BALTIMORE, MD – MAY 01: Officers stand guard during protests over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md. on Friday May 01, 2015. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
On Wednesday, a former Baltimore Police Department officer named Michael Wood caused a stir online when he began tweeting some of the horrible things he claims to have seen during his 11 years on the job. I spoke with Wood Wednesday afternoon for a phone interview. Here’s a transcript, interspersed with some of Wood’s tweets.
Balko: So how long were you a cop in Baltimore? When and why did you leave?
Wood: Eleven years. I joined in 2003. I was a sergeant when I retired. I started by walking the Western District on foot. That’s where Freddie Gray was killed. That was my first beat. I also worked in the Southern and Northern districts for a while. Then I was promoted to the Violent Crime Division. I did street work with a narcotics division for six months. Then I was promoted to Major Crimes. I left in January 2014 due to a shoulder injury. I wish I could say my injury came with an interesting story, but it’s pretty boring.
Your tweets suggest that you were once part of what you consider to be the problem in policing, but that you had an awakening of sorts. What caused that?
Oh yeah, I had an awakening. I remember it very well. I was doing narcotics work. And so I was spending a lot of time doing surveillance in a van, or in some vacant building. You have a lot of time on your hands with that kind of work. You’re watching people for hours at a time. You see them just going about their daily lives. They’re getting groceries, running errands, going to work. Suddenly, it started to seem like an entirely different place then what I had seen when I was doing other police work. I grew up in Bel Air[, Maryland]. I didn’t have exposure to inner cities. And when you work in policing, you’re inundated early on with the “us vs. them” mentality. It’s ingrained in you that this is a war, and if someone isn’t wearing a uniform, they’re the enemy. It just becomes part of who you are, of how you do your job. And when all you’re doing is responding to calls, you’re only seeing the people in these neighborhoods when there’s conflict. So you start to assume that conflict is all there is. Just bad people doing bad things.
But sitting in the van and watching people just living their lives, I started to see that these were just people. They weren’t that different from me. They had to pay rent. See their kids off to school. The main difference is that as a white kid growing up in my neighborhood, I was never going to get arrested for playing basketball in the street. I was never going to get patted down because I was standing on a street corner. There was no chance I was going to get a criminal record early on for basically being a kid. As a teen, I was never going to get arrested for having a dime bag in my pocket, because no one would ever have known. There was just no possibility that a cop was ever going to stop me and search me.
When you watch people for hours and hours like that, you start to see the big picture. You start to see the cycle of how these kids get put in the system at a young age, often for doing nothing wrong, and how that limits their options, which pushes them into selling drugs or other crime. You start to see that they never had a chance.
It seems a bit ironic that you had these revelations and developed such empathy while working on the narcotics team. Drug policing often has the opposite effect doesn’t it?
Oh definitely. I’m 100 percent against the drug war. I’d legalize drugs tomorrow if I could. What we’re doing to people to fight the drug war is insane. And the cops who do narcotics work — who really want to and enjoy the drug stuff — they’re just the worst. It’s completely dehumanizing. It strips you of your empathy. I just think it had a different effect on me because I started watching the people.
Some of your tweets about what you saw are pretty shocking. You mentioned seeing cops urinate and defecate in the homes of suspects, even on their beds and their clothes. How common was that?
There’s a particular unit that does that. It’s their calling card. Everyone knew it. Any cop who has worked in Baltimore knows about it. You definitely won’t find a cop who has done the raids who hasn’t heard about it. They usually blame it on the dog. But everyone knows it goes on. Outside of that unit it happened, but it was rarer.
Can you tell me the name of that unit?
It’s always your knockers. The street enforcement unit. The guys who do the “street rips” [busting low-level drug offenders on the street]. So when I say it’s a particular unit, I don’t mean it’s this particular group of guys. The names of the units change; the personnel changes. But it’s always the knockers.
So it isn’t that there is a particular set of rogue cops who are known for doing this, but it’s more of a tradition, part of the culture?
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it probably started out as a few guys who did it for laughs. But now it’s just sort of known that this a thing they do.
But it’s also little things that people outside of policing don’t know about, and that aren’t even really talked about among cops. Something like using your baton to knock on someone’s door when they’ve called 911. It leaves a little dent in the door. So if you go to a house with a lot of dents in the door, you know that’s someone who has called 911 in the past.
