“Pissing and shitting in suspect’s homes during raids, on their beds and clothes.” This is just one of many disturbing and frankly disgusting instances of routine police injustice revealed by Michael Wood, former Sergeant of the Baltimore PD.
In response to the release of Freddie Gray’s autopsy results, which confirmed that the young man was murdered while in police custody, Wood initiated a series of shocking tweets describing heinous abuses of police power that he witnessed and participated in as a former officer in Baltimore. Though his tweets describe scenes of gut-churning corruption and unbelievable brutality, they are refreshingly blunt and poignant. In a time of extreme polarization, when the “us versus them” mentality between police and the public is so pronounced, it is a breath of fresh air to hear from someone who has seen both sides, and can speak from both perspectives.
As an 11-year veteran, Wood can honestly attest to the callous brutality commonly perpetrated by police officers, but he also understands the psychology underlying that kind of behavior, and he is able to articulate potential solutions. His courageous public comments lend unique insights into the perceptions and attitudes of our police force, attitudes which Wood says need to change.
“A detective slapping a completely innocent female in the face for bumping into him, coming out of a corner chicken store.” Can you imagine working with someone who does that, and not being able to do or say anything about it? On the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Wood explained that he didn’t report this type of behavior because doing so would have put his job in jeopardy. According to Wood, officers who report internal abuses of power are not rewarded as they should be, but are more often branded as traitors and eventually elbowed off the force. However, Wood admits that even if he could have safely filed complaints about the violations he witnessed, he probably wouldn’t have at that time in his life. “What’s really hard to convey,” said Wood, “is that some things are so commonplace, they didn’t register until I was on the other side.”
Wood is in a unique position to help average Americans comprehend the thought processes and practices that contribute to the desensitization and complacency of well-intentioned police officers. “You go in with these grandiose ideas that you’re going to help people … but I wasn’t doing what I set out to do. I was actually exacerbating the situation,” said Wood. “You don’t think about it, you just ignore it.”
Therein lies an inherent irony of policing: while enforcing the law, many officers artificially elevate themselves above it, and the few who are strong enough to resist that tendency are obliged to work with the majority who are not. Officers like Wood, who join the force out of an earnest desire to help people, are presented with a tortuous ultimatum. Either they conform to — or intentionally ignore — the culture of violence and abuse among police, or they try to correct it. In order to really be a cop, to be a part of the policing community, officers have to embrace the former option, even when it stands in direct opposition to the good, idealistic intentions that inspired them to become police in the first place. If they opt for the alternative and become whistleblowers, they are cast from and condemned by the community they are trying to improve. It’s really a lose-lose situation, and good officers are made to sacrifice a cherished element of their identity either way.
Looking back, Wood acknowledges that there were myriad instances when he should have reported other officers for assaulting innocent people. But while Wood was in the middle of it all, he was blind to the moral imperatives that are so clear to him now that he’s off the force. As a cop, Wood said he wasn’t his normal, empathetic, human self. In fact, at the time, he believed he couldn’t allow himself to be fully human and still do the job — it would be too emotionally taxing. In order to be a physical embodiment of the law, to earn the respect of the people he was policing and working with, and even just to put up with those people on a daily basis, Wood felt he had to be somewhat of an automaton: “If I was spit on, I realized they weren’t spitting on me, they were spitting at the uniform … It wasn’t personal.” Like an actor, he had to fully embrace and immerse himself in his role as a law enforcement officer — a role that Wood says is practically impossible to truly satisfy.
The dilemma built in to being a good cop — one who doesn’t go around bouncing people’s heads off the pavement whenever they are personally insulted — is that it requires a degree of emotional distance. At the same time, however, it requires a certain amount of personal accountability, which tends to go out the window whenever people successfully separate their emotional selves from their actions. This is a frightening predicament for our police officers to be in. Like going from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, people like Michael Wood have to transform into policemen like Officer Wood. Unlike Michael Wood the civilian, Officer Wood doesn’t question the ethics of his behavior, or the behavior of his colleagues, because they are cops, and cops are the good guys. Merely by virtue of wearing a badge, any action an officer takes is perceived to be just, or at least justifiable — even when it isn’t.
