Thought Catalog
August 5, 2015

An Ex-Baltimore Police Officer Discusses Racism, Police Brutality, And Why We Desperately Need Police Reform

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Michael A. Wood Jr. is an ex-Baltimore police officer who became well-known throughout the country for speaking out against police brutality in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, and the subsequent protests that ensued in Baltimore earlier this year. In the following dialogue, he discusses his thoughts and positions on institutional racism, policing, and the need for police reform. Connect with Michael on Twitter at @MichaelAWoodJr and find out more about his work at michaelawoodjr.net.

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Thought Catalog: Hi Michael, thank you so much for joining us today. I understand that you are an ex-Baltimore police officer who currently advocates for change in policing and police culture. Could you give us an understanding of your background and what exactly your advocacy is doing, and what you want to achieve?

Michael A. Wood Jr.
Michael A. Wood Jr.

Michael A. Wood Jr.: Thanks for having me Kovie. It is this very discussion that my immediate goals are trying to achieve. While it was years and years ago that I started advocating for police reform, I think I was largely blind to the reform being a byproduct of a societal reform that must take place. The second civil rights movement, so to say.

I am the prototype all-American kid by most definitions. I came from a poor family, in a mixed neighborhood, and fought my way up to the USMC at 17, where I was an Assaultman (bombs & rockets) in the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team. I then joined the Baltimore Police Department in 2003, because I was always going to be a cop and let’s deal with my honesty – it was fun and thrilling and powerful.

I went to tons and tons of schools, fighting and paying for everything myself, but after completing a Masters and the skills that come along with that, compounded by horrors we see on TV, I really began to critically evaluate what we are fundamentally doing in policing and what result that has. It is clear that result oppresses the most disenfranchised of our people and we just cannot do it that way. So let’s talk, let’s improve, and hopefully, people will force the politicians to get me or someone like me in a position to enact reform.

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TC: So first things first, I wanted to revisit this year’s Baltimore uprising or riot – the semantics obviously dependent on who you are, and your politics. In your opinion, what were the short-term and long-term causes of this? Indeed, Freddie Gray’s death was the spark that lit the fire in many people’s eyes. But such a reaction does not exist in a vacuum. What caused this, and what do you think was the result? What will history say about it, in 20, 50 years?

MW: I go with uprising, for the record – that’s what we are doing right now and that was just a part of that overall societal awakening. The short-term cause of the Baltimore uprising was complete mismanagement by the Mayor, BPD, and Maryland State government. The spark was in Mondawmin mall. In Baltimore, the kids ride public buses and there is a connecting hub at Mondawmin. Due to poor intell and management, the buses were shut down and kids were trapped there, far from home. Those kids were met by the police surrounding them as an occupying force, trapping them from home, armed, and ready for conflict.

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I can’t say I would not fight when someone clearly came to fight, especially as a scared kid. Long-term, we are simply boiling over with injustice in America. And really I’m surprised it has taken this long, once I started taking a deeper look. The oppression of the weakest in our society always results in eventual uprising. What is the result, so far? I don’t know. Nothing? No one cared about Gilmor homes a week before Freddie Gray and no one cares about it now. It will remain a struggle to fight against this, but I really hope that in 20-50 years, this is seen as the spark to the second civil rights movement.

TC: One of the things you’re quite familiar with is the drug trade, and how that affects police work and police culture overall. Now coming from a very social theory perspective, “the war on drugs,” and “just say no,” seemed to essentially give a reason to police the poor and the disenfranchised even more. Moreover, it seemed to burden those who have the least capabilities, into “being responsible” for the negative consequences of drug consumption – which is more of a societal problem, rather than strictly an individual one. Could you please address that – drugs and narcotics – and the relationship between those things and how the police interact with the poor?

MW: Yes, I’m very familiar with the drug trade. I took no less than twenty training courses on narcotics, was a street narcotics enforcement detective then later, and major case narcotics detective before being promoted. What I want to address right away is that there is no reason to sugarcoat it, it does not just seem to give the police carte blanche on the disenfranchised – it absolutely does. This is incredibly easy to see in the statistics and just through observation.

Until the war on drugs, the prison population just about mirrored the general population and was then obviously largely white. Since the war on drugs and overcriminalization in general, the institutionalized racism, fear of blacks, and society’s overall sentiments about the poor and minorities were given the tools to come to the surface. And we now see the prisons filled with blacks and other minorities.

