Archive for category: Journalism

Ain’t no justice. It’s just us.

18 Dec
December 18, 2015

March 1992 Twigg Simon Bal Sun Article

In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business.

In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored.  In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was considerable discussion about the criminality of the victim, as if by diminishing his human worth and highlighting his failings, a police-wagon death was somehow deserved.

Robert Eugene Privett, 29, died in Baltimore police custody in March 1992. There was no uprising and no riot. Coverage of the death produced no civic outrage. And a Baltimore State’s Attorney also took the matter to a grand jury and emerged with no indictments — not for depraved-heart second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Not even for reckless endangerment.

It was death that just slipped quietly below the waves.

A police reporter for nearly a decade by then, I was certain it would.  I knew it once I heard prosecutors and union lawyers both mitigating the outcome with talk of the victim’s enlarged spleen, his drug use, his HIV status, effectively constructing a legal hole so large that a truck could be run through the center of the case.

The greater truth is that Freddy Gray is in no way unique or remarkable. Not in Baltimore, and not anywhere else in urban America. He comes to us amid a policing culture debased by thirty years of open warfare on the city poor — a conflict that has allowed, if not actually required, officers to see a large share of the men, women and children they are policing as the enemy, as arrest stats, as very much less than human.

Mr. Privett was white, by the way.  The desire to construct the Freddy Gray narrative along purely racial lines is understandable — Baltimore is a majority black city, and further, people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, who are the specific, targeted cohort in the drug war — but it is nonetheless not an entirely honest construction.

Anyone who has watched drug prohibition applied in my city’s poor white or mixed neighborhoods — in O’Donnell Heights or Morrell Park, Pigtown or pre-gentrifying Remington — understands fully that the battle claimed against dangerous narcotics long ago morphed into a full-blown war on our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, regardless of race.  I recently happened to find myself the only white fellow on a New Yorker festival panel on race and I tried to make this point gently — to acknowledge that while people of color suffer police violence disproportionately, they are not alone.  And that class warfare, as much as racism, now underlies our savage, repetitive reliance on law-and-order brutalities.

“Then how is it that we never hear about white people being victims?” asked a fellow panelist.

I told her I had covered cases in Baltimore, that I had seen the war on drugs play itself out against poor whites and blacks alike. She looked at me with disbelief and disappointment, as if I had obliviously blurted that all lives matter.

Make no mistake: racism is still good fuel for much of the brutality. Moreover, I understand the natural inclination to view the whole of the nightmare of institutionalized police violence through the prism of race. From that perspective, poor white victims are indeed less useful as martyrs for a movement that begins by affirming for black life. But America’s misuse of the drug war to overpolice and beat down its poor is simply bigger, and more complicated, than race alone. The hue of the six defendants in the Gray prosecutions suggests this.  And the fact that the Robert Eugene Privetts of the world were going to their deaths in the back of Baltimore police wagons decades ago affirms as much.

I waited for a verdict in the first Freddy Gray prosecution before posting this.  I didn’t want to add to pretrial foment or mangle the specifics of the present case with those of the distant past.  But I’m writing now, in light of a jury’s inability to find any guilt whatsoever in the death of Mr. Gray in police custody.

Fair-minded people can argue about whether sufficient intent was proven to justify a manslaughter conviction, or whether this particular officer was more or less complicit in what happened to Mr. Gray.  But if, over the ensuing trials, our justice system determines that a prone, unresponsive human being can be legally ignored for nearly an hour by the authorities who have taken custody of him, well then, what exactly is the law saying to us as citizens? In a civilized republic, a law officer, in taking custodial responsibility of a fellow citizen, must do all he or she can to transport that citizen safely and attentively. If the law in the Freddy Gray cases allows otherwise, without sanctioning those who so abjectly fail that test, then our police wagons and jail cells will continue to be bodied for another couple decades.

Baltimore failed Robert Privett entirely.  Again, there were no indictments for reckless endangerment as he rolled around Southeast Baltimore for over an hour, pleading for medical help and dying of a ruptured spleen. The wagon man made his HIV-status into a bad joke. The state’s attorney then failed him and the city grand jury failed him.  His fellow citizens failed him as well, in that in 1992, the hue and cry against overpolicing, the drug war and mass incarceration wasn’t yet on the horizon. A series of articles covered the case in The Sun, but produced little reaction from any quarter.  Privett was The Other.  Some dope fiend. With AIDS.  Fuck him.

And now Mr. Gray.

If Baltimore today can’t figure out how to legally hold accountable the law officers who failed for nearly an hour to secure medical assistance for a man in their custodial care — at least to the point of declaring that they failed in their duty and recklessly endangered a fellow citizen — then we will have stayed the course. And twenty years from now, amid some other wagon or jail death, someone else will be posting old Freddy Gray stories and explaining that there is nothing new under the sun.


