We Tried Reform and it Failed
by Larry Smith
June 10, 2020
This interview with Larry Smith, an ex-police officer of 18 years, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
franknews | Could you start by telling us a little bit about your background?
Larry Smith | I was a police officer for 18 years in Baltimore, from 1999 until 2017. During those 18 years I worked in various functions - patrol units, as a gang liaison, as an internal affairs detective for three years.
What made you want to become a cop?
The question, “why did you become a cop,” is a question that I've never been able to give a clear answer to. I think the simplest answer is that I was 24 years old. I was pretty much directionless in life, and I couldn't afford college. To become a cop is in most states, you don't need much more than a high school diploma. I knew it was a job that paid well and had benefits and a retirement. So I applied.
What was the impetus for leaving?
I was in Baltimore city, which is a city that has suffered from systemic poverty, addiction and violence for decades. I don't know that I could compare my experience to somebody who's a cop in a small, middle America town, or even a smaller city, but I was just completely dumbfounded by the physical state of the city. The vacant homes, the blight. The fact that some neighborhoods like Roland Park had million dollar homes, clean streets, expansive lawns and trees, but two blocks to the east looked like a war zone.
There were a few years where I was really invested in the job and I really thought that my presence made a difference. I believed that I was arresting the bad guys, that I was keeping people safe and that I battling crime in the city. But over the years, I became really disenfranchised with the job.
I realized that we, the police department, were making no difference. In most cases we were causing more harm than good.
You stand out because you did have this realization and then act on it, whereas a lot of people don't. What happened internally that brought you to the point where you made the choice to step away from doing that work?
Well, I mean, I don't want to give myself too much credit. When I initially came to the realization that what I was a part of was wrong and was harmful, the way I acted on it was to shut down. I still continued to go to work. I didn't quit, but I did basically the bare minimum.
I think the realization happened during 2006 and 2007. I was in a specialized unit in East Baltimore, and basically our job was to make as many arrests as possible to try to prevent violent crime - we were asked to recover guns, narcotics, things like that. But in reality most nights, especially during the summer, we ended up just harassing groups of black men who were either standing on a corner or hanging out in front of their house - there's not a lot to do in Baltimore, especially in neighborhoods that have been ignored for so long. We were basically forcing people off the street because our commanders felt that the fewer people that were out on the street, the less potential victims there were for violence or crime. We were just making very petty arrests - arrests for loitering, for drinking in public, for urinating in public or for trespassing if people were hanging out in front of vacant houses.
And I was like, what does that do? If I arrest 5 or 10 guys for drinking in public, what did that prevent? In the long term, how does that help? I'm potentially ruining somebody's life by taking them to jail over drinking in public. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that I had the ability to really impact someone's life in a negative way for just such an absolutely ridiculous crime.
Did you vocalize these thoughts to people within your department, other police officers?
I definitely did, especially within my specialized unit, and I was eventually kicked out of it. I would tell my sergeant and my lieutenant that the approach was nonsense, that all we were doing was producing stats. They would give me a hard time about not having enough arrests for a month, and I would just argue what difference does it make?
I got kicked out of that in 2008 and was sent back to patrol. I did enjoy patrol a little bit more because you're answering 911 calls. You are a little bit more useful because people are calling you for help - you're not actively looking to interfere with somebody's life. But you're still a police officer, so there's still the potential that you could harm somebody either physically or by arresting them for something.
And how do you leave? What is that moment like for you?
Well, I had been contemplating quitting the department for a few years, I'd say around 2015, 2016, I really started giving serious consideration to quitting. I was in internal affairs at the time. I don't know how much you know about Baltimore, but we had a very corrupt unit of cops who were finally arrested and federally indicted in March of 2017. I had investigated some of them before they were arrested. Realizing that really bad cops were being allowed to remain employed and remain on the street really got to me. There were upper command level officers interfering in investigations or allowing these cops to continue to get away with things. The one moment that finally pushed me over the edge was when the sergeant of the unit waited for me after work and confronted me in the parking lot.
I just had had it. I couldn't deal with the department, I couldn't deal with the stress. I had had a hard reckoning with a lot of the things that I'd seen and done. I tried to kill myself. Eventually I ended up in a psychiatric facility for 10 days. I knew that if I didn't leave the police department then, it was going to kill me in one way or the other. That was how I left. As far as letting anybody know, my supervisor at the time knew I was in the hospital. When I was released, I called them and I said that I couldn't do it anymore. I quit. He came and collected my equipment in my apartment and I filed a resignation form. And that was it.
What have the last three years looked like for you?
I still think about what I was part of, and I still regret a lot of the things I did and took part in.
I don't know what the half-life is. I don't know how long it takes for 18 years of police memories to leave your system. I have done a lot of self contemplation, self-reflection.
When I first left I really harbored a lot of ill will towards my police department in particular. I also knew that policing in general was bad. But, I guess I still thought that policing could get better. Over the last three years, however, I just realized that it's such an evil institution that there is no way it can be reformed. Reform has been tried, and it has failed. I just don't think there's any way to save it.
What do you think it says about what police departments believe in, if they haven’t been able to effectively reform?
Honestly, I am so confused as to what police departments believe in. I really don't know anymore. There was a big push for police reform in 2015, after you had high profile deaths like Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and, here in Baltimore, Freddie Gray. There were protests back then, and it led to reform on some level. But it didn’t work. I mean, the police got body cameras and still, they “forget” to turn them on.
Then and now, there is this conversation around community policing, which is supposed to build relationships between the police and the community. My question is, why do police departments need to create homeless outreach programs, youth programs, or give officers special training to respond to people in mental health crises? Why can't money be taken away from the police department and actually invested in hiring civilian social workers and counselors?
