Sunday, April 23, 2017


What do you call a group of well-armed men, dressed in ordinary super-casual clothes (but almost always jeans, often with bullet-proof vests), each sporting a tattoo that identifies them as part of this highly-aggressive group, that lie in wait, pouncing on passersby they feel worthy of jumping? In Baltimore, they’re called “cops.” Not undercover cops. Not detectives. Not serving warrants. They’re plainclothes cops. Think of them as beat cops sometimes operating in groups, not wearing uniforms to make the “pounce” easier, pretty much allowed to set their own agenda, their own rules, in the streets. But these non-uniformed street cops have not been relegated to Baltimore alone. Think Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, Miami, New York, etc., etc. even though some of these cities have stopped the use of such non-uniformed street cops.
They often set their own hours, come and go according the schedules they set for themselves, take lunch and other breaks at their leisure, and feel empowered “to do what needs to be done to clean up the scum they have been directed to remove.” Gangs mostly, but drug dealers and street crime in general. Not surprisingly, while they have been more effective in stopping crime than uniformed officers, these are the cops who are the most likely to go rogue, the ones who have sparked some pretty serious investigations from the U.S. Department of Justice for a litany of pretty serious abuses, including unwarranted shootings and more than a few rather dramatically illegal acts, ranging from dealing drugs to selling confiscated arms that should have remained in the evidence locker.
And with U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, pretty much telling his Justice Department officers, charged with monitoring miscreant police departments across the country based on court orders, to stand down, absent local police departments turning on these “irregular” cops, we can expect this rogue element to continue unchecked. For those living in the inner city where such “knockers” or “jump-out boys” (the Baltimore moniker), the fear of random searches and possible miscued shootings is a part of daily life. Without federal intervention, this often lawless police operation would have continued unchecked in too many cities.
The resulting embarrassment of non-uniformed cops going rogue has provoked federal investigations and prosecutions that have resulted in changes at the local level. “[In March, after] seven members of a gun task force were indicted on federal charges of stealing drugs, guns and money [including one] accused of moonlighting as a heroin dealer… the Baltimore police commissioner, Kevin Davis, abruptly disbanded plainclothes teams
“‘I don’t want the jeans, I don’t want the T-shirts,’ Commissioner Davis said in an interview, recounting his fury as he read the F.B.I. indictment. ‘I want your brass badge attached to your chest. I want the patches on your shoulder. I want you to look like a cop, because I can’t ask you to act like a cop unless you look like one.’
“The commissioner’s action, in a city at the center of a national debate over police practices, has prompted some soul-searching over plainclothes squads, forcing chiefs who are grappling with rising gun violence to weigh building trust against reining in elite units that can operate in dangerous environments.
“The uniform is a signal to the public, and to the officer who wears one, that the police represent law and order. But in big-city departments, many officers do not wear uniforms, according to Maria Haberfeld, an expert in police training at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. Shedding them — what the police call getting ‘out of the bag’ — is a sign of status.” New York Times, April 14th.
With A.G. Jeff Sessions arguing that inner city neighborhoods will become safer to the extent that federal oversight of local cops is minimized, those living in those inner cities are watching a revival of hopelessness and increasing friction between the cops and the citizens who live there. To them, making America “Great Again” means returning to the days when “Negroes knew their place” and white officers maintained that status quo. But we don’t live in the 1950s anymore. Justice is for everyone… at least in theory.
Baltimore is not the first city to wrestle with high-profile cases involving plainclothes police officers. In New York in 2014, plainclothes officers were responsible for the death of Eric Garner, whose last words — ‘I can’t breathe’ — became a national rallying cry for police reform. In Palm Beach County, Fla., last year, a plainclothes officer driving an unmarked car was charged with manslaughter and attempted murder after he pulled up alongside a man whose car had broken down and, without identifying himself as an officer, shouted commands and then fired his weapon.
“In Miami, an elite street-crime unit was disbanded in 1997 after 11 officers were charged in a federal conspiracy to plant guns on suspects. In Los Angeles, the sheriff’s department decided to fire seven deputies in 2013, after The Los Angeles Times exposed a secretive jump-out squad whose members celebrated shootings and branded themselves with matching tattoos.
“But for ambitious officers, the squads have an enduring allure. ‘They’re given all the toys: the computers, the money, the guns and dress how you feel, do what you want to do,’ said Sgt. Louis Hopson, a 36-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and the board chairman of a group that represents black officers. ‘Come to work when you want to come to work, treat people however you want to treat them. It’s very seductive to a young mind.’” NY Times. At the core of American democracy is the belief of equal justice for all, a tenet which is in dire need of protection and implementation.
I’m Peter Dekom, and without continuing federal oversight of local cops, how many inner city minorities will face beatings and wrongful shootings… and how many angry citizens will take to the streets knowing that legal recourse to the feds is no longer available to them?

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