This is not some strange coincidence. We know that whites, and really any group of humans, use drugs at about the same rate, and always have. Somehow there is now a sickening number of non-violent drug offenders, who are mainly minorities, filling the prisons of the country that imprison more of their citizens, in the land of the free, than any other country.

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TC: What, if anything, do you think the public at large would be surprised about, with regard to how the police interact with the poor? But aside from that, there are some who believe – with good rationale and argument – that given the history of the police in the country, their essential function are to be the protectors of white supremacy? Do you think that’s a valid argument to make? And why or why not?

MW: The public being so surprised is what surprises me most. That surprise is that I am saying that the black community has not been lying to you all of these years. Maybe I thought they were as well. But over time and seeing it first hand, these stories are true. I do not know of a single report I have made which has not already been stated by someone in a poor community.

Everything you’ve heard rapped about, written, and spoken that alleges police did some outrageous shit, happened somewhere in this country – some of those offenses, an uncountable amount of times. The amount of illegal searches on the black community is staggering. Neil deGrasse Tyson even talks about how often he was approached, and really can we find a better human being on the planet? The crazy part is that for most of white America this concept is foreign, it is even incomprehensible, as the number of illegal searches cannot be calculated in relation to themselves because you cannot divide by zero.

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I am not sure that there is a sound argument to the protection of white supremacy as intentional. What I really think is that everything is that way. Everything is structure by the whites who stole this land, imported slaves, and limited rights of minorities, into the very fabric of our functioning of a society. I don’t think many individuals are consciously aware of that now, they are largely carrying out what they have been taught. We are largely taught what to think, not how to think. Once you critically evaluate how we function in this country, the racism invades everything.

TC: Okay – with regard to the argument of how the history of the police affects the culture today. One of the duties of police during slavery was to catch slaves. So I think it isn’t lost in the American imagination that black bodies represent something that is traditionally criminalized. That is to say, the history extends far beyond the war on drugs.

Now given that context, and given that we can barely go a news cycle without some sinister incident where the police and a black body is pronounced dead or something of the sort, are black and brown and poor communities – and how those communities intersect – justified in saying that the police are more bad than good? Are they justified in believing that “good cops” are few and far between, and oftentimes if there are any, they probably leave the job?

MW: I think it is completely a part of the fabric of American society to fear the black person, especially the black man. Where I waver a little is that people fear everything they do not understand. That leads me to question the motivations, maybe the ignorance is the underlying problem. By ignorance, this also carries over into the policy, laws, training, et cetera of law enforcement.

Even in academia, criminal justice is embarrassingly led by ideology and not facts or reproducible science. That ideology at the root of the creation of the criminal justice system, is the ideology of ignorant people who feared what they did not understand, what they saw as others, as an inferior species. We know that this is not true – race is just a set of genetic variables. We know that the foundation of criminal justice thinking is flawed, but nothing is being done about it.

To address the second half of that question, I do not have definitive evidence, but I am confident in saying that if I were black, in a poor community, I would be more afraid of the cops than probably anyone else. The lack of accountability may be the largest determiner there, though. The “good” cops are an anomaly.

I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself once I finally started to realize that. The “good” cops, like Joe Crystal, who report things and see them right away, do not last very long – they either quit or get railroaded. There were twelve bad cops in McKinney, not one .[“McKinney” refers to a Texas incident where a white cop sat on a young black girl.] And while my record is impeccable, my resume ideal, I was not a “good” cop when I was in. I had to stand outside of the blue wall before I saw its immensity, much like how many other members of LEAP explain it as well.

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TC: Let’s talk a little bit more about LEAP because I think people have a general understanding of what it is – if they know it. But for those who aren’t familiar with it, tell us a little bit more. When did it start, what are its aims, etc.?

MW: LEAP is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and they are comprised of former cops, prosecutors, judges, professors, and more who see the evil of drug prohibition. I have to give the company line, so to say, because I don’t have enough experience within the organization to speak authoritatively. They came to me after hearing me speak out, so they are obviously paying attention to what is going on. The company line is at leap.cc but from my experience with the leaders, LEAP was primarily focused on ending the drug war and ending the criminalization of consensual adult agreements, in general.

With the need for complete police reform surfacing, LEAP is looking to expand and I hope to be a large part of that. They were looking for a youth infusion to help guide real reform, and I am trying to fulfill that role. Confidential police reporting of corruption, outside use of force investigations, policy reform, training reform, public speaking, and more are expanding concepts for LEAP. The outside investigations are something that I think is critical and that really needs to be pushed.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

TC: That’s very good to know. Now, in your opinion, what should ordinary citizens be doing? Sometimes it honestly comes across as there are multiple Americas, and there are a whole lot of people – notably white and oftentimes middle-class – who completely come off as willfully ignorant to the plight of poor communities of color.

