ISIH S3 E21 / Gun Violence in America: Law & Order?

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Celine Gounder: Hi, everyone. This is Dr. Celine Gounder. I’m the host of this show, “In Sickness and in Health.” If you like our approach to health storytelling, do me a small favor. This week tell one friend about the podcast. Just one. Not a big ask, right? It’ll help us bring you more stories… on the big health issues of the day. Thanks for listening. Now… on with the show.

Celine Gounder: Welcome back to “In Sickness and in Health,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America. 

Celine Gounder: Law enforcement is responsible for reducing crime and curbing gun violence, but it can also play a role in instigating them.

Celine Gounder: What you’re hearing is footage from demonstrations and riots following the death of Freddie Gray... at the hands of Baltimore Police in 2015. On April 12, 2015, Baltimore Police Department officers arrested Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man for possessing... what the police alleged... was an illegal knife. While being transported in a police vehicle, Gray sustained injuries to his neck and spine. He later fell into a coma and died on April 19, 2015... just a week after his arrest. Eyewitness accounts suggested the officers involved used unnecessary force against Gray during the arrest—a claim those officers have denied. The medical examiner's office ruled Gray's death a homicide… and not an accident… because the officers failed to follow safety procedures and provide medical attention to someone who clearly needed it.

Celine Gounder: Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed charges against six police officers involved in the arrest. Mosby said that Gray "suffered a critical neck injury as a result of being handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained inside the B[altimore] PD wagon,” and that officers had "failed to establish probable cause for Mr. Gray's arrest, as no crime had been committed" because Gray... was carrying a pocket knife of legal size… and not the switchblade police claimed he possessed at the time of his arrest.

Celine Gounder: Freddie Gray’s death became a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police, and it sparked daily protests in Baltimore. But what started off as peaceful demonstrations… quickly turned into violent riots. 

Celine Gounder: In today’s episode we’ll discuss the role law enforcement can play in instigating violence. We’ll look at the problematic and sometimes illegal behavior of some Baltimore police officers… and we’ll also look at the Baltimore PD’s culture… and why superiors... might have turned a blind eye.

Celine Gounder: In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the city of Baltimore was in an unwanted spotlight. The Black Lives Matter movement had coalesced a few years earlier, and a nationwide debate on excessive police force was underway. But by the time the eyes of the nation turned to Baltimore, local residents had already been wrestling with the problem of violence… local crime… and the police response… for years.

Justin Fenton: In the early part of the 2000s, Baltimore was trying the zero-tolerance strategies of New York City…

Celine Gounder: This is Justin Fenton, a crime reporter with The Baltimore Sun. He’s writing a book titled We Own This City about the problems he’s uncovered in the Baltimore Police Department.

Justin Fenton: …Our mayor at the time, Martin O'Malley, he looked to the success that New York City was having and getting sort of trumpeted across the country for reducing their crime rate...

Celine Gounder: Back then, this “zero tolerance” model was being praised all across the country as an effective way of reducing crime. But in Baltimore, this strategy wasn’t really working. Crime rates, especially homicide rates, remained stubbornly unchanged.

Celine Gounder: Here’s Daniel Webster, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he directs the Center for Gun Policy and Research. Daniel’s been studying gun violence in Baltimore for years.

Daniel Webster: In 2007, we had a new police commissioner named Fred Bealefeld. 

Celine Gounder: The commissioner wanted to move away from zero-tolerance and focus instead on the small group of repeat offenders that were driving most of the violent crime. It’s an approach we’ve talked about in prior episodes.

Daniel Webster: One of his clear strategies for how he was going to help Baltimore lower its rates of gun violence is to focus more of his resources on gun offending and illegal gun possession. 

Celine Gounder: And part of this strategy was to form “Violent Crime Impact Section Units,” specialized squads of detectives that focused on hotspots, those areas in the city where shootings commonly occurred. One of those specialized units was called the Gun Trace Task Force.

Daniel Webster: As the name implies is Gun Trace Task Force means you're tracing where those guns are coming from. 