Wood has proposed that the underlying issue is a matter of power. Police, he says, have way too much of it, and can abuse it too easily without consequence. There are plenty of good cops out there, but they are too often washed out by an overwhelming torrent of policies and practices designed not to help people, but to catch criminals. Sadly, these two objectives are fallaciously conflated by our policymakers, to the detriment of ourselves, our police and our country.
Michael Wood has some very thoughtful, well-informed and compelling recommendations for how we might go about fixing this broken system. In broad terms, Wood suggests that we can start to correct this problem by changing the way “police think they are supposed to be, versus what they are.” I wholeheartedly agree with Wood, and believe it’s high time we reign in our overzealous protectors, reform their corrupt practices and begin holding them accountable when they hurt the people they are supposed to serve. By doing so, maybe we can enable our officers to be the good guys that so many of them have always wanted to be, and so many of us have always needed them to be.
Michael Wood, a former Marine and ex-Sergeant for the Baltimore PD, recently became a very public proponent for systematic police reform after tweeting about the heinous injustices he witnessed and participated in while he was on the force. Listening to Wood describe his 11-plus years as a police officer is a frightfully thrilling experience. His is not the story of a well-adjusted, level-headed keeper of the peace, but rather one of a young, testosterone-fueled adrenaline junkie with a license to knock heads and break down doors. According to Wood, his seemingly extraordinary experience with the Baltimore PD is pretty much par for the course.
Wood, like many officers, originally joined the force out of an earnest desire to help people. Unfortunately, that idealistic sentiment was quickly flushed out by the reality of being a cop. He came to understand that his job was not to help people, but to catch criminals. Under the current laws and policing policies, especially in minority-dominated, poverty-stricken places like Baltimore, catching criminals doesn’t necessarily help anyone, nor does it necessarily lower the crime rate. In fact, it didn’t take Wood long to recognize that he was actually perpetuating many of the problems that he had initially intended to help resolve. One such problem was the inequitably high arrest rate for African Americans in Baltimore.
The horrifying reality of our modern police force is that our officers have monthly quotas, much like telemarketers or used car salesmen. According to Wood, officers who fail to meet their quota are verbally abused by supervisors, overlooked for pay bumps or promotions, and often punished with unpleasant patrol assignments. The inherent irony of the quota system is that it provides the police with a completely counterproductive measure for success. Rather than focusing on reducing or preventing crime, the quota system forces the police to constantly find or create more crime in order to meet their ever-ballooning arrest expectations.
In an interview with Joe Rogan, Wood explains the effect that quotas have on perpetuating crime and proliferating the grossly lopsided rate of African American arrests in cities like Baltimore. Keep in mind, traffic violations and mundane tickets don’t count towards the quota, only criminal arrests. For that reason, when Wood was a shift commander, he used to tell his men not to waste time pulling old white people over for speeding. Instead, he advised his squad to focus on the people who commit crimes that count towards the quota, namely black males between the ages of 16-24.
“[That approach] makes sense,” said Wood, “until you complete the cycle and realize that you started doing that because of institutionalized racism in your organization. So when you’re jacking up those [black] guys on the corner and you do find that dimebag, you send him to jail. Then he can’t go to work the next day so he loses his job. Then he can’t make it to court so he gets his license suspended. Then, (after he finds a new job), he’s driving and you’re focusing on those 16-24 year old black males so now you’re more likely to pull him over. You pull him over with a suspended license and he gets it revoked, so now he can’t even drive to work legally and he’s left with selling drugs on the corner.”
