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As Violence Spikes in Baltimore, Former Investigator Says Police Aren’t the Answer

Stephen Tabeling: Good investigations and less aggressive tactics could lead to better results.

See The Real News Network’s website for both earlier in-depth reporting and current coverage of events in Baltimore, where The Real News Network studios are located.

Stephen Tabeling: Good investigations and less aggressive tactics could lead to better results.


STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis, and I’m an investigative reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore.

Once again, Baltimore finds itself in the middle of a stretch of unrelenting violence. With 35 murders so far in May, the city is on track to have one of its most deadly months since 1999. And so far homicides are up 40 percent over last year. Along with these killings are calls for police to respond. In fact, the cry for more police, more jails, and more law enforcement has been the mantra of Baltimore for decades. But despite the fact that we have one of the largest police departments, and spending for policing far outweighs schools and recreation centers, there’s little evidence that it works. And therein lies the dilemma. Why do we keep turning to police when it doesn’t seem to work, and what are we missing about the limits of policing and the criminal justice system in the face of evidence that our solutions may be misguided?

Here to help me answer that question is a man who worked the streets of Baltimore during one of its most violent decades in its history. During the decade of the 1970s, Baltimore experienced roughly 300 murders a year. It was the job of our next guest, Lt. Stephen Tabeling, to solve many of those cases. Since then he has written a book with me, full disclosure, called You Can’t Stop Murder. Part of its premise is that this idea that policing can solve complex social problems is flawed and may even be making the situation worse.

Mr. Tabeling, thank you for joining us.


JANIS: Well, explain to us, we’re looking at an extremely violent month. And part of the thing people say, we need more police, we need more cops on the street, we need more policing. But you say that’s not the only part of this problem, and you have the premise that you can’t stop murder. What did you mean by that?

TABELING: Well, I don’t think you need more police. You need more experienced people. You need to have people that know what they’re doing when they’re investigating, and you can’t use committees to investigate crimes. You have to have experienced investigators. And I go back to my time. Investigators used to go out on crime scenes by themselves. And then if it come time for an arrest, then we would call uniformed officers.

When I was there, we had 28 men in homicide and we had over 300 murders a year. I could send any one of those investigators out and feel comfortable that he was going to do the right job. So it never took more than two on a crime scene to come up with a solution to a crime.

JANIS: One of the premises is that in modern policing, in contemporary policing, you can prevent murders. But you say that’s kind of a flawed philosophy or flawed idea. What do you mean by that, you can’t stop murder?

TABELING: You can’t stop murder. In our book we said that. Murder is a crime of passion. You’re not going to stop it. But can you do some things that can help to prevent it, absolutely. When you have good investigations and are swift, and people are convicted.

And one of the things that bothers me is stop and frisk. That’s one of the greatest tools police every got, and I don’t think they’re properly trained. And if you look at New York, murders went down, what, 60 percent when they were using stop and frisk because people that carried guns knew that the possibility of them getting stopped was going to be there. So when they stopped talking to people and stopping people, they didn’t care about carrying weapons.

JANIS: But the city of Baltimore arrested 100,000 people a year. 100,000 people a year. And the homicide rate went up. So how can stop and frisk or any of these policies in policing really prevent murders or really stop—.

TABELING: Let’s take a look at the 100,000 people they arrested. What were they charged with? Did they get any weapons, they were corner arrests, they were disorderly conducts. They were people on the porch drinking beer. It was the broken windows syndrome, low tolerance. Most of those people, they probably shouldn’t have been arrested. They weren’t quality arrests. They were numbers.

See, so when you start getting into the areas where there’s a lot of crime, where there’s a lot of weapons, you have to have a way to get those weapons off of the street. And one of the best ways—look, the case Terry v. Ohio came out from the Supreme Court in an eight to one decision. And the Supreme Court said if a police officer knows a person is violent in a neighborhood of high activity, and that officer has articulable reasonable suspicion to suspect that person is armed he has the right to detain and pat the person down. But the problem is you have to be properly trained, and you have to know when and how and to evaluate when to stop people.

And then when you go to court you have to be able to testify from your training and your experience exactly why you did what you did.

JANIS: But even in the case of New York, with stop and frisk, it was determined that it was racially biased. And similarly with zero tolerance, they’re both accused of being racially biased. So how can you say they’re effective if they’re not being administered justly?

TABELING: Let’s take a look at racially biased. I work in a western district. I’m a white police officer. It’s a predominantly black neighborhood. There’s a lot of killings in that neighborhood, there’s a lot of robberies. Who am I going to be stopping? What am I going to be looking for? It’s the same if you take a black officer and send him to East Baltimore, and he’s going to be doing the same kind of operation. Who’s he going to be stopping?

