I first met Anthony Barksdale in the summer of 2007. My partner and I were sitting in our parked car in the driveway of Green Mount Cemetery, a high-crime area in the center of Baltimore. Most nights that summer were spent chasing off loiterers from vacant houses, breaking up dice games, and performing some low-level drug enforcement — a lot of hassling, but relatively few arrests. It was the dead of night, square in the middle of our latest 16-hour shift; we were taking a quick break.
We both noticed an unmarked SUV crawl past us. When the driver slowed down to stare into our car, we immediately recognized him as Anthony Barksdale, the Baltimore Police Department’s deputy of operations. He swung his car around and pulled up next to us. My partner rolled down his window and greeted Barksdale with a deferential “Sir.” I don’t recall the exact conversation all these years later, but I do remember Barksdale asking, in a tone that wasn’t free of accusation, what we were doing in an idle car. After first calling our lieutenant, Barksdale told us that it was time to get back to work. That was it; he was back on the road in no time (and we received a prompt scolding from that embarrassed lieutenant). And so our night of corner clearing and petty arrests continued.
Hardly the “surgical” form of policing attributed to Barksdale in Alec MacGillis’ 8,000-word piece on the rise in crime in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, which appears in this week’s New York Times Magazine (co-published with ProPublica).
MacGillis set out to examine why exactly Baltimore “unraveled” following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed. Despite its length, the story offers a perfunctory diagnosis, chalking up the rise in crimes mainly to officer “pullback” — that is, according to the Times piece, “a monthslong retreat from policing, a protest that was at once undeclared and unmistakably deliberate” — and the resulting sense among criminals that they would face no consequences for their law-breaking.
The article is largely informed by Barksdale, the very man who helped implement a culture in the police department that led to rampant officer abuse of the community, and someone who is on record as a firm disbeliever in the city’s consent decree — the policing reforms that the city agreed to implement, which, among other things, regulated officers’ abilities to conduct stops and searches. Barksdale is of the mind that consent decrees prevent cops from properly doing their jobs; some researchers have found that they are, in fact, associated with improved citizen-officer relations and fewer instances of civil rights litigation.
While MacGillis never mentions these findings, he does devote quite a bit of space to Barksdale, allowing the former operations deputy (and, eventually, the city’s deputy commissioner, until his retirement in 2014) to bemoan the abolishment of the Baltimore Police Department’s plainclothes units, the officer units known to wear street clothes as they snuck through the city in search of guns and drugs. During Barksdale’s rein, these plainclothes units would routinely make headlines less for stopping crime than for allegations of abuse and misconduct.
The controversies came to head in 2018, when six officers in one plainclothes unit — the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) — pleaded guilty to racketeering and robbery, and two others were convicted after a federal jury trial. (Prosecutors said the officers had taken to robbing people, “mostly but not exclusively drug dealers,” according to the New York Times Magazine article.) While MacGillis does acknowledge the myriad problems with plainclothes units — he even name-checks the GTTF — he also offers no interjection when Barksdale complains that “criminals are so emboldened now.”
It is MacGillis’ attempt at a balancing act that’s most dangerous here: He acts as a megaphone for Barksdale, treating his perspective with equal respect as he does police reform advocates. Throughout, Barksdale’s heavy-handed approach to policing is presented as a success in reducing violent crime while simultaneously lowering arrest numbers. But MacGillis fails to scrutinize even its most obvious contradictions.
Take, for example, his quote about the surge in police-involved shootings during his tenure: “To hit the brakes on crime, there will be police-involved shootings… I know [criminals’] mind-set. They’ll respect you if you’re willing to die just like them. And there are people who just don’t get that.” But there is no statistical data provided to back up Barksdale’s claim that police shootings are an inevitability when combating crime, nor is there any counterpoint offered in the article.
MacGillis also claims the homicide unit’s ability to solve cases dropped from 50 percent in 2013 to 30 percent because citizens had become wary of calling in tips or testifying after the events of 2015. But the mistrust of police was present in many Baltimore communities long before 2015. According to a 2013 citizen survey, less than half of the city’s residents rated the police protection as “good or excellent”; in particular, police received low marks for professionalism, approachability, and quality of protection in Baltimore’s Western District, where Freddie Gray lived. There were also other high-profile deaths prior to Freddie Gray that had sparked protests. Anthony Anderson was killed by police on the night of September 21, 2012. Tyrone West died during an arrest after a traffic stop and foot chase on July 18, 2013. At least two of the officers involved in West’s death were involved in the beating of Abdul Salaam 17 days earlier. These incidents all involved plainclothes units that were either created under Barksdale or derived from them.
When addressing the Department of Justice’s scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department’s policing tactics, MacGillis points out that it “essentially ignored [Barksdale’s] and… largely successful efforts to move toward a more targeted policing approach.” Barksdale himself takes great issue with the DOJ report. “They have no understanding of what these things mean in Baltimore,” he cryptically tells MacGillis.
The entire New York Times piece seems to explain away the rise in crime since 2015 as a result of this officer “pullback” and the implementation of a consent decree. There is no mention of the police department’s bloated $500 million budget or how some of that money could be used to address some of the root causes of violence in the city, like homelessness, addiction, and education. (New York City, another city that has struggled with constitutional policing, curtailed stop-and-frisk after a judge’s ruling that the practice was unconstitutional; the police budget is $5.6 billion, while the schools receive $16.8 billion.) There is also no alternative to policing offered. If the police created the atmosphere that contributed to the death of Freddie Gray and caused the subsequent unrest that followed, then maybe a return to the past isn’t the answer.
Maybe there’s a reason Barksdale is a source and no longer the guy in the SUV encouraging his officers to “get back to work.” (I left the force myself in 2017.) Maybe his style of policing is not what Baltimore, or any city, needs now. The days of heavy-handed plainclothes cops clearing corners and breaking up dice games are in the past, and for good reason.