Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Lessons of Baltimore

A city falling apart, its police department dysfunctonal. Can Milwaukee learn from this?

By - Mar 19th, 2019 11:54 am
Baltimore Police. Photo from Pixabay.

Baltimore Police. Photo from Pixabay.

Pro Publica reporter Alec MacGillis lives in Baltimore and has been horrified by the decline of the city, which his feature story for Sunday’s New York Times Magazine documents.

“Some of us have felt a bewilderment bordering on anger that it wasn’t getting more attention nationally,” he says. “It took me over a year to do the story. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

In 2017 this city of 615,000 people, about the same as Milwaukee (595,000), had 342 murders, the “highest per capita rate ever” for Baltimore, “more than double Chicago, far higher than any other city of 500,000 or more residents, and astonishingly, a larger absolute number of killings than in New York, a city 14 times as populous,” the story notes. 

And the city’s demoralized police department, beset by distrust from the community, a rapid turnover of police chiefs (called the police commissioner) and ever-changing messages about how it should function, is barely functional. The clearance rate for homicides has dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent, the cops have become passive, and residents are “pleading with police officers to get out of their cars, to earn their pay, to protect them,” story reports.  

It’s an urban horror story about a city that has many similarities with Milwaukee, though its metro area is nearly double that of Milwaukee. Baltimore is the sixth poorest big city (33 percent have incomes under $25,000), but Milwaukee ranks even lower, in second place (36.5 percent under $25,000). Both are majority-minority cities, with Baltimore at 63 percent African American compared to Milwaukee’s 39 percent. 

Both cities have the typical problems of American urban areas — segregation, drugs, economic and racial inequality — but the picture is far bleaker for Baltimore. Milwaukee had 118 murders in 2017, about one-third the rate in Baltimore. Baltimore had 692 opioid overdose deaths in 2017, well more than double the number (an estimated 240) in Milwaukee. And whereas Milwaukee’s bike sharing program is a  success, Baltimore’s “was so plagued with vandalism that it was eventually shut down.”

Both cities saw a spike in murders in 2015, as did a number of big cities, but Milwaukee’s soon declined from 145 murders that year, while Baltimore’s 342 murders in 2015 was repeated in 2017 as the city suffers “nothing less than a failure of order and governance the likes of which few American cities have seen in years.” 

Baltimore’s police commissioner hired a new deputy police chief, Tony Barksdale, who operated much like Milwaukee’s former police chief Ed Flynn, targeting the most violent areas of the city and using computer driven CompState meetings to track crime. And homicides plummeted as they did here. 

But Barksdale, who is African American, sounds even more aggressive than Flynn was. There were lawsuits over rough arrests and a rise in shootings by police officers. Barksdale was unapologetic: “To hit the brakes on crime, there will be police-involved shootings,” he said. “I know their mind-set,” he said of the criminals. “They’ll respect you if you’re willing to die just like them.”  

But Barksdale and the police commissioner he worked under were soon replaced, during a seven-year period where Baltimore had five different commissioners and moved toward a less aggressive policing style. 

Milwaukee had the killing of Dontre Hamilton by a police officer, Baltimore had the death of Freddie Gray who died in a police car after an alleged “rough ride.” Baltimore had a “riot” or “uprising” — depending on your politics, as MacGillis notes — in response to Gray’s death. And Milwaukee had the unrest in Sherman Park after the fatal shooting of Sylville Smith by officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown.

In Baltimore none of the police involved in Gray’s death were found guilty of anything, which compounded the outrage. In Milwaukee, Christopher Manney, the officer who killed Hamilton, was never charged with a crime, but was fired by Flynn, which provided some sense of justice. And while  Heaggan-Brown was found not guilty of reckless homicide, he was sentenced to three years in prison for unrelated sex crimes, which may have helped lessen the community’s outrage. 

In reaction to the unrest after Gray’s death, Baltimore’s police commissioner at the time, Anthony Batts, took a passive approach, which angered police officers. Whereas Flynn in Milwaukee clamped down hard on the violence in Sherman Park. Baltimore’s police were further outraged by charges against the six officers involved in Gray’s death. 

“It delivered a profound blow to morale among rank-and-file officers, who were already aggrieved over their leadership’s handling of the riot, in which 130 officers were injured,” MacGillis writes. “The department’s officers responded swiftly, by doing nothing… it came to be known as ‘the pullback’: a month’s long retreat from policing.”

Since then the relations between the police department and the community have remained troubled, violence has continued to spike as police have continued in a less-aggressive mode under a new mayor, Catherine Pugh, who wants to concentrate on root causes of crime, even as violence and disorder plague the city. 

Reading this story you can easily imagine it could have happened in Milwaukee. Why didn’t it? You can never discount luck: Baltimore experienced a confluence of negative events that seemed to turn things ever worse.

But whereas Baltimore had a frequent turnover of both mayors and police chiefs during this period, Milwaukee had stable leadership by Mayor Tom Barrett and Chief Flynn. Whereas Baltimore kept switching its style of policing, Flynn was very consistent with some minor changes over time. And his successor Alfonso Morales, while he has announced more emphasis on community policing and beat cops, hasn’t radically changed the department, as has happened in Baltimore repeatedly. 

In Baltimore the police commissioner is directly appointed by the mayor, which has led to the frequent turnover of commissioners. The city does not have a Fire and Police Commission like Milwaukee, or a four year term of office, both of which gives the police chief some protection from politics.

Baltimore has no residency requirement for police and an estimated 80 percent live outside the city. “Some of them live an hour away, in Pennsylvania,” MacGillis notes, which conveys the “idea of an occupying force.”

Milwaukee’s residency requirement was overturned by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators, and how that is affecting the police department is not yet clear. 

MacGillis found disagreement about what style of policing should be used among both white and black residents, with the latter more likely to favor aggressive policing. “A lot of the most outspoken voices here for major restraints on police come from progressive whites,” he notes. 

Of course the progressive whites typically live in safe neighborhoods. Black residents are more likely to be in higher-crime areas and desperately want strong policing — but by officers who work to distinguish between the good people and criminals in the neighborhood.

It’s finding that happy medium that is the challenge for every urban police department. “Solving that is the key, that’s the holy grail,” MacGillis says.

“It could certainly be done far better than it has in Baltimore.”  

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One thought on “Murphy’s Law: The Lessons of Baltimore”

  1. Mark Nicolini says:

    Baltimore and Milwaukee have roughly the same population and share several comparable challenges. Of interest is the size of Baltimore’s Police Department–about 3,100 total sworn and civilian–versus Milwaukee’s approximately 2,750. Yet Baltimore has a much higher murder rate and much lower homicide clearance rate.

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