It seems almost daunting and discouraging to believe that people aren’t aware of what’s going on. Or rather, what has always been going but is now more heightened because of social media – which has broken down some of the gatekeeping of traditional media. So why should ordinary, white, middle-class Americans care about this? It’s sad I have to ask the question but it seems like it’s a question worth asking.

MW: It is a perfect question, as it is also where I struggle the most. We have a run of great science communicators which have helped society understand the importance of science. The previously mentioned, Neil deGrasse Tyson, probably the greatest since Carl Sagan. We need to find a way to be effective communicators of racism and police reform. How do we do that? I am trying desperately to do that. The fine line is what I fear.

When I go with my heart and get ultra-liberal, I’m going to lose those who may have listened because of my physical appearance and service. Conversely, I also need the black community to trust me, to push for me or someone like me to get the power in politics for actual reform. One misspeak and understandably, I could lose that delicate trust.

The ordinary citizen needs to keep this discussion going. I am not saying I am some authority, but listen to what we are saying in the movement. Just give us a minute and I think it becomes very clear for anyone other than those who are just holding onto the bigotry, and sometimes that behavior needs to be treated with ridicule to end. This ignorance you speak of should be ridiculed. And in my opinion, it is completely unacceptable, as the only way to not have empathy for the black community is to be willfully ignorant. I cannot tell you how many family and friends I have lost because of this, but those people are not family or friends.

We should all care about this movement because it is a movement about equality. It is a movement about strengthening the fabric of our society. It is about making less poor people, less problems. It is about becoming one, and using empathy and science to make changes which will improve the safety of everyone in America.

Does white America want to go to Baltimore, watch the fireworks, and not be scared of what can happen? Okay then, lets talk about how to do that and do what actually works, even if that means giving up a little bit of white power and white privilege. Even for a racist white who has that fear of some random black man raping their daughter, that won’t happen if he is in college and signing your paycheck.

Flickr / Fibonacci Blue
Flickr / Fibonacci Blue

TC: I guess that’s the reality of being in social justice – you’ll lose some friends along the way. But I’ve also always believed that any cause that doesn’t cost you something, is probably not worth fight for.

Lastly Michael, what is your vision for the kind of police reform you seek? And perhaps even more than that, how will this vision affect the kind of America you want to live in? And is there really hope? Or are we just caught in a cycle of power where we trade one power holder for another? Can the brutal police culture of this country be transformed, and what will it take?

MW: Being in social justice is something I never thought I would be doing. I was really enjoying my quiet life of school, work, and family. But in this household we all agree that it is worth fighting for. So my vision of perfect policing is decentralized, monitored by the public (yes, I mean with complete access), and problem oriented. That’s largely tentative, but we need to study the issue without being clouded by ideology. I really think that this can be accomplished and it would be really easy if the federal government would make a few painful changes.

The absolute most important issue is ending drug prohibition and over criminalization. Most of the names that we call out, Freddie Gray, Tyrone West, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and more can be immediately prevented by taking away some of the policies which enable police to express their own biases and prejudices and then cover them in a veil of legality. The vast majority of police violence and participation in the school to prison pipeline is rooted in drug prohibition.

I have estimated that 90% of my police work was drug-related. The vast majority of “black on black” crime is rooted in the drug trade, just like how so much violence was white on white, during alcohol prohibition. So what about black on black crime? End the drug war. If you care about black on black crime, poverty, oppression, abuse, fatherless homes, et cetera, end the damn war we have on our citizens. That won’t end institutionalized racism, but it will take away the biggest facilitator of it.

In order to change the drug policy, we need the people to speak, and the only way I can see that occurring is through a constitutional amendment to take the money out of politics. This is being done at WolfPac and they desperately need your support. The politicians do not serve your interests. I do not care what they tell you, they serve the interest of donors and do you really think the donors care about the oppression of minorities? Step 1: Return the power of the people via WolfPac. Step 2: End drug prohibition. Step 3: Policy reform.

The reason I am pessimistic about change without those things is because it will depend upon the individual politicians making changes. That may work sporadically, but has no longevity. We need a constitutional amendment to lock in the changes this generation will achieve. TC mark


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