Former Baltimore Cop: You Can’t Enforce the Law by Breaking It

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Stephen Tabeling says police who are hesitant in wake of Freddie Gray indictments don’t understand the law.


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

In the wake of indictment of six officers for the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, it’s not just the city police department that’s feeling the heat. A recent article in the Baltimore Sun reports that officers feel constrained by intense scrutiny, and with it implications of violence in a city that is still plagued by one of the highest homicide rates in the country will be harder to fight. It’s an all-too-common refrain in the era of contemporary policing that says the law and policing by the book is an impediment to fighting crime in cities like Baltimore.

But is it true? Is combating violence and policing by the law too incompatible concepts? Well, our next guest says no. In fact, he’s written a book about it and argues that following the law not only leads to better outcomes on the street, but is the best way to reduce crime. The book, You Can’t Stop Murder, of which I am a co-author, explores Stephen Tabeling’s premise through actual cases. In fact, some of the most notorious murder cases in city history. Stephen Tabeling is a former homicide lieutenant and a former police chief.

Thank you for joining us, Mr. Tabeling. I appreciate it.


JANIS: So this idea that aggressive policing is somehow constrained by the law. Talk about the law, and how the law actually can work for policing.

TABELING: Well, I think that police officers should know the law, especially the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments of the United States Constitution. I think that more emphasis should be placed on patrol officers to know the law, because they’re in on—any kind of crime that you can name, they’re first on the scene. If they don’t know the law, they can make a mistake and a whole case is gone. And just remember, what that little cop does on the street can go all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

And not only that. If they understand the concepts of those amendments that I just mentioned, when they’re on the street they’re better able to evaluate a crime, they’re better able to evaluate when and why they can make an arrest. And then they’re more capable of articulating that reason for arrest when they get in a court of law.

We had some programs in a police academy where we went all the way through court testimony. We had a court judge from circuit court, we had prosecutors, we had defense attorneys, and we had law students. And it turned out to be one of the best programs ever. But don’t ask me why, they stopped it. And my understanding from the University of Baltimore law school, that was the first time in the history of the law school that anything like that had ever been done.

But just think, the 4th Amendment. You know, search and seizure, individual rights. The 5th Amendment, it talks about a person’s right to, not to talk to you. The 6th Amendment gives you the right to an attorney. Now, if you know those amendments, all these laws are not an impediment to you because you better understand them. There’s a bad understanding of Miranda. A lot of police officers don’t really understand Miranda.

Let’s take, for example, stop and frisk. You know, that’s the best tool that police have ever been handed by the Supreme Court. It came out in an eight to one decision, and what the Supreme Court said in that case is if an officer knows that someone’s on the street and are presently armed and dangerous to themselves or society, should a police officer shrug his shoulders, or should we give him a tool? And they gave us a tool. And it’s called articulable, reasonable suspicion. But unfortunately what happens a lot of times when the officers don’t know exactly that law, sometimes they’ll be patting people down illegally. They’ll make mistakes. But give them the tools.

And I’ve always been an advocate for the law. And not for lawyer law. I mean for practical application of law on the street, because what’s an officer looking for? Probable cause, probability based on his training and experience that this person committed a crime. If you get too many lawyers involved, they’re looking for moral certainty when you arrest somebody, and it doesn’t always work that way.

JANIS: Well, looking at what we’re hearing, we see this article that says, well, because of some of the constraints we don’t feel like we can go out there and do our jobs. Violence is going to increase. We can’t stop it. But you kind of made the opposite argument in your book. I mean, is that really true?

TABELING: Well, it’s no constraints—I think the law has made better police officers. But think about the constraints on these police today. It’s command. It’s command. It’s not the police themselves. And they’re really, you know, from what I can understand, is really upset. And I understand there could be a lot of resignations coming in, because the officers are so disgusted. But let’s get back.

The law is, in my opinion, is the most important thing that you can have. When you know the law, you’re going to be a better police officer. When all those laws start coming out in the ’60s they said oh, we’re handcuffed. No you’re not. There’s a lot of legal things that you can do with these laws. But you have to know what you’re doing. You have to be properly trained in the law. And I can tell you this. And I’ll bet this. I can go in most police departments and write on the blackboard 4, 5, and 6, the Amendments, and say to them, what do these amendments mean to you? You know how many answers I’ll really get?

And I’m not just saying this to say it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve given tests in it. So I think we’ve got to concentrate more on that law concept.

JANIS: Well, how does that—I mean, Baltimore City Police Department in the past decade or so has used very aggressive tactics. You know, disrupt tactics. You know, go out onto a corner, disrupt, harass people. In the neighborhood of Freddie Gray they said they’re constantly coming up and telling them to move on, or do—how does that jive with your idea of policing and your idea of the law?

TABELING: Well, that doesn’t jive with my idea of the law. You’ve got to have a reason to stop somebody. But just think about this, too. A person that has committed crimes in the past is going to knock the police at every chance that they get. I’m not saying police don’t do that. But what I’m saying is some of these people that have been arrested in the past, they probably don’t like police. And they’ll tell you about the harassment. Yes, some of it. But to listen to some of these people that’s been in before, it’s—I don’t think it’s quite as bad as what they say it is.

JANIS: But you have a department that illegally arrested tens of thousands of people. How can we trust anything they say at this point?