I don't understand why police are still a part of the conversation. Investing in the community doesn't need to involve the police.
And we only talk about this in relation to poor black and brown communities. You don't go to the rich white suburbs and see cops parked on corners or walking on foot just constantly patrolling the neighborhoods. There's no police community interaction there, so why are we forcing people to have it in other communities?
What's baffling to me is when you look at cities around the country, like New York and Los Angeles, and here in Baltimore, the budgets for police are incredibly high. The New York City police budget is nearly $6 billion, but they will cut funding to other social services up to 80%. Here in Baltimore, the budget is $500 million and the school budget is about half of that. And what's the return on investment? In Baltimore we have had over 300 homicides in the last two years. So where is that money going? What is the police department doing?
What are they doing with money?
That's the question. They don't seem to be preventing violent crime. Police budgets is the one part of the municipality's budget that really seems to have no hard oversight. Most of the money in a police budget goes to paying officer's salaries. But then you look at a department like New York City, they have over 30,000 cops. Do you really need an army of 30,000 cops?
Politicians also seem so afraid of police and police unions. It's rare for city council, for instance, to vote against the police budget. There is very rarely pushback from city councils when it comes to police budgets. If crime goes down, the police will argue that they need the same or more this year to keep crime down. If crime goes up, the police will argue that they need more officers, better equipment, and better technology.
The police have governments over the barrel. They can really manipulate any kind of crime increase or reduction to their benefit and keep their budgets up.
Can you explain some of the issues that come with police unions?
Police unions fight against transparency, and that's the bottom line. They will try to protect personnel records and internal affairs complaints from being released to the media and the public. The members of the police unions are the police officers. If the union doesn't even at least give the outward image that they're fighting for their members, they have no support. If you really look at the rhetoric that comes out of police unions across the country, it is almost like a script that all the unions follow. In any crisis, the union president will immediately get in front of the cameras and blame the mayor or the governor for whatever ills the police department is suffering. A perfect example is that Governor Cuomo criticized how the New York Police Department was acting during the protest the other night, and the Police Commissioner demanded an apology. Their union president is out in front of the cameras, screaming about that too. And the governor apologized.
Yeah. Cuomo walked that right back.
That's the kind of power they have. Police unions contribute financially to political campaigns. Every politician wants that endorsement and they want that donation. A lot of politicians walk a really fine line when it comes to criticizing police unions and police departments.
Unions seem liberal in principle. They protect laborers and workers. Do feel like police departments are entitled to these unions?
It's really hard to think of police as workers. They're not part of the means of production. Cops will tell you how dangerous their job is, but you look at the statistics, jobs like logging, garbage collectors, and taxi cab drivers are all more dangerous jobs than cops do. So, you know, I don't think cops are workers. They aren't producing anything. Most departments also have what is referred to as a Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights. So cops are afforded even more protection than normal citizens if they're accused of misconduct on the job. Any time that there's any sort of pushback against these Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, the union will be there to fight it.
I think unions are excellent for workers. I don't think police are workers, and I don't think that the policing serves any helpful purpose.
I really don't think police unions serve any legitimate purpose, and I think that they are way too powerful.
What would your calls to action be?
Again, reform has been tried. There was a really big push reform after 2015. The ironic thing is that when you talk about something like restorative justice as an alternative to policing and incarceration, the “law and order types” scoff. But when the police department continuously screws up, the same people who scoff that restorative justice propose reform as the solution. And what's happening with reform? Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on reform. I mean, are we going to do this every five years? If the cops don't follow the reforms, then what's the point.
I think that we should be stripping the departments of their million dollar budgets, redistributing that to other social services in the community, and eventually shrinking the police departments down until we don't need them.
There are other ways than police. When you call to abolish the police, people say, "Well what about murder? What about violent crime?" The police don't prevent a lot now. And you don't need an armed agent of the state to investigate a murder after the fact. There are other ways to deal with violence. You need to address the root causes of violence to prevent it. A cop standing on every corner is not going to prevent a murder.
I really wish people, specifically white middle class people, would challenge themselves to think about their perception of the police. Imagine what it would be like to walk out your front door, literally every day, and see the police either on foot or on bike or in cars, as people of color do. And the question is not if they are going to stop me, but when are they going to stop me. Think about how some communities of color can't walk through their neighborhood on a daily basis without having an interaction with the police, and think about how inherently dangerous that is.
And then the question is, well, what do we need them for? Because if they're not in your white neighborhood, keeping you "safe," what are they here for? What are they doing? So I think people really need to challenge the perception of the police. People are hardwired into thinking that the police need to exist to enforce the law or to keep us safe. It's a fairytale that has been beaten into our heads.
I guess for an average, middle class, white person, the question is, if somebody breaks into my house, who do I call?
There are alternatives to armed police on who you can call. There are some communities who have unarmed security, there are block watchers, there are citizen patrols. I think the deeper question is why is that person breaking into the house? And if we had addressed the conditions of society much earlier in that person's life, maybe they wouldn't be breaking into my house now.
Do you feel like the political consequences of this moment might be different than ones prior?
As far as political consequences- yes, definitely. The current protests are way more widespread than they were in 2015. I think a lot of people are seeing now that police are an absolutely unhinged militaristic force, and that our elected leaders are sitting by while people are literally being gassed and beaten in the street.
These protests also seem like they're going to be around a lot longer. I don't think these are going away anytime soon. I think the big difference is that it is young people. There are young people out there who are not old enough to vote right now, but they are going to be old enough to vote soon. I think the writing is on the wall that there's going to be a massive change in this country as Boomers and Generation X starts to age out of politics. And I think that's a good thing. I think we need more leaders like Julia Salazar and Alexandria Cortez. We need younger politicians who have a more radical opinion of how to change things in this country.