What’s the purpose of that — to signal to other cops that there have been problems at the house?
It’s not even that. It’s just a way of venting some frustration when you’re irritated at someone who called 911. But it damages their door.
You’ve received a lot of praise on Twitter, but also some criticism. One common criticism asked why you didn’t report these incidents. Why didn’t you?
To an extent, I’m totally guilty. I should have done more. My excuse isn’t a good excuse, but it’s reality: You report that stuff, and you’re going to get fired. I mean, of course you’re going to get fired. Or they’re going to make your life miserable. I mean, look what happened to Joseph Crystal.
It all goes back to this whole us versus them thing. You suit up; you get out there; you’re with your brothers. You’re an occupying force. Your job is to fight crime, and these are the guys you do it with. So you just don’t see the abuse. It doesn’t even register, because those people are the enemy. They aren’t really even people. They’re just the enemy. This is the culture. It’s a s—– excuse. But it’s the reality.
PC docs = “probable cause documents,” or the papers police file to
obtain a warrant. CDS = controlled dangerous substances.]
So you talked about how you started to see things differently while you were doing narcotics work. When was that?
So did you report any of the things you saw then?
That’s when I started. But the first things I’d report were internal things — there was some racial stuff within the department that bothered me. But I still only reported internal things I saw.
Cops getting mistreated by other cops . . .
Right. Because reporting that sort of thing won’t get you into trouble. It’s reporting the external stuff that will end your career. Again, it’s the us vs. them problem.
What happened between 2007 and the last few months to make you decide to come out with the external abuses so openly?
It’s been a gradual progression. I got my master’s degree. The critical thinking required to earn my degree helped me more fully process those revelations I had in 2007. It taught me to think about things differently, to evaluate information in different ways. I started reading news from alternative media, seeking out different perspectives. Then I think the national discussion after Ferguson really drove it all home for me. That whole discussion was so divisive, but it was also instructive. So much of it goes back to a lack empathy. You start to see how neither side is able to see things from the other’s perspective.
Were there other cops in Baltimore who shared your concerns?
Oh, absolutely. I was personally inspired by my lieutenant, Anthony Proctor. He didn’t grow up in a good neighborhood. He had a rough family life. He talked a lot about it, about how it affected him. So had this unique perspective on how cops can be better. We need more cops from tough backgrounds. We need people who have lived in the rough neighborhoods to patrol them, and to oversee the other officers who walk those areas.
But there’s a powerful bureaucracy at any big city police department. A few guys run the whole show. A few old white guys hand-pick who climbs the ranks. They people get promoted that they pick and choose, helping hand-picked guys climb the ranks. So Proctor and I started fighting to get the good ol’ boy network torn down.
But again, that’s internal. It’s a lot harder to address the external problems.
[Note: “PC statements” = probable cause statements, or statements from witnesses that police can then use to obtain a warrant.]
Do you think these problems are unique to Baltimore?
I haven’t talked enough with cops from other cities for them to feel comfortable opening up to me. But I’ve been to conferences. I’ve been around other officers. It’s all the same. You could take a cop out of Philly and put him in Baltimore and he’d get along just fine. You can take a cop out of New Orleans or Chicago and do the same. Big cities obviously are going to have different problems. But the culture is the same everywhere. The driving part of the police in Ferguson is no different than it is in Baltimore: It’s us against them.
You were in the Marines. There has been a lot of talk of police militarization lately. I’ve had law enforcement leaders who are concerned about militarization tell me that bringing in veterans to become cops contributes to the problem. But I’ve also had some police chiefs and sheriffs tell me that former military guys are actually a good influence on rogue cops. What do you think?
Well first, let me address the military equipment. The police don’t need it, and they have no business having it.
But when it comes to former military joining law enforcement, I’m in the camp that says they’re going to be better when it comes to shootings and using force. Bad police shootings are almost always the result of a cop being afraid. Look at Walter Scott, Michael Brown, the South Carolina state trooper shooting — those were all cops who were afraid, and fired their weapons out of fear. The military strips you of fear. Here’s the thing: There’s nothing brave or heroic about shooting Tamir Rice the second you pull up to the scene. You know what is heroic? Approaching the young kid with the gun. Putting yourself at risk by waiting a few seconds to be sure that the kid really is a threat, that the gun is a real gun. The hero is the cop who hesitates to pull the trigger.
