On Monday, Baltimore police officer Kendell Richburg pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges that could earn him a maximum sentence of life in prison. Looking at the actions that Justin Fenton detailed in his Baltimore Sun article about the case—distributing drugs to be sold on the street, facilitating robberies, planning to frame innocent people—it seems clear that Richburg was a bad cop.
And yet, oddly, it seems like this was actually a case of a bad cop who was trying to be a good cop—at least at the outset. Richburg did these things not for personal gain, but to benefit a confidential informant who fed him information that helped him make arrests. In order to keep his confidential informant on the street, Richburg gave him drugs that he could sell. Richburg tipped off the informant to police activity, helping him avoid arrest. But eventually, their arrangement took a more sinister turn. “As Richburg conspired with the informant, the two discussed plans to set up innocent people,” writes Fenton. “In another instance, Richburg helped the informant plot a robbery.”
Richburg was part of a plainclothes police unit known as the Violent Crimes Impact Section. The VCIS was charged with getting guns and drug dealers off the streets of Baltimore. (The unit was renamed and effectively disbanded last December by new police commissioner Anthony Batts, in the wake of citizen and City Council criticism that its tactics were too aggressive.) Lots of urban police departments have employed specialty units like these, tasked with moving into high-crime areas and rapidly lowering crime rates. These units persist because they work. They make a lot of arrests, seize a lot of guns and drugs, and generally produce the kind of statistics that police officials can proudly tout to politicians and the press. They are blunt objects, and sometimes you need a blunt object if you want to make a dent.
But look closely at incidents of police brutality or corruption and you’ll often see them connected to these “jump-out boys,” so named because the officers tend to jump out of cars and aggressively pursue their targets. In 2011, the city of Chicago disbanded its extremely effective Mobile Strike Force unit, in part because citizens complained that its members played too rough. (In a 2012 Chicago magazine story about the city’s new police chief, Noah Isackson mentioned the 2006 revelations that “some officers robbed and kidnapped residents, and the accusations a year later that one officer plotted to murder another.”) In 2002, New York City disbanded its Street Crimes Unit, three years after four plainclothes officers fired 41 shots at an unarmed man named Amadou Diallo, killing him on the steps of his apartment. (The proximate cause of the unit’s downfall was the lawsuit Daniels , et al. v. the City of New York, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights in the wake of the Diallo shooting, alleging racial profiling in the Street Crimes Unit and the NYPD at large.)
One of the main problems with these units is that they are often disconnected from the communities they serve. Since they’re not walking beats or attending community meetings like ordinary cops, they don’t always have to directly reckon with the wrath of the law-abiding people they offend. Officers in plainclothes units have been accused of acting indiscriminately and assuming criminal behavior from everyone they encounter. They make arrests, and then move on to the next hot spot.
These units are instruments of the “at any cost” school of policing, where success is measured by the number of arrests made or amount of contraband seized—by meeting often-unrealistic statistical targets imposed from on high. According to Richburg’s attorney, Warren Brown, tactics like those his client employed were common in the VCIS among officers worried about making their arrest quotas. “ ‘[I]f the curtain was pulled back, you would see that his M.O. was standard operating procedure,’ ” Brown told the Sun—which isn’t really a defense for conspiring to commit robbery, but is maybe an explanation for why a certain type of police officer might think that helping an informant commit a robbery is defensible if it encourages that informant to keep feeding him actionable information.
Baltimore’s police department obviously isn’t the only one that allegedly instructs its officers to meet various quotas. In a 1999 New York Times article, for instance, an anonymous member of the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit told David Kocieniewski that the officers were oppressed by stat-driven police tactics, and that they worked under a quota system that said they had to seize at least one illegal firearm per month:
"There are guys who are willing to toss anyone who's walking with his hands in his pockets," said an officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We frisk 20, maybe 30 people a day. Are they all by the book? Of course not; it's safer and easier to just toss people. And if it's the 25th of the month and you haven't got your gun yet? Things can get a little desperate."
If cops are under pressure to make numbers, then it follows that they’ll try hard to make those numbers, even if it means bending some rules in the process. So if a confidential informant is giving an officer good, actionable information, it’s to that officer’s benefit to keep that informant on the streets, even if it means giving that informant drugs to sell. And it makes sense that commanding officers, under pressure from superiors to reduce crime, might look the other way and give their subordinates room to operate however they see fit.
There’s no point in being too idealistic about the mechanics of urban police work. It’s a game of compromises, of weighing relative evils. But so many of these compromises seem to sacrifice long-term progress in favor of short-term rewards. Units like the Street Crimes Unit and the VCIS are an answer, yes, but they’re an answer to an incomplete question: "How do we fix the crime problem right now?" The second half of that question—“What do we do after that?”—is hard to answer with rule-bending shortcuts. I don’t want to imply that it’s not important to make arrests and get criminals off the streets. But it matters how you do it, and doing so in a way that destroys community trust, engenders resentment, inhibits cooperation, and incentivizes bad cop behavior will only make the good cops’ jobs harder—and the streets more dangerous—in the long run.