The writing known as magazine-style journalism is a balancing act, between two conflicting imperatives. It’s not the simple balancing of stock newspaper reporting, where both sides of a controversy get to take turns saying something; the magazine-style writer is allowed and encouraged to make judgments. But the work is pulled in its own opposing directions: it’s supposed to capture the fullness and complexity of the world, while it’s also supposed to be built around some sharp and catchy premise.
The expansiveness is what makes it all seem worthy, in the abstract; the reductiveness is what convinces an editor a particular story worth doing. Go too far one way and the story seems baggy and pointless; go the other and it reads as glib and false.
The New York Times Magazine published a long, deeply reported story by Alec MacGillis about the resurgence of violent crime in Baltimore, where he lives. The piece was compassionate, detailed, and closely observed. It was also misleading, in a way that could very well make things worse for the people of the city.
Most of the story dealt with another kind of balancing act—between cops being too aggressive and not aggressive enough, in communities trapped between injustice and disorder. The people of Baltimore want to live without fear of crime and without fear of abuse or harassment by the police.
Because successful magazine stories have characters in them, and narratives about those characters, the article focused the policing question around “a police detective named Tony Barksdale,” who is “a product of the city’s black working class” and who took on the mission of making the police more assertive and effective crime fighters. Barksdale, in this telling, got promoted to deputy commissioner and drove down the crime rate while also lowering the arrest rate, by insisting on targeting the most dangerous people in the most dangerous places. The city’s annual murder count dropped below 200 for the first time in “almost four decades.”
Then, the story said, everything went in reverse. The city’s leadership fell into the hands of corrupt or incompetent mayors, Barksdale was passed over for the police commissionership and retired, the new commissioner and a new state’s attorney pressed for more police reform, a new Republican governor tuned out the city’s needs—and then the cops dragged Freddie Gray into the back of a police van alive and pulled him out again with fatal injuries. Unrest and arson followed, and a de facto police strike followed that, and the city slid back into carnage.
It was a coherent, rueful narrative, about how one person’s vision couldn’t overcome a whole political system, and about how reformers’ good intentions had backfired. Practical reality had lost out to impossible ideals; the demand for police accountability had produced mass unaccountability. The policy moral was clear, if politically out of reach. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist turned all-purpose self-appointed expert, summarized it in a tweet:
The Tragedy of Baltimore: another illustration of a well-supported generalization: good policing reduces violent crime. Cripple the police, and violence goes up.
The arch-rationalist Pinker had begged the question, logically—good policing is policing that produces good police results—but he had also followed the article’s storyline away from a crucial central fact: Baltimore did not have good policing when Tony Barksdale was in charge of police operations. Baltimore did not have good policing before the police killed Freddie Gray.
Baltimore did not have good policing when Tony Barksdale was in charge of police operations. Baltimore did not have good policing before the police killed Freddie Gray.
It was more than 5,500 words into the 8,100-word story that the name of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force finally appeared. The Gun Trace Task Force, MacGillis wrote, was “an elite plainclothes unit” whose members were charged by prosecutors with having had “a penchant for robbing people” and a record of “brazen immorality.” They were callous and violent and, on top of everything else, they habitually defrauded the city out of overtime pay.
This was all true, but it wasn’t true enough. The Task Force was a criminal gang in every meaningful sense, savage and lawless, so thoroughly corrupt that its influence crossed the state line and managed to spin off a police drug-dealing scandal in Philadelphia. And it was Tony Barksdale’s gang. These were the specific officers who were supposed to be doing the high-impact, aggressive policing that was supposed to be the cure for crime in Baltimore.
Police misconduct is not a footnote to the story of the struggle to find an effective law-enforcement policy in Baltimore. It is the center of the story. Take the pivotal incident in the uncovering of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, the shooting death of detective Sean Suiter just before he was due to testify in the investigation of the unit. The police imposed de facto martial law on the neighborhood where Suiter was found, as they supposedly pursued a cop killer—only to eventually conclude that Suiter had shot himself and made it look like he’d been murdered.
MacGillis told all this, but he did not go so far as to bring up the other, popular interpretation of the case: that Suiter might have been murdered by his fellow cops. Or, more importantly, that the known facts about the police made it impossible for ordinary Baltimoreans to have any faith that he wasn’t.
The premise about policing that defines life in Baltimore isn’t that the cops need the freedom to get tough on bad guys; it’s that, as in other cities with high murder rates and civil unrest, police corruption makes it impossible to control crime.
A story that made Steven Pinker complain about reformers who “cripple the police” is a story that failed to convey the truth. The premise about policing that defines life in Baltimore isn’t that the cops need the freedom to get tough on bad guys; it’s that, as in other cities with high murder rates and civil unrest, police corruption makes it impossible to control crime. It’s not a public that was ready to turn to violence after Freddie Gray got killed in a police van; it’s a police force that took steps to trigger the violence, looted merchandise itself in the chaos, and then quit doing its job afterward out of spite.
The conventions of magazine writing required Barksdale to have done something that made the city better, for a while. But the improvements on his watch happened as violent crime was falling nationwide. Meanwhile—as the story mentioned in passing, in a paragraph where Barksdale talked about the necessity of police shootings to get “respect” and “hit the brakes on crime”—Barksdale’s energetic, proactive officers were costing the city millions of dollars in brutality settlements.
This is what shows up when you follow the link to the Baltimore Sun’s account of how law enforcement operated in 2014, in what the Times Magazine described as the days of better police work:
Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.
Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones—jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles—head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.
Maybe Barksdale had good intentions. Certainly the story did. It clearly wanted to be a story about the complexity of a city’s suffering, about the intersection of poverty and politics and violence, not an apologia for a brutal police force. But the results are what will matter.