And really, don’t you think whatever neighborhoods you go in, you’re doing these things to protect the people who live in these neighborhoods. That’s my whole thing about that.

JANIS: Well, let me ask you another—there was a story in the Sun over the weekend about how the union’s contract had prevented the improvements in policing. How many people did you have in homicide when there were 300 murders a year compared to today? You had very few, much—.

TABELING: Twenty-eight.

JANIS: Twenty-eight people.


JANIS: So how is it possible that we have 60 or 70, and we have a lower closure rate today than we had 30, 40 years ago?

TABELING: A lot of reasons. Lack of experience. We’ve lost the technique of interrogation. Of, we have officers with no imagination. You’ve got to have an imagination, you’ve got to think things through. You just have to have a way of, I’m going to say profile, but not profile on a person. Profile in crimes and crime scenes, and that can give you an idea who committed a crime.

We don’t have the street smart people that we used to have. Let’s get foot patrol back in there. I can remember the days when I was working in Homicide. If I had a nickname of a guy, got the post officer, he’d pull a book out of his pocket. He’d say oh yeah, this is where he live—they don’t do that now. They’ve got no responsibility for anything on the streets.

Listen, your backbone is your uniformed police officers. And who’s the least trained? The patrol officer out on the street. What he does can go all the way to the United States Supreme Court and it can break your case. And I’ll guarantee you if you talk to the State’s Attorney they’ll tell you that they’re hesitant about putting the first officer on the scene on the witness stand.

JANIS: I mean, in the age of technology when this should be easier, we have a larger police department with more investigators, and you can’t achieve a closure rate. I mean, is the union, is the problem that there’s not enough accountability with police in the sense that they have too much power, maybe?

TABELING: I’m going to go back, again. It’s a lack of training, it’s a lack of experience, and I gave you this example before and it’s in the book. When I was in a police academy just three or four years ago, we had a program that was first ever in the history of law schools where we actually did trials at the University of Baltimore with judges and attorneys. First time in the history of law school. And the judges on circuit court said this is the best program they’ve ever seen. And the State’s Attorney said we are not afraid to put the first officer on the scene because they know how to testify. I left the academy and they stopped doing it.

JANIS: Well, that raises a big question. Why would they stop training officers to be able to testify in court, and why would they stop teaching the law in general?

TABELING: It’s a lot of work. It’s a lack of experience. When I did that training—.

JANIS: Well, just stop you there. You say it’s a lot of work. What do you mean, it’s a lot of work?

TABELING: Well first of all, I bring a class of 50 people in and I’d have to write scenarios on burglaries, armed robberies, and all kind of problems and split the class up in groups of four. Talk to them every morning. You have to write a report. You have to interview a witness. You have to interrogate a suspect. You have to write a search and seizure warrant. And I had to, I’d say spoon feed them. Because I’d take—I’d come to work every morning at 6:00. And I’d get these groups in there. And then when they got their folders right, then we would go to a State’s Attorney, and the State’s Attorney would go over it.

I have tapes of all this. I have tapes of what happened up at the University of Baltimore. One of the most important things is, Steve, anybody can make an arrest, but anybody can’t carry that case through to convict some body in a court of law. And that’s where a lot of it’s lacking.

JANIS: But you’re talking about an entirely different type of policing. I mean, what’s taught in the academy recently, or at least the past seven or eight years is more aggressive, physical training. What’s been taught, what we saw with the Freddie Gray case was people chasing people around the neighborhood without too much—without probable cause. Why has policing changed so much in the past 40 years? What has changed it?

TABELING: Well, nobody listen, but I’ll keep on saying it. It’s a lack of legal training and understanding the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments to the Constitution. It’s a lack of being able to go out on that street and when you make an arrest, evaluate what you’re doing. You go out there and it happens how, that’s it. Make a decision, just like that. And if you don’t have something up here to do it, it’s going to be very difficult.

JANIS: Okay. Now, we’re looking at this situation, 35 murders this month so far. You’re police commissioner, you’re working the Baltimore City Police Department. How do you respond to that?

TABELING: Well first of all, I’m going to look at who’s in my homicide squad and I’m going to look at my commanders. And I don’t micromanage my people. Every time I look at a homicide scene I see majors and colonels and everybody else out on the street. You can’t micromanage. That shows me that they don’t have any trust in their investigators, and I doubt if any of those commanders know how to do a homicide.

So you can’t put people in that position that you’re looking over their shoulder all—you’re practically telling these guys, you don’t know what you’re doing. So take a look around. In this department, we have sergeants with three and four years’ service. We have lieutenants with seven and eight year. And I think majors don’t have too much more time.