Mr. O’Malley’s Bad Math

18 May
May 18, 2015

In 2000, as Martin O’Malley took over as mayor of Baltimore and promised to bring crime under control, there was worry on the part of some in the city that the zero-policing, broken-windows strategies he hoped to import from New York might result in a culture of mass arrest and a dimunition of civil liberties.

A year later, after Police Commissioner Ed Norris had trimmed 43 murders to drop Baltimore under the 300-homicide-a-year mark for the first time in a decade, Mr. O’Malley could note  — and did note to the New York Times — that the achievement had come without any corresponding increase in the rate of arrest.

“It never happened,” the new mayor said, proudly.  “We turned the murder rate by doing a better job of arresting the hard-core criminals.”

And they had.  And though Mr. O’Malley at that time claimed an annual arrest total of 78,000 — it would eventually be recorded as 8,000 more than that — he was justified in contending that his administration had made a meaningful and substantial reduction in the murder rate and had done so without resorting to the mass arrests and overpolicing that his opponents had feared.

The quote was telling in that the new mayor clearly understood that while much was being claimed for the Guiliani-Bratton policing methods in New York, there could be a civic cost to indulging in an excess of street arrests in communities that had already come to look upon the Baltimore department with considerable distrust.  Mr. O’Malley was instead citing quality over quantity, and making that a hallmark of his new administration.

As a Baltimore resident and someone who had covered crime in the city, I was impressed.  Now, Mr. O’Malley said, looking ahead, the task was to reduce the murder rate below 200.  His political campaign had promised a ceiling of 175 city murders by 2002, and Commissioner Norris, a veteran detective and supervisor from the NYPD, had clearly re-established retroactive investigation as a departmental priority.  In Mr. O’Malley’s first year in office, the clearance rate of current-year murders improved from little more than a third of the total in 1999 to over half of the 2000 cases cleared.  Because of aggressive warrant service on old cases from previous years, which allowed the department to credit clearances without counting crimes, the less-meaningful public number was even fatter for outside consumption, even ridiculously so.  But still, the trend seemed promising.

The next year, the murder rate stayed constant, and the following year, the same, each offering only slight declines over the success of 2000.  The assault rate, too, stayed relatively constant for the first three years of Mr. O’Malley’s mayoralty, meaning that all measure of city violence seemed to at least be trending in the same direction.

True, the O’Malley administration had played one crisp game with the stats at the onset — giving a 13 percent bump to the crime stats for the last year of predecessor Kurt Schmoke’s administration and setting themselves to reap the benefit.  Arguing that an internal review of Mr. Schmoke’s last year of crime fighting had revealed a substantial number of felonies that were downgraded improperly, the O’Malley administration went to labored effort to restore those stats to the FBI’s uniformed crime totals, notably dumping thousands more aggravated assaults in the 1999 totals.  Henceforth, any thinning down of  those fatted numbers would be credited to Martin O’Malley.  The new mayor had given himself a double-digit jump on any Baltimore Miracle to come.

But again, the first year of the O’Malley anti-crime campaign was legit, and promising.  Murders had come down, the clearance rate had gone up, and all of this had been achieved without some draconian policy of mass arrest afflicting Baltimore’s poor, as many had feared.  The assault stats, too, seemed plausible for those first three years, and certainly, the drop in the murder rate was honest; no police commander anywhere has figured out how to hide the bodies.

But in 2003, something happened. Something ugly. Confronted by a murder rate that was no longer falling with as much gusto after the initial success of three years earlier, Mr. O’Malley’s staff began to badger Mr. Norris for more dramatic improvement and to do so in ways that made Mr. Norris angry and uncomfortable. Heralded for his initial success in the city, Mr. Norris could not guarantee crime reductions of a kind promised publicly by the mayor, regardless of what hectoring came from Mr. O’Malley and his aides. Nor did those aides seem remotely aware of what could and could not be done to legitimately suppress crime with given resources.

And something else happened in 2003:  Mr. O’Malley tossed the Fourth Amendment out a window and began using the police department to sweep the corners and rowhouse stoops and, in a lament that Mr. Norris offered me years later,  “lock up damn near everyone.”  Total arrests soared to 114,000 in a city of little more than 600,000, an increase of more than 30 percent over the restraint in which the mayor had taken pride after his first year.  Instead, Baltimore was on its way to being successfully sued by rights groups for a mass and willful violation of its citizens’ civil liberties.

Eventually, a disgusted Mr. Norris quit, taking a job as State Police Superintendent.  A new chief, Kevin Clark — also an NYPD veteran and also trained in the techniques that had won acclaim in that city — took the helm.  And even more than with Norris, mayoral aides began to interpose between the chief and his subordinates; Comstat meetings turned aggressive in demanding better numbers, and soon, those better numbers — much better numbers — began to appear in public.

