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Baltimore Declares End To Plainclothes Policing After Officer Indictments


In Baltimore, they're known as knockers or jump-out boys - police officers in street clothes - jeans, T-shirts, tactical vests - who were tasked with going after gun crimes and drug offenders. But after seven officers in this police intel unit were indicted last week on allegations of robbery, extortion and other crimes, the police commissioner said no more. The plainclothes unit is being dismantled, and its officers are being sent back on the street in uniform and marked cars. For more, we turn to Justin Fenton of the Baltimore Sun. He's been reporting on this. Welcome, Justin.

JUSTIN FENTON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: First of all, I want to make clear we're not talking about undercover officers right now. This is a group of officers who are allowed to wear their regular clothing. They're not in uniform. What was this unit supposed to do differently?

FENTON: These are the officers who don't have to respond to 911 calls. They're able to sort of freelance a little bit more. And they also are typically described as doing sort of more proactive enforcement - you know, pulling over cars, looking for guns, trying to do drug investigations - that sort of thing.

CORNISH: And so the officers who have been indicted - in what ways were they allegedly abusing this position?

FENTON: Well, it's important to draw a distinction between, you know, these officers and sort of all the others that have now been - had their assignments changed as a result. The DEA started investigating a drug organization in the city and sort of got tipped off that there was an officer who might have been involved. That spread to other officers of his unit. And what the FBI investigation found, according to federal prosecutors, was that they were robbing citizens, extorting them. They would file false affidavits and paperwork. And they were also allegedly caught filing fraudulent overtime - making thousands of dollars for time that was spent in casinos, on vacation or at home.

CORNISH: And as you mentioned, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI - basically, federal investigations - tipped off Baltimore to what was happening in their department, right? I mean, prior to this, what was the reputation of this overall intel group?

FENTON: Well, you know, the plainclothes officers in the city as a whole have long been the source of many complaints by citizens. The names you use - the knockers, jump-out boys - those are not used affectionately. They're used to refer to the fact that these officers are more likely to sort of drive up onto a corner and jump out of their cars and sort of slam everybody up against a wall.

And conversely, the police department has often pointed to these units as doing some of the most productive work in the city and getting the repeat violent offenders off the streets. Just six years ago, Baltimore was, in a way, celebrating its lowest number of homicides in decades. And the administration at that time said that their plainclothes operations unit was the reason for that.

But at its core, it's sort of allowing these of these officers in a centralized way to sort of freelance throughout the city and do proactive investigations. So the interesting things to watch here is sort of, you know - how much is policing going to change in the city without that? The department is saying that the officers are still going to be doing the same type of work, but they're going to be doing it in uniform and in marked cars.

CORNISH: What have you heard from the police union or response from anybody in this unit?

FENTON: Yeah. Interestingly, the police union says that they've been arguing for this for years. They think that patrol - they call it the backbone of the department. They think that more officers in uniform is a good thing. Within the agency, I would say, in some of these units that do this type of work, there's a lot of resentment right now. They feel like they're being punished for something that these seven officers who were indicted did. They think that they are the most motivated cops in the city, in a city where there's been questions about how hard officers have been working in the wake of the indictments in the Freddie Gray case.

Also, they say that these are the types of units that people aspire to be in - you know, just the sort of work patrol with the goal of one day being able to put on a plainclothes uniform and have more autonomy. So they feel like this is going to have a negative effect there. But the police department is saying that - to people who think that the department is sort of backing off of its proactive enforcement - that they're going to be doing the same type of work. You're just going to be seeing them in uniform now.

CORNISH: Justin Fenton is from The Baltimore Sun. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

FENTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BATTLES SONG, "FUTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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