Celine Gounder: Seems pretty straightforward, right? But, the task turned out to be much easier in name than in the doing.

Daniel Webster: What this unit found some ten years ago was that the gun laws, even in Maryland, were not particularly strong and made it very difficult to hold people accountable for trafficking guns, and they sort of reconstituted their mission to go after illegal gun possession…

Celine Gounder: Commissioner Bealefeld’s successor, Anthony Batts, refocused the Gun Trace Task Force.

Justin Fenton: …in a consultant's report for our next commissioner, they said this is an underutilized asset… that we needed to get them more involved in crime suppression activities.

Celine Gounder: This unit was meant to be a federal-style task force that would do in-depth investigations to trace guns to their source. They were supposed to go after gun traffickers and straw purchasers who were making guns available to those barred from buying them legally. But over time, it seems that all of this became less and less of a priority.

Celine Gounder: They now spent more time on the streets looking for illegal guns. They were a plain clothes unit, which means the officers didn’t wear police uniforms. They wore civilian clothes to blend in. They drove unmarked vehicles. They weren’t tied to a specific post and didn’t have to respond to 911 calls.

Celine Gounder: According to Justin, officers in plain clothes units often operate with a great deal of latitude. For example... they can let suspects go... and cultivate them as informants… potentially leading them to bigger fish.

Celine Gounder: Inside the Baltimore PD, the Gun Trace Task Force was known for its success in capturing suspected drug dealers… and confiscating their drugs and illegal guns. One officer... in particular... was seen as a rising star.

Justin Fenton: Wayne Jenkins was very good at getting guns. 

Celine Gounder: Wayne Jenkins had a reputation within the department as a cop whose aggressive style brought results… and he was celebrated… even promoted for it. He received a bronze star for his part in the 2009 recovery of a million dollars worth of cocaine from a man’s truck. It was one of Wayne Jenkins’ many large-scale seizures… but it was billed at the time as the largest cocaine seizure in the department’s history.

Celine Gounder: In 2010, when the Baltimore PD created a special squad to go after elusive suspects, Wayne Jenkins was picked for the group. Later that year, his team raided a car wash, recovering more than a kilogram of drugs and $4,000… and the mayor... held a news conference about it. Then, in November 2012, Wayne Jenkins was promoted to the rank of sergeant, a front-line supervisor—giving him new authority… and new freedom... as the eyes and ears of the command.

Celine Gounder: But… while Wayne Jenkins was very good at getting guns off the streets, Justin’s reporting revealed that many of his tactics were questionable.

Justin Fenton: Jenkins and his crew would do something that they called door pops where they would drive at a group of young men fast, and then slam on the brakes and pop their doors. Whoever ran was thought to be-- They must have something illegal. They were, what's the word I'm looking for? Trying to instigate people to run and reveal themselves. They described this as numbers game where they just stopped as many cars as they could, they drove groups of people, just trying to increase the chances of finding something illegal.”

Celine Gounder: Wayne Jenkins and his team would check arrest records from prior shifts and go back to the same hotspots… looking for any excuse to stop and search people, hoping to find a gun on them... or drugs… often without any probable cause. But Wayne Jenkins didn’t just straddle the line. He and other officers often flat out crossed it.

Justin Fenton: In 2010, they see what they think is a drug transaction. They drive in very quickly. They swoop in to try to startle or stop the people that they observed. Those guys take off, and they end up going through a stop sign, hit another car, an 87-year-old man is killed. Jenkins admitted, years later, that the heroin that they said they found in the car after the crash had been planted to justify the fact that they had chased them in the first place.

Justin Fenton: This essentially gave the man who was driving-- They painted him, at that time, in the media, in the courts, as a drug dealer who fled and killed somebody. They weren't his drugs though. The planting worked.

Celine Gounder: They planted evidence to protect themselves from disciplinary action. Supervisors might have thought they’d infringed on people’s rights. It was common practice for these officers, and they had each other’s backs.