JANIS: So what did it used to be?

TABELING: It used to be when I made sergeants, you had to be a patrolman for five years. And if you made sergeant in seven or eight years you were doing a good thing. Once you made lieutenant you had to wait two years to take the test. You never made it in two years because we had a seniority system.

I hear from a lot of the people I taught in the academy, will tell me that they’ll go to a lieutenant or a sergeant in the street and they can’t get an answer. That’s bad, that’s your middle—that’s your people out on the street. You have to be able to answer questions for people.

JANIS: Is that politics? I mean, what…

TABELING: Listen. In this city of Baltimore, we’ve had I don’t know how many police commissioners that come from out of town, and they try to make us their department. This is a unique city, and it’s been told a lot, this is a city of villages. It’s a different understanding.

Here’s what you have to do. If I was police commissioner, people would be out of those cars. There’d be foot patrol. I don’t care, it costs a lot of money, but that’s what I would do. Because that’s one of the things that keeps crime down, is having cops on foot out there.

JANIS: One of the things people have been saying is because of the Freddie Gray incident police have been slowing down. But they’re public servants. And do you believe, number one, that they are slowing down, and do you believe that’s justified?

TABELING: Well, I don’t—listen, I’m one guy. I don’t believe it’s justified, but let’s look at it both ways. If I’m a police officer, and say I make a mistake on a probable cause issue and the case goes to court. The judge does what? He dismisses the guy. In a situation like we have now, say those officers made a mistake, they got charged. And you’ve got police officers out there now saying wait a minute. If I put my hands on this guy and I make a mistake, I’m afraid I’m going to jail.

JANIS: But even though they’re committing a crime, shouldn’t everyone be subject to the same type of law that you talk about?

TABELING: Everybody should, and everybody should be doing their job. And listen, I guarantee you 98 or 99 percent of the police out there are good cops. You’ve got that one or two percent to drag us all down.

Listen, you know that I’ve locked up policemen. I’m not proud of it. And I know what they are, and I also know that the good men don’t get treated right.

JANIS: But why don’t the good people speak up more? If they’re good. I mean, this assumption, we say everyone’s good, there’s only a few bad. Why don’t they speak up? Why don’t they—because, why don’t they prevent this?

TABELING: Because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their job. Because they’re afraid they don’t have any backing. They’re afraid the police commissioner and the mayor won’t back them up. You make a mistake when you make an arrest, a police officer shouldn’t get arrested. If he makes a mistake and it goes to court and the judge dismisses it, that’s the way to—now, if—.

JANIS: But what if someone dies as a result? Like Freddie—.

TABELING: You’ve got a whole other set of circumstances. You’re asking me now why the cops don’t want to—.

JANIS: Right, I understand.

TABELING: So the cops don’t want to do anything because they’re afraid if they make a mistake then they’re going to get charged. And when you’re out there on those streets, believe me, you never know what you’re going to run into. Every call is different and you’ve got to be on your toes all the time.

Now, these cops now all over the United States, they’re a little bit jittery now. And another policeman got shot in Mississippi, another policeman got shot in Louisiana, another police officer got shot in New Mexico, and another one got beat up. So it’s going all over the country, and these guys are, these guys are getting a little bit upset.

JANIS: I’m sorry, I’m interrupting. Go ahead. But ultimately, you know, the law—I guess your idea was that the law is the best thing we have in terms of—yeah.

TABELING: Absolutely. The thing that I see is, you’re bringing people in to become police officers. Before they come in, or truck drivers, or mailmen, they might be a lot of things. I’ve had accountants and everything else come in. they know absolutely nothing about the law, and they’re going to be the people out on the street. You have to give them something to take out there with them so that they can make decisions.

You’ve got a program in college called a criminal justice degree. I’ve had people in my class in the police academy that when I was giving them instruction they’d say, why don’t they give us this in college? It seems to me, just my own opinion, that the last thing they think of, the last thing they think of, is the law. Look at that $250,000 survey that they did for the Baltimore Police Department. How many sentences in that survey talks about training? Not many. Maybe it’s a paragraph or something.

I just, it’s just me, I’ve been around with this since 1954. And as a private investigator I’ve been back and see what policemen do on the kind of investigations that they do. And then you go back and say, supervision. Supervision, and the supervisors aren’t properly trained.

So I put something on the internet. I said I’d like to have the opportunity to bring all the command staff in and give them a test.

JANIS: Well, [inaud.] Stephen, we really appreciate you coming. Thanks for coming in and talking about policing with me, I appreciate it.

TABELING: You’re welcome.

JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis, I’m an investigative reporter for The Real News Network reporting from Baltimore. Thank you.

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