Wood goes on to tell the tragically typical tale of a young man who was, and probably still is, trapped in this vicious cycle. The guy couldn’t get a viable job because he had a long adolescent rap sheet that started with a minor drug charge. As a result, in order to buy diapers for his baby, the young man was forced to sell pot. Wood says he used to arrest the guy all the time to boost his numbers. Hassling nonviolent drug offenders used to really bother him, but they accounted for 90 percent of his arrests and without them, there was no way he could have met his quotas. Arresting this young man in particular really got to Wood, because as he recalled: “The only difference between this kid and me is that when I had a dime bag in my pocket there wasn’t a f—— chance in hell that someone was gonna look, but him — he was gonna get caught eventually.” Wood’s point is that the black community isn’t innately more prone to crime than the white community; it’s just that white people are far less likely to get busted for the minor drug offenses that so often thrust young black people into the pernicious pattern of imprisonment.
The number one problem propelling this obviously unjust cycle is, according to Wood, the war on drugs. The federal policies born of this perverse “war” grant monetary rewards to police forces across the country for all drug-related arrests. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that arrest quotas have grown increasingly more popular and important among police chiefs who wish to profit, personally and professionally, from the glut of government money allocated to “winning” the war on drugs. But how, exactly, do you win such a war?
You would think that the standard for progress on this front would be a decline in drug-related crimes. As we have seen, however, drug-related arrest quotas — the current measure of success — only serve to increase arrests, and thus increase crime. Therefore, under this system, police efforts to resolve the problem of drug abuse in America will only continue to inflate the amount of drug-related crime, real and perceived. As a result, the war on drugs will continue to sustain and intensify the systematic injustices that are routinely committed against marginalized communities in cities like Baltimore.
When asked how he was able to enforce the damnable drug laws that he recognized as being the source of so much social injustice and racial inequality, Wood offered one of the most shocking, yet refreshingly honest answers I have ever heard: “It was f—— fun! I lived for the chase! I mean, think about this: you’re in a police car, you’ve got the sirens, you’re going down your favorite highway or whatever… and you’re goin through side roads, you’re chasin’ some guy. There is no adrenaline rush that has ever compared to that. It’s incredible.”
Wood’s startling response sheds light on the attitudes of our police officers. While most of them are just like us, they have to pretend that they aren’t. If an active officer were to make a comment like Wood’s, they’d probably be met with some serious, and understandable criticism. Yet, who among us can’t imagine the thrill of racing down the street, sirens blaring, gun-on-hip, chasing a proverbial bad guy? We like to imagine that our officers always act with reason and compassion, but how many of us would exhibit those traits in the heat of a chase, or a drug bust, or a raid? I suspect that most of us would find it difficult to be kind and considerate.
Now think of how many people you know who use or have used illegal drugs. Should those people, many of whom are self-medicating victims of their environmental and mental circumstances, be treated with the type of force and aggression routinely, and arguably necessarily, executed by police officers? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding no. These people need to be treated with understanding, respect and, in most cases, counseling. The fault does not necessarily lie with the police officers — they aren’t trained to deal with nonviolent drug users and they aren’t even trained to distinguish between victims of drug addiction and violent criminals. Under the system we have created, both kinds of people are simply criminals, and they both count towards the almighty quota, except drug users offer the added bonus of a paycheck from the federal government. It is imperative that we start protecting the victims of drug dependency from systematic police violence and actually help them to overcome their addictions. That is the only way we will truly be able to reduce drug abuse and drug-related crime in this country. Initiating this process will require us to end the war on drugs.
Decriminalizing drugs and ending the resultant quota system won’t be easy. There’s a lot of money in it, and therefore, a lot of people have powerful financial incentives to keep it going — primarily police, politicians and private prison corporations. Unfortunately, these are the people who are in the best position to speak out against the unreasonable war and affect its end. We need more people like Michael Wood, who have seen the system from the inside and who can honestly convey the drug war’s real consequences to the general public. We also need more people who have been victimized or know someone who has been victimized by police and prison practices fueled by inhumane drug laws to take a stand against them. It will require courage, compassion and good old common sense to end this objectionable battle against the least privileged, most vulnerable fragments of our society. While it is tempting for those of us who do not fall into that unfortunate category to ignore the plight of those who do, succumbing to that temptation would preclude us all from knowing justice, fairness or, ultimately, freedom.