BALTIMORE — Forty-two people were killed in Baltimore in May, making it the deadliest month there since 1972.
When asked what’s behind that number, a Baltimore police officer gave an alarming answer. Basically, he said, the good guys are letting the bad guys win.
“The criminal element feels as though that we’re not going to run the risk of chasing them if they are armed with a gun, and they’re using this opportunity to settle old beefs, or scores, with people that they have conflict with,” the officer said. “I think the public really, really sees that they asked for a softer, less aggressive police department, and we have given them that, and now they are realizing that their way of thinking does not work.”
He was one of two active Baltimore police officers who spoke to CNN on Tuesday about crime in their city. They also touched on the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody, and the riots that followed.
The officers were not given permission to speak from their department. Because of that, and in an attempt to allow them to talk candidly, CNN agreed on their condition of anonymity.
Both said the Baltimore Police Department is simply reacting to events instead of being proactive. They talked about feeling abandoned by their leadership and feeling scared — not about being hurt, necessarily, but about being charged criminally for doing what they see as their job. Six officers have been charged in Gray’s death, which has been ruled a homicide.
“Ultimately, it does a disservice to the law-abiding citizens. It does a disservice to the business owners. It does a disservice to everybody except the criminal element,” the second officer said about operating in reactive mode.
He denied the existence of a work slowdown but said he couldn’t promise proactive policing.
“Even though you have reasonable suspicion,” he said, “nine out of 10 times, that officer is going to keep on driving.”
City and police officials have repeatedly denied any stand-down order was given to officers after of Gray’s death.
‘They feel betrayed’
Worry has overtaken a lot of officers, and now morale is low, said Lt. Kenneth Butler, who heads a police union in Baltimore, the Vanguard Justice Society.
“They feel as though, if I make a mistake — which we all do make mistakes — then what is this administration going to do to me?” he told CNN’s Miguel Marquez. “Am I going to be the next one to be suspended? Am I going to be the next one who is going to be criminally charged?”
One officer called the union leader to ask if he’d be liable if a suspect he was chasing ran into traffic and got hit by a car, Butler said. He couldn’t answer the question, so the officer told Butler he’d stop pursuing suspects on foot for now.
Normally, officers would do their duty more robustly, Butler said, but they don’t feel like their leadership has their back anymore. “A lot of guys … they feel betrayed,” he said.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts last week blamed the uptick in crime on the number of looted drugs that have made their way to the city’s streets after April’s riots.
After a portion of the officers’ interview aired on CNN, Batts spoke to reporters Tuesday and was asked to respond to what they said.
“What I put to them, again, is (to) remember why you do this job,” CNN affiliate WJZ reported the commissioner said about the officers. “We don’t get to pass up bad guys. We don’t get to let bad guys walk around the streets with guns.”
In similar comments last month, Batts acknowledged he has heard from officers who worry they could face legal jeopardy for pursuing suspects, but denied reports there has been a coordinated work slowdown because of a loss of confidence in department leadership.
“I hope they realize that what their actions are and the fact that the community needs them,” Batts told CNN’s “AC360.” “When I’m going through the roll calls, what I share with them, Anderson, is the fact that remember why you came on this job and why you put that gun belt on, why you put that badge on, and why you wear that uniform every single day, for the grandmothers and the babies and the little ones.”
‘We were told to not engage’
Both officers complained about the response to the riots that rocked Baltimore after Gray’s death. Businesses were burned and looted, and at least 20 officers were injured in the April violence.
The officers said they would have pushed for a stronger and more immediate show of force.
“We were told to not engage. When I say not engage — to allow the people to throw whatever items were being thrown at us, and just hold the line,” said the first officer, who recalled feeling scared. “I think if they would have just allowed us to get the perpetrators that were instigating it, it would have de-escalated a whole lot quicker.”
Batts has told CNN that officers weren’t prepared when what started as teenagers throwing rocks escalated into a major riot.
‘Everybody has lost something’
Gray died from a fatal spinal cord injury on April 19, exactly one week after he was arrested.
Part of his arrest was captured on cell phone video that went viral. It shows him being dragged by officers and loaded into a transport van. What happened inside that van has become a source of intense speculation.
“When you’re looking at the lives of six police officers, there can be no guessing. There can be no speculation. That’s what the medical examiner is for,” said the first officer, when asked how he believes Gray died.
The second officer talked about compliance and said the officers involved did “nothing wrong.”
“If you’re compliant, you will not have to be engaged by officers. Force has to be used with equal force,” he said.
Authorities have said that Gray bolted after making eye contact with officers at an area known for high crime and drug activity.
The video does not show the entire confrontation between Gray and the officers, but nothing in the footage suggests Gray used any force against the officers. In fact, Baltimore Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez has that said Gray “gave up without the use of force.”
“Our training and expertise, we are trained to be able to escalate things before they escalate,” the second officer said when pressed about his comments on “equal force.”
“Everybody has lost something because of this,” he said about Gray’s death.
When asked what the officers lost, he replied: “Their lives. I mean, they will never be able to go back to their normal life at this point. It doesn’t matter if they’re exonerated, which they should be. It doesn’t matter. This is a life-changing event, which can’t be turned back around.”