Just before a wave of violence turned Baltimore into the nation’s deadliest big city, its officers seemed to stop noticing crime, USA Today reports. Police officers reported seeing fewer drug dealers on the streets, and they encountered fewer people who had open arrest warrants. Police questioned fewer people. In spring 2015, as Baltimore faced rioting after Freddie Gray died from injuries in the back of a police van, officers appeared to turn a blind eye to everyday violations. The number of potential violations they reported seeing dropped by nearly half. It has largely stayed that way ever since. “What officers are doing is they’re just driving looking forward. They’ve got horse blinders on,” says Kevin Forrester, a retired Baltimore detective.
In the surge of shootings and killings, the murder rate reached an all-time high last year; 342 people were killed. Shootings in some neighborhoods have more than tripled. Baltimore offers a view of the possible costs of a national reckoning over how police officers have treated minorities. Starting in 2014, racially charged encounters cast an unflattering spotlight on aggressive police tactics toward blacks. Cities have been under pressure to crack down on abuses by law enforcement. In Baltimore, from 2014 to 2017, the number of suspected narcotics offenses police reported dropped 30 percent; the number of times police approach someone for questioning fell 70 percent. Policing in the city has changed “very dramatically,” says Prof. Donald Norris of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “The outcome … has been a lot more crime in Baltimore, especially murders, and people are getting away with those murders.” Officials acknowledge the change. “In all candor, officers are not as aggressive as they once were, pre-2015. It’s just that fact,” says acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle. He blames a shortage of patrol officers and the fallout from a blistering 2016 Justice Department investigation. Tuggle said Wednesday that he is bolstering the department’s patrol ranks by almost 20 percent.