cops, but we can’t discipline our way to safety.
The Baltimore report shows us that as much as we need discipline, we need resiliency. We have to devise a routine in which we work collaboratively with all stakeholders to catch “sentinel events” such as bad street stops, and in which errors are viewed together, in a process that involves identifying their complex sources, illuminating their disparate racial impacts.
The final element of this process is acting to prevent the next recurrence.
We have to provide a protected place where we can hear the perspectives of all ranks (the patrol officer and the middle manager as well as the Chief). We especially have to include the perspectives of the community members whose safety is our ultimate goal.
Only in this way can we untangle the impacts of the system’s components on each other and of the warping pressures from their environment on all of the system’s actors—and see the ways in which frontline operators can be “set up to fail.”
This process is not designed solely to produce today’s “answer” to a problem. It can also provide a reliable venue for generating the good questions about how today’s answer might be threatened, undermined, or outflanked tomorrow.
We can’t do this “for” communities. If we try to do this unilaterally and top-down, we will probably just end up doing something new “to” the communities. Certainly it will look that way to the communities’ members.
But once we accept the lesson that “safety” means something more than “low crime rate” we can work with communities to build a real culture of real safety on the streets.
James Doyle, a Boston defense lawyer and author, is a frequent commentator for The Crime Report. He welcomes comment from readers.