But not for murder.

In 2003, Mr. O’Malley came no closer to his promised goal of dropping Baltimore slayings to 175.  In fact, the city suffered a setback with 17 more homicides recorded than the previous year. But incredibly, because the trend was in no way consistent with a rising murder rate, the city’s assault rate nose-dived dramatically, falling by more than 25 percent.   Yes, in the fourth year of Martin O’Malley’s mayoralty, suddenly and inexplicably, the victim of an assault in Baltimore, Maryland was more than 25 percent more likely to die from that assault.  Moreover, while the murder rate would continue to climb modestly for the remainder of O’Malley’s years at City Hall, the numbers of recorded assault would never again approach those of prior years, eventually reaching a dramatic low during the last year of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure, finishing a full 30 percent below the assault rate recorded even in 2000, when he achieved his most substantial improvement in the murder rate.  In that same period, the murder rate, did not fall by 30 percent.  It rose by 6 percent.

Statistically, if you understand the dynamic, this is no mere Baltimore Miracle.  This is water into wine.

There were three possible explanations:

1) Baltimore assaults had become 25 percent more lethal between 2002 and 2003 and stayed that way, with the city’s criminals becoming more dangerous shots with better weapons, more savage with straight blades, or more furious with lead pipes.  Alas, no medical examiners seemed to notice any overt trend in the severity of the wound patterns.

2) The medical community in the city, largely represented by its trauma units, were now losing 25 percent more bleeders than before.  In 2003, suddenly, John Hopkins and the UM trauma units were going backwards to the dark ages in terms of emergency care.  But no, they were saving as many of the wounded that came through the E.R. doors.


3)  Unable to make the murders disappear as promised, and with the fledgling effort to reduce that benchmark stalled and now, in 2003, actually going the wrong way, the O’Malley administration made many of the assaults disappear.  Robberies, too.  Rapes as well.  They began juking stats.

If it was so, did anyone say anything?

Well, Commissioner Clark for one, seemed to take some real notice.  In fact, looking back at the 2002 stats — a year before the dramatic decline in assaults began, he noticed an equally stark decline in two other felony categories: robberies and rapes.   Robberies in 2002 dove by nearly 20 percent and rapes in Baltimore fell by more than 50 percent in a single year, yet Clark noted that the overall 911 calls were running five percent higher.  It all seemed improbable.

Clark, who would run afoul of City Hall and be fired the following year after being cleared in a domestic violence dispute, later told the redoubtable Jayne Miller of WBAL-TV’s investigative team that he ordered some sample audits of robberies and rapes, paying particular attention to the large number of unfounded reports.  Those audits, which Miller actually obtained for WBAL three years later as Mr. O’Malley was undertaking his gubernatorial run while claiming extraordinary crime reductions in Baltimore, revealed that of 738 “unfounded” robbery reports, 109 — or 15 percent — were reclassified after auditors found they were actually, well, robberies.  The figures for rape were worse — 20 percent of the 331 “unfounded” rapes were actual sexual assaults that had simply been dumped, according to the audit provided to the reporter.

Worse from a systemic standpoint, Commissioner Clark told Miller, was the auditor’s discovery that anyone with access could go into the police department’s records and simply change the coding on documents, discounting them from crimes to unfounded reports, and leave no trace of the act.

The police commissioner called City Hall with the results of the audit.  It did not go well.  He would later tell Ms. Miller: “I was brought into a meeting. I sat therewith Matt Gallagher (director of operations for CitiStat), Deputy Mayor Michael Enright, and they were very annoyed, they were very unhappy with what had happened.”

Miller:  “When you presented this to the administration, to City Hall, you were instructed not to go any further?”

“Yes,” Clark responded.  “Deputy Mayor Enright clearly said they weren’t going to go any further because the mayor had already been out front and had told everyone nationally that Baltimore was leading the nation in the reduction of violent crime, and I think, at that time, it was something like 26 percent, and if suddenly we were to have an audit that showed the numbers were going to take some type of change, it would kind of leave him out to political scrutiny,” Clark said.

Confronted by the news report and Mr. Clark’s account, the O’Malley camp replied to this revelation simply by characterizing Mr. Clark as a disgruntled former employee.  They insisted that no meetings over any audit had occurred, though Mr. Enright, as deputy mayor, would not consent to any interview, according to Ms. Miller.