That’s where I think a military background can help. Very few of these bad shootings were by cops with a military background. There may have been a few, but I can’t think of one.
During the Ferguson protests, some military veterans were critical of what they saw in the images coming out of St. Louis County. They said the cops there were doing things that would never fly in the military, like pointing their guns at peaceful protesters. I’ve heard similar criticism of drug raids by veterans who conducted raids in Afghanistan and Iraq — they dislike the term police militarization because they say police raids in America are far more aggressive than what the military does overseas.
Oh sure. You see these raids where the cops are lasering each other. They have their guns pointed at each other. The raid starts, and they’re pointing their guns at suspects, kids, bystanders. You point your gun at someone you don’t intend to kill once in Close Quarters Battle school and they’ll throw you out.
You publish and sell study guides for cops taking public service exams. How did that start?
Lt. Proctor and I wanted to start teaching some of the officers we wanted to see advance about how to take the sergeant’s test. As we started to go over the material, it occurred to me just how little we teach officers about the law. Tony and I made a little bet. I told him I didn’t think our officers could name the necessary conditions for arrest. That’s pretty basic knowledge. I was right. We were laughing about it, then we realized how disturbing it was that we were laughing about it. We were laughing about it because it’s so common. And yet it was no one’s fault but ours. So we came up with this idea of producing a study guide to help officers learn the law and to learn what they need to know to pass these tests.
Some critics on Twitter suggested that your decision to go public with some of the corruption and abuse you witnessed was just an attempt to sell your prep books.
It wasn’t even a consideration.
I would think that you’re probably going to anger many cops by coming out with this stuff. It’s generally not a good idea to anger your customer base.
Right. If anything, it’s counterproductive to selling the books.
So here’s the impossible question: How do we make things better?
I think it starts with empathy. We need to stop all this warrior talk, the militaristic language, and the us versus them rhetoric. We need a better metaphor. Police officers aren’t warriors. They aren’t soldiers. I don’t even like the mentality that we’re “enforcing the laws.” Maybe a term like “protectors.”
President Obama’s policing commission uses the phrase “guardians, not warriors.”
I could get behind that. The important thing is to change the mindset, to foster a sense of empathy, so police officers see themselves as the protectors of these communities, not as an occupying force that’s at war with them.
But I also think we need to start thinking more critically, more creatively, and more from a data and science-driven perspective. Let me give you an example. When it gets really hot in Baltimore, people in poorer neighborhoods spill out into the streets. This is because they don’t have air conditioning. Because crime goes up when the temperature goes up, the police department sees hot temperatures and people in the streets as a recipe for violence. So they respond by sending scores of cops into these neighbors to clear out the corners. The city ends up spending thousands of dollars on overtime just to basically harass the people in these neighborhoods for trying to keep cool. What if instead of spending all that money on police overtime summer after summer, one year you just bought air conditioners for poor people? Would that work? I don’t know. But it would help relations with the community. And we know that what we’ve been doing doesn’t work.
I’ve had a pet theory that part of the reason for the crime drop of the last 20 years is the proliferation of air conditioning. I’ve yet to see any studies on it. But it makes some sense.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
I mentioned that this has nothing to do with the prep books I sell. But I will admit to some self interest in coming forward. I’d like to part of the solution. I woke up to this, and I think I can be a bridge. I speak the language cops speak. If there’s some task force or policing reform committee I can serve on, I’d love to do that.
Other than that, I think we just need more conversation. So I’d like people to know that I’m here for your questions. I’m easy to find online.
Note: Earlier today, the Baltimore Police Department issued the following release to WMAL radio in response to Wood’s tweets:
The recent allegations made by Mr. Michael Wood are serious and very troubling. The Police Commissioner has made clear that the Baltimore Police Department will never tolerate malicious conduct. We hope that during his time as both a sworn member and as a sergeant with supervisory obligations, that Mr. Wood reported these disturbing allegations at the time of their occurrence. If he did not, we strongly encourage him to do so now, so that our Internal Affairs Division can begin an immediate investigation. In a recently published letter to the Baltimore Sun, the Police Commissioner made clear that his reform efforts remain focused on rooting out the type of conduct that is alleged. We implore Mr. Wood or anyone else with knowledge of such acts to contact our Internal Affairs Division at 410-396-2300.