Justin Fenton: Then, another time, Jenkins, again, says that he sees a guy with a gun. He runs him down with his vehicle. The guy gets out of his own vehicle, and he's running on foot. Jenkins drives up onto a front yard and runs the guy down. It emerges years later that he had called a mentor of his and said, "I just did something bad. I just ran over a guy. I don't know what to do." He doesn't have anything on him." That sergeant, as he has now admitted in federal court and is awaiting sentencing, that he went to the scene with a BB gun and tossed it under a nearby vehicle. Again, this painted this guy as a gun-toting criminal who Jenkins had no choice but to run down, but it wasn't true.

Celine Gounder: Justin says there were red flags that his supervisors and others should have seen.

Justin Fenton: Our analysis of his cases from 2012 to 2016 show that about 40% of his cases were being dropped in court, just dropped. 

Celine Gounder: That’s a lot higher than the 25% drop-rate for the rest of the department. 

Justin Fenton: The person gets arrested, they may or may not be held without bail, and then by the time there needs to be a disposition, the prosecutors are not pursuing that case anymore. 

Celine Gounder: So… Wayne Jenkins may have been good at catching guns and making arrests, but his cases were often not strong enough to hold up in court. The people he was arresting… may not have been criminals. But, according to Justin, because of the way the Department tracked its cases, it was easy to overlook or ignore this.

Justin Fenton: It continues to this day, nobody steps back and tracks that or analyzes that by officer, by unit to say, "Wait a minute, we might have a problem here. This officer isn't showing up for court. He consistently has Fourth Amendment issues, there's consistently questions about the way he puts together his evidence." They didn't track it like that, and still don't.

Celine Gounder: So it’s not just that a few bad apples flew under the radar. The problem’s much bigger.

Cassandra Crifasi: The problem is policing in this country in many urban areas has not been conducted in a way that has been the most constitutional.

Cassandra Crifasi is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins. She works with Daniel Webster, who you heard from earlier this episode.

Cassandra Crifasi: For a very long time in policing, not specific to Baltimore but very broadly, promotion and advancement through the ranks was often focused on numbers. How many arrests? How many guns? How many, how many? Rather than what was the outcome?

Celine Gounder: It would be like hospitals measuring their success based on how many surgeries they did… ignoring whether the patients needed surgery in the first place… and whether they survived surgery after. 

Celine Gounder: Cassandra says that instead of focusing on the quantity of their cases, police departments across the U.S. should focus on their quality. How strong is the evidence? Do we have reasonable suspicion? Is there racial profiling going on? Cassandra’s working with the Baltimore PD to address this.

Cassandra Crifasi: We've begun tracking the disposition of these cases so we can tell when an officer makes an arrest whether that-- whether charges are dismissed and for what reason? Whether… they've pled guilty or whether the jury found them guilty or not and so we're tracking these with the purpose of sort of creating a monitoring system. 

Celine Gounder: The Gun Trace Task Force issues in the police department I feel very strongly were a result of somewhat a lack of accountability and a lack of oversight and also just focus on- thinking about the normal distribution of data. Like you can have some folks that maybe don't bring in very many guns, a lot of folks that bring in some and then a few that bring in a lot. The Gun Trace Task Force is like way over on the extreme outlier and paying attention to the numbers and thinking, "Okay, either these people are really, really, good or maybe something inappropriate is going on," 

Celine Gounder: Wayne Jenkins and others could get away with civil rights violations and other misconduct… because there was no real oversight… or data-driven accountability. The numbers they were tracking… didn’t really mean anything… except perhaps... to signal... their “numbers game”... was a fraud.

Celine Gounder: But Cassandra points out the stakes go beyond the need to discipline individual police officers to keep them in line. It’s about keeping everyone focused on the bigger picture.

Cassandra Crifasi: It's not just about being punitive, but it's really focusing on quality, because when you're arresting the right people that are responsible for violence, that’s sort of the first step in repairing some of the police-community relationship problems that have plagued Baltimore and other urban areas.

Celine Gounder: The consequences of having no oversight or accountability in a police department... is that people stop trusting the police. Police-community relations crumble… and this in turn... leads to more violence.

