More on police brutality in Baltimore

Following from my last post, I’ve been doing some more research into developments in the drug war in Baltimore and in particular how that relates to police brutality. Is police brutality carrying on the same as before Freddie Gray’s death, or is it getting better or worse? And is the war on drugs carrying on as before or getting more or less intense? I had posited a connection between the two the last time but I think this needs more discussion.

Is police brutality such a big issue?

It turns out that there is no clear data about police brutality and whether it is getting worse or better. This does not surprise me since violent crime in general is underreported (except for homicides), so reports of police violence must be similarly prone to error. What about the drug war? A Sun article back in 2016 reported that drug arrests in general had gone down. Since the homicide rate was going up at the same time, some, like former acting commissioner Anthony Barksdale, argued that retreating in the fight against drugs led directly to increased violence.

Similar arguments have been made by others, like Heather MacDonald. At some level it makes sense. Given that the illegal drug trade is so violent, clearing the streets of drug dealers may well clear them of the most violent elements in the neighborhood, and it may be easier police work to stop and search people in the street and lock them up for possession than to painstakingly examine crime scenes and track down witnesses to nail those who committed actual violence.

But there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. Why is the drug trade so violent? Almost certainly because of prohibition! Prohibition itself raises the costs of the drugs, which makes it more lucrative. And since doing business involves evading and sometimes violently confronting the law, it attracts more violent and unscrupulous types. We saw the same thing during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

End violence by ending the war on drugs

So there’s reason to think that a retreat in the war on drugs will help reduce violence. What explains the correlation between more homicides and fewer arrests in the last couple of years in Baltimore? Well, at the same time, there was the whole Freddie Gray affair, with the protests and riots, it seems that police decided to stay out of people’s way. This can explain the fewer drug-related arrests, but can also explain fewer arrests for crimes involving people and property. While arresting people specifically for peaceful behavior like buying and selling has a questionable relationship to violent crime, there is some (though not clinching) evidence that turning a blind eye to small property crimes can encourage more serious violence. The aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots unfortunately led not only to lenience in drug prohibition but also lenience in the defense of basic property rights.

This does not mean the police can simply go back to their brutal ways before Freddie Gray. It was that pervasive brutality (or the perception thereof) that sparked the riots to begin with. How to fix relations between police and community, or whether that’s even possible, must be the subject of a later post.

Police corruption and the war on drugs

The latest police corruption scandal involves officer Spencer Moore, who was arrested last Tuesday in Baltimore County for drug trafficking. It’s ironic that, although there were several credible reports of Moore assaulting civilians, he ended up being arrested for engaging in a peaceful exchange of drugs. This focus on drug crimes above other crimes is ironically appropriate, given that this has been deliberate law enforcement policy since the 1990s.

As David Simon (the creator of the TV series “The Wire”) explained in a 2015 interview, the drug war arose from a widespread belief that clearing the streets of drugs would clear them of violence. This ignores the fact that drug prohibition itself is a leading cause of violence). Moreover, as Simon points out, the war on drugs severely damaged public trust in the police. Because of the drug war, investigating violent crime took a back seat to mass arrests of anyone who looked suspicious. It is unclear whether this helped reduce violent crime on the street, but it certainly led to more police brutality. This in turn set up the conditions for the Freddie Gray riots, loss of police confidence, and the recent upward spike in homicides.


So what do we do about this? Legalizing drugs would obviously solve the “problem” of cops breaking drug laws. Internal investigations of police corruption would then focus more on the cops who commit acts of brutality. But it’s worth noting that even de-escalating the war on drugs might go a long way towards solving the problem of police brutality. Simon suggests simple administrative remedies, such as not paying overtime for dealing with petty drug crimes. Certainly, the less often police try to arrest people, the fewer chances for abuse there will be. How this would affect violent crime more generally is another matter; solving that will probably require addressing several issues at once.