TABELING: Well, trust has to be built back up with the police department. And I think, I think the whole thing starts in the police academy. I haven’t been there since late 2009, and I can tell you that some of the programs that I have—they’ve done away with. I mean, University of Baltimore would love to see that program come back again. It was—.

JANIS: That was the program that was the—.

TABELING: The court testimony. Because here’s what we did. The officer knew, had to know how to write a report. Interview, interrogate, write search and seizure warrants, and get on the witness stand and testify. And prior to his trial at the University of Baltimore, we sit him down with State’s Attorneys, went over the case, took the whole process of how it would go through.

I don’t know what they’re doing now. But I’ve watched police testify, and that’s one of the reasons why they lose cases, is because they really don’t know how to testify.

JANIS: You told me a couple—almost a year before all this stuff happened, you went to the Mayor with a proposal. You and some retired officers. Talk about that a little bit.

TABELING: Well, I didn’t go, but some people from the retired association who I, that I know are very capable people. A couple of them are retired majors. And through our retired association we made a, we told the Mayor that we would do a survey of the department. And it wouldn’t cost anything, we wanted to do it because we were concerned with what’s happening in the department. And as far as I know, the people that made that approach have never got anything back.

The story we hear, hearsay, we don’t want any old dinosaurs coming in here and telling us what to do. What do those old-timers know? Well, we’ve made several approaches to do training. Look, I’ve made another approach. You know, I had a meeting to do training, and that’s been almost a year ago. I’m still waiting for a telephone call. They hired a law firm now, $50,000 to do a program. Come on, let’s get some people in there who really know what they’re doing.

JANIS: So I mean, the concern was what, specifically, with the retired—what did you think was wrong with the department?

TABELING: Well, we didn’t like—we didn’t like the way that the police were operating. The way that they were writing reports. Their lack of knowledge of the law. And yeah, they were arresting people without any probable cause. And we were concerned about that. And we were concerned—we were concerned because it wasn’t the officer’s fault all the time, because they weren’t properly trained. If they’re not properly trained and don’t know what to do, you, how are you going to blame them?

Look, when you’re a police officer on the street, it’s no waiting. It’s instantaneous. You get a call, you go. That’s it. And now you’re stuck with that. And if you don’t have anything up here to deal with that, you’ve got yourself a problem. It’s an instantaneous operation, but you’ve got to be trained for it properly. And believe me, it sticks here if it’s put in here.

JANIS: There’s been a lot of controversy about the charges of the officer in the Freddie Gray case. I’m not going to ask you to comment on that directly. But one of the things I thought I understood is that when you take someone into custody, what are your legal obligations to that person who’s in your custody, once you handcuff them, or they’re, you restrain them or whatever? What are your legal obligations as a police officer?

TABELING: Well, when the person’s in your custody you have to take care of them. I mean, you try to treat them as easy as you can. If they need any hospitalization you take them to the hospital. You do everything humanly possible for them. And you always teach officers, you never hit a man with handcuffs for anything like that.

But you know, there are times when you’re going to have to protect yourself. When you protect yourself if it comes to the point where you might have to hit somebody and they go down, that’s the end of it. You don’t start after a person’s down because then what do you get into? You get into brutality.

Everyone’s not going to go with you willingly. There’s going to be a time in a policeman’s career where somebody’s going to hit him and he’s going to have to protect himself. But again, there’s limitations to what you do with that.

JANIS: So you served this department for most of your career. You have watched it change. Was training, and was the kind of things you talk about, could that have prevented the mess that we see now? I mean, let’s face it, they are under three investigations simultaneously. That’s almost unprecedented. Could the type of [incompr.] really fix policing in a city like Baltimore?

TABELING: Well, I just happen to think—I happen to think training is the answer. I think that there has to be more emphasis on the law. There has to be more scenario-based training. There has to be less, less emphasis on physical training. You have to have physical training because you have to know how to take care of yourself. You have to know how to shoot a gun. But I think there’s limitations, that physical education shouldn’t dominate a police academy.

JANIS: Last question. You know, we have talked about this idea of your book, and we both discuss this at length, You Can’t Stop Murder. And in terms of police and crime fighting, it sort of leads one to a different conclusion than the aggressive, get out in the streets, that investigations in lawful policing. Just explain that a little bit, what you mean by, you can’t stop murder, in the sense—what it means for policing.

TABELING: Well, you really can’t stop murder because murder is a crime of passion. You can put a cop on every corner, and somebody’s going to get murdered. But what you can do, what you can do with good policing—and when you arrest somebody, you make a good arrest, and when they go to court you convict them. If you got somebody for murder and they walk out two and three times, what’s the problem most of the time? It’s a bad investigation.

And don’t you think these people don’t look at this on the street? You know, to see what’s happening. And you need swift, good prosecution on cases, and put the people away that belong away. And look at the people that are out on the street, that if it hadn’t been a good investigation and they [inaud.] got convicted that they would have never been out on the street.

But you can’t stop murder, but you can do some preventive things to stop street-type murders and things like that. And the preventive things are, is to do good investigations and get the bad people off of the street.

JANIS: Well, Lt. Tabeling, we really appreciate you coming and discussing with us. And hopefully you’ll come back.

TABELING: Thank you.

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