Celine Gounder: Andrew Papachristos, a Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, explains why:

Andrew Papachristos: What we see among people who tend to offend, especially people who tend to use guns illegally, is that they have less faith in the systems of law, especially policing.

Celine Gounder: According to Andrew, this lack of faith leads to a kind of legal cynicism... where people don’t believe police can solve the problems that are of concern to them. They stop believing the police can be effective… or that they’re going to be fair. So, instead of turning to the police… people take matters into their own hands… do their own problem-solving... if they want justice or protection. This vigilantism… leads to retaliation… and… more violence.

Celine Gounder: To make matters worse... in addition to instigating violence... legal cynicism makes it much harder for police to do their jobs effectively.

Celine Gounder: Andrew conducted a study in Missouri to understand if and how people changed their behavior after highly publicized acts of police violence. Acts... like the death of Freddie Gray while in Baltimore police custody. 

Andrew Papachristos: What we looked at was basically one of the simplest ways that citizens engage police, so just calling 911. It is, in fact, indispensable to help police do their jobs, and it is the way that the average citizen actually engages the police by calling… 911 and saying, "I just saw something happen," or, "Someone broke into my house," or, "My car was stolen."

Celine Gounder: Andrew’s team looked at the case of a man named Frank Jude Jr., who was brutally beaten by police in Milwaukee in 2004.

Andrew Papachristos: What we found was… that residents, especially residents in black neighborhoods stopped calling the police and stopped calling the police not just for low level stuff like property crimes, but actually for things like robberies and shootings, which suggests that they were becoming distrustful of the police that they would refrain from calling even though it's in the neighborhood's benefit to engage the police around these things from the traditional perspective.

Celine Gounder: Legal cynicism means residents in a neighborhood see no reason to work with the police. Without neighborhood cooperation, crime goes unsolved… criminals operate with impunity… and the belief that police aren’t there to serve... is reinforced.

Celine Gounder: The tactics Wayne Jenkins and the Gun Trace Task Force engaged in were hurting the community. But in the eyes of the Department, Wayne Jenkins still “got the goods,” so his behavior was tolerated

Justin Fenton: His unit was responsible for taking a hundred guns off the street in 2015, and again in 2016, and they were regarded as, I think one of their former bosses even post indictment was saying, that they were viewed as a tier one asset, and the only ones producing, after Freddie Gray.

Celine Gounder: And this was important.

Justin Fenton: I think that we had a tremendous crime spike following the unrest associated with the death of Freddie Gray. Gun violence went up about over 60% that first year, and roll up about 80% over 2014, as we stand here today. I think there was this urgency that we don't have time to do these investigations. We need results, and I think… the Department was in this results-oriented mindset where, if you get guns, you've accomplished something, go out get more.

Celine Gounder: In May of 2015, the month after Freddie Gray’s death, there were forty-three homicides in Baltimore, making it the deadliest month in forty years. Thousands of police and Maryland National Guard troops were deployed, and a state of emergency was declared within the city limits. Crime rates remained high, and Baltimore ended the year with three hundred and forty-four homicides, the second highest total except for 1993.

Celine Gounder: And while there was an increase in shootings, there was also a decrease in the number of arrests made after six officers were charged in Freddie Gray’s death. Hot spots and high-crime neighborhoods... that had once been over-policed… now seemed to have no police presence at all. This contributed to the perception that the police wasn’t able or willing to stop the violence.

Celine Gounder: The Baltimore Police Department was under tremendous pressure to show it was still in control. Wayne Jenkins, who was as productive as always, consistently bringing in guns and drugs without backing down, may have been both a source of reassurance and inspiration to follow. And so, the Baltimore PD doubled down on the very tactics... that had alienated the community in the first place... the tactics that had led to Freddie Gray’s death.

Justin Fenton: We don't know when this started exactly, but he started stealing money from people, at least, in 2011, if not much earlier, and was stealing drugs. 

