Digging deeper.

Sometimes, the investigation of one thing turns up evidence on something else. That’s one of the hazards—or pleasures—of historical research, journalism, and policing. That’s the case with the follow-on to a couple of recent traumatic events.

First, since the indictment of six Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on 1 May 2015, Baltimore has suffered 55 murders.[1] That is twice the “normal” rate and the highest levels seen in the city since the very violent 1970s. Why the surge in homicides? African-American community leaders blame what amounts to a police strike since the indictment of the officers. The arrest rate dropped sharply. This alleged stand-down by the street cops “gave criminals space to operate.” This isn’t very credible as an explanation. Murder rates vary across months of the year, while the police presence remains basically stable. One kid living near a drug market told the New York Times that “Summertime: that’s when they do all the killing.” A more compelling explanation is the one offered by Baltimore police officials. During the riot in April 2015, 27 pharmacies were looted. Officials estimate that 175,000 doses of Oxycontin disappeared.[2] Oxycontin moves on the street for $30 a dose, so that’s $5.25 million of drugs that landed in the hands of dealers.[3] Because it was cost-free, it all represents pure profit after the distribution costs to the dealers. They key to profit, then, appears to be control of marketing outlets, rather than control over supply. That means a war for the corners and increased murders.

Second, the death of Eric Garner while being arrested in July 2014 reveals something about police-community interactions beyond the standard “broken relationship” trope.[4] In their longer-term context, police-community relations deteriorate when the community feels that it has been abandoned by the police to the criminals. Rebuilding that relationship requires the police to act effectively and to be seen to be acting effectively against crime. When William Bratton headed the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the 1990s, he introduced the “broken windows” strategy. This involved addressing the many small signs of social decay to clear away the underbrush that both shielded and could grow into serious crime. The NYPD also adopted a more analytical, statistics-based approach to targeting resources. Those approaches have remained in effect to this day. Crime rates have dropped dramatically, although people often contest claims that “broken windows” policing is responsible for the drop.

Tomkinsville Park on Staten Island had emerged as one area of statistical concern to police leaders. A little over half way through 2014, there had already been 696 calls to 911 about the area. There had also been 11 posts to the city’s hotline for complaints, called 311. Between March and June 2014, these reports had reached senior police commanders and the local commanders on Staten Island had been instructed to address the issue.

One of the 311 complaints came from Gjafer Gjeshbritaj, who owned an apartment building in the area. He complained of drug dealers hanging out in front of his building. His earlier efforts to disperse them had led to a physical confrontation. Moreover, Gjeshbitraj complained, the dealers used the people selling “loose” (illegal untaxed) cigarettes as cover for their own business.

This converged with the “broken windows” strategy and Mr. Gjeshbitraj belonged to the community of law-abiding citizens with whom the police were trying to build ties. Police visits to Tomkinsville Park increased and so did arrests, summonses, and warnings.

On 17 July 2014, a police lieutenant passing by noticed the crowd of cigarette sellers and others on the sidewalk near the park. He called the local precinct to tell them to send some men. All the rest followed.

[1] Richard Oppel, Jr., “Looking for Gains in Policing, Baltimore Finds Fewer Police,” NYT, 13 June 2015. Forty-two murders in May and 13 so far in June.

[2] I conjecture that large amounts of Sudafed disappeared as well. Following cultural stereotyping, I further conjecture that this all was unloaded to wholesalers in West Virginia and on the Eastern Shore.

[3] To get a sense of proportion, the Federal Government’s Small Business Administration announced a program to grant $1 million in small business loans in Baltimore following the riot. See: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-business-riot-recovery-20150529-story.html

[4] Al Baker, J. David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller, “Beyond the Chokehold: The Unexplored Path to Eric Garner’s Death,” NYT, 14 June 2015.

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