Celine Gounder: Wayne Jenkins wasn’t just using excessively aggressive methods... and lying about evidence to get guns off the streets… He was a criminal himself… stealing drugs and money from suspects and others.

Justin Fenton: He, sometime around 2012, partnered up with a bail bondsman who was a former drug dealer. Well, I shouldn't say former. He partnered with a bail bondsman from the area where he lived and said, "If I started bringing you drugs I take off the street and you sell them, this would be pure profit." The bail bondsman was caught and confessed and had pictures and videos and all things to back these stuff up, and said that this was a near daily thing.”

Celine Gounder: As Justin reported in The Baltimore Sun, Wayne Jenkins had designed the perfect crime. He knew his victims had little to gain by confronting him... or denouncing him to the authorities. It would be their word against a respected, celebrated police officer. And even if anyone did believe them, what good would come from admitting that they’d been in possession of even more drugs and cash than what the arresting officer had reported... before he took a cut?

Justin Fenton: There's a deep distrust of people who do come forward. Officers, even now, that I talk to, they say, "People make up stuff all the time. They're highly organized. They pay people to make complaints. Their attorneys tell them to make complaints. They're trying to jam us up all the time." That breeds this atmosphere where it's like nothing is to be trusted.

Celine Gounder: Justin says that, as in many other police departments across the country, inside the Baltimore PD, there was a lot of deference given to plain-clothes police:

Justin Fenton: They work in this gray area. They are allowed to catch and release people. They are allowed to do things that straddle the line or walk close to the line, I should say. Then, when there's claims made that they broke the rules, the courts, especially…. very much want to give deference to the word of an officer.

Celine Gounder: The system, Justin says, is designed in a way that it requires anyone alleging police misconduct to thoroughly document their claims. But why would anyone volunteer documentation of illegal transactions, like drug sales?

Justin Fenton: It’s seen as a big deal to discipline an officer or hold an officer accountable for something. They want to have proof, and it's often not there. People aren't taken at their word.

Celine Gounder: Unless of course… you’re the police. Then... the system will give you the benefit of the doubt.

Justin Fenton: …The system is built on believing them. It would collapse upon itself if they said that, "We don't believe you unless everything can be documented and proven." I think that there's an incentive to keep that system going until people are caught, and it's hard to catch them.

Celine Gounder: Stealing from suspects became the norm for everyone involved.

Justin Fenton: The officers talked about-- Even the people in the community seeing it as a tax, that it is the cost of doing business. That if the officers take your money, especially if they're just skimming some of it, that that's just something that happens. Again, I think that there's reluctance to go through the internal affairs process that not being believed, not being able to prove these things. 

Celine Gounder: This created a system that allowed officers to get away with, not just questionable, but illegal behavior. They were very effective and had a good reputation with whom it mattered–the department and the courts... even when their suspects-turned-victims could see through the hypocrisy.

Ekow Yankah: One of the reasons people are hypocritical is because it allows them to wield power quietly...

Celine Gounder: This is Ekow Yankah, a Professor of Law, Criminal Law and Criminal Theory at Cardozo Law School in New York City.

Ekow Yankah: ...it allows them to wield power without being held into account by those who are being wronged, right? 

Celine Gounder: Ekow draws an analogy with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in the media.

Ekow Yankah: To take the personal example, if I consistently pretend to be a supporter of women in the media and let's pretend, momentarily, I'm your boss. Then, when the moment comes where there's an issue where you are equally qualified and you ask for my support, and I default, as I always have, to the men who get the assignment, the problem is when you call me into account, I will, too often, be able to point at the flowery rhetoric I use-- the letters that I've written, the awards that I've won that mask the way in which I'm systematically failing you. That's a huge benefit for me, it means I'm not able to be called into account. Hypocrisy is often a way in which we quietly suffocate the voice of those who we dominate.

Celine Gounder: And this hypocrisy in turn breeds more legal cynicism.

Ekow Yankah: One of the things that happens when you meet somebody who's a hypocrite, who avows one thing but does another, is eventually, they just lose credibility with you, right? When they speak, they no longer have any moral authority over you. You start to understand that the way in which they speak is just a way in which they can marshal power over you. The same thing is true of our laws. When we consistently use our political institutions to pretend and avow one value while serving another, it loses its moral force. It loses the way in which we have any faith that the laws are about anything other than a thin veneer of power. 

Celine Gounder: Wayne Jenkins kept rising through the ranks. In June 2016 he became the leader of the Gun Trace Task Force. Justin found that throughout Wayne Jenkins’ career, there had been warning signs… but they were either missed or ignored. For example, between 2006 and 2009, Wayne Jenkins was the subject of at least four lawsuits alleging beatings or other misconduct. The plaintiffs prevailed in three of the four… either because of a jury verdict, or because the city decided to settle the case. But in none of these cases was Wayne Jenkins held to account. He wasn’t caught until 2017… almost by accident.

Justin Fenton: …a drug investigation by county authorities is what brought him down. 

Celine Gounder: This is what happened: Baltimore County authorities working on the opioid problem wiretapped a group based out of northeast Baltimore City that was bringing in a lot of the drugs to their jurisdiction. To their surprise, they picked up an officer from the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force on the wiretap... speaking to a member of the group in a very familiar tone... It was the wiretap recordings and the criminal charges that followed that caused officers to flip… and that’s what eventually led investigators to Wayne Jenkins.

Justin Fenton: It really came together in this roundabout way. I say that because there's every reason to think that Wayne Jenkins might still be doing what he was doing if things hadn't clicked into place, in the coincidental way that they did. 

Celine Gounder: On February 23, 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Wayne Jenkins and six other officers involved. Wayne Jenkins is now serving a twenty-five-year sentence in a federal prison in South Carolina.

Celine Gounder: The story of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force is an extreme example of individual officers abusing their power... and downright engaging in criminal activities… for years… without being held accountable by their superiors.

Celine Gounder: But while some of their tactics… like stealing drugs from suspects to sell on the black market… were unique to Wayne Jenkins and his crew… when we hear about how they treated the people they were policing… the violence, the abuse, the community mistrust and the backlash… that story, unfortunately, is all too familiar. For police departments to be effective in reducing gun violence and other crimes, they must be clear-eyed about their long term goals, and focus on quality over quantity of cases. This means police departments need to forge meaningful partnerships with communities. But the onus is on the police, and especially on its frontline officers, to combat legal cynicism and earn the community’s trust.

Andrew Papachristos: This is why issues of procedural justice are at the forefront. 

Celine Gounder: Andrew Papachristos again. He says... that’s the million-dollar question: how to combat legal cynicism. There are different models being studied... around anti-bias training, citizen oversight, and more democratic, neighborhood policing… that are getting us closer to the answer.

Andrew Papachristos: There's a lot of theory and evidence to suggest that if you change the way police go about their business, how they interact with citizens, the ways they interact with citizens, that you can change people's perception. By the way, that's a slow changing process. There's nothing that's going to happen that's going to rebuild trust between police and citizens overnight.

Celine Gounder: It's a long, hard process of change, and it's also one that has to be done in a very transparent and honest manner. Transparency is not always the strength of many police departments… I think the easiest way to start combating legal cynicism is to really think about ways to change the dynamic between police and citizens. It's a relationship. It's one that’s vital not just to policing. Police need citizens to engage them, to help address public safety problems, but also citizens need police to help make neighborhoods safer places too.

Ekow Yankah: I think it is stunning and dangerous how little people realize, not just that there's a lack of faith among so many, but why there's a lack of faith among so many.

Celine Gounder: Ekow Yankah again.

Ekow Yankah: It's not because people don't want to be safe, it's not because people don't want safe neighborhoods, and frankly, it's not even because African-Americans don't want policing, it's not because Hispanic-Americans don't want policing. … They just want good policing. 

Celine Gounder: And… all too often… no one is making them feel that that’s what they’ll get… if they call the cops. 

Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Virginia Lora and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. If you enjoy the show, please tell a friend about it today. And if you haven’t already done so, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show! You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. That’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”