And yet Mr. Clark is at least partially corroborated by the fact that some of his audit leaked to the Baltimore Sun contemporaneously and was investigated and affirmed by reporter Justin Fenton. The dramatic unfounding of so many city rapes — police were only crediting 171 sexual assaults in 2002, while Mr. Clark’s audit was looking at 331 reports that had been marked as false — made for strong copy.  The Sun broke the story of the suppressed rape stats, but went no further to look at robberies.  Nor did they look into the dramatic declines in assaults the following year.

Commissioner Clark was gone by 2004, replaced by Leonard Hamm, a homegrown candidate for the post who displayed absolutely no wariness about any possible effort by his department to suppress crime stats.  Actually, it’s way worse than that; Commissioner Hamm surprised everyone by advocating for the suppression of crime reporting.  Publicly.

As the unrelenting Ms. Miller began digging up specific incidents of Baltimoreans who attempted to report crime and who, for their trouble, were blistered with hostile questions by police supervisors or otherwise denied the chance to file a report of a crime, Commissioner Hamm displayed astonishing nonchalance that reached its apogee when Ms. Miller produced shootings of people that were never actually written up as crimes. To be clear: These were Baltimoreans who were struck by bullets but were never reported as aggravated assaults or assault by shootings. No report, no crime.

In one Cherry Hill incident, investigating officers refused to investigate or report the shooting, saying they weren’t receiving sufficient cooperation from the two wounded victims.  To which the Baltimore Police Commissioner said — and, honestly, for all the Kafkaesque television drama with which I have been involved, I cannot possibly make this up — that the incident was handled appropriately and was not an isolated error.

Ms. Miller: “So, let me clear about this, if your officers get there and the victims don’t want to cooperate, the officers have the right to simply say this is unfounded?” Miller asked the commissioner.

“In some cases, yes,” Mr. Hamm responded.

This same Commissioner Hamm led the Baltimore department for the remainder of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure in Baltimore.

So then, to sum up, given Mr. Hamm’s predisposition to not taking shooting reports, and given his predecessor’s open acknowledgment that he was ordered to stand-down from any full-scale audit of  suppressed crime stats even after such irregularities were already discovered, as well as the confirmation of the suppressed rape cases by The Sun, and given as well Mr. O’Malley’s insistence on retroactively loading up his predecessor’s stats so as to advantage his own percentages, is there anyone still actually willing to believe that Martin O’Malley somehow made violent assaults go down by 30 percent in the same city where murders increased by six percent?  Or that crime went down 40 percent overall?  I mean normal, sensate people.  Not, say, the guys at the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, or Politico — all the folks for whom politics is a game of personalities and quotes that is in no way connected to anyone ever looking into, or solving, or failing to solve an actual fucking problem.  Those fellows will keep repeating this horseshit about a Baltimore Miracle until Mr. O’Malley goes up to 50 percent.  Then, I suppose, they’ll repeat that.

*        *        *

The standard replies from the O’Malley camp to all of this stacked and odorous improbability is two-fold:

1)  Simon is a sonofabitch and this is personal — just as they say it was personal for former Commissioner Clark when he alleged coming to them with suppressed stats, and presumably personal to Jayne Miller when she kept reporting on this dynamic and got Mr. Clark’s successor to openly acknowledge such suppression, and just as it was presumably personal to Justin Fenton of The Sun when he reported on all of the dumped rape complaints that Mr. Clark’s initial audit generated.  The enemies list here is wide and varied, but I will stipulate to the former accusation and be a sonofabitch on the right occasions.  As to the latter claim, what’s personal to me here is actually more important than Mr. O’Malley or his political future.

But first let’s deal with the second defense that Mr. O’Malley offers:

2) It’s never been proven.  In fact, we were audited.  We had our numbers checked.  Leave us alone with your accumulation of doubt and implausibility because the fact is, you can’t prove that we suppressed the stats, and we say we didn’t: “The charges we encounter every election season are akin to ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ ” Mr. O’Malley told the Washington Post five years ago. “No one’s ever come forward with reams of crime reports that were dropped in a dumpster or anything like that.”

It’s an interesting quote from Mr. O’Malley, a precise verbalization of what one might think is required to definitively prove that the claims of a Baltimore Miracle are rigged.   Where is the dumpster with the discarded reports?  Show and prove, or let the 40-percent reduction stand.

But of course, people have come forward including, notably, two of the three men who led Mr. O’Malley’s police department for most of his mayoralty.  One says he brought Mr. O’Malley’s closest aides actual evidence of cooked stats and was turned away, and the other says publicly he saw no problem whatsoever with suppressing crime reports.

Further, Mr. O’Malley’s repeated claims of any independent audit by anyone burnishing the credibility of his stats in some way are just, well, silly.  The FBI accepts the UCR data provided by state and local police agencies without intervention or scrutiny; no one goes back through the common assaults to see how many aggravated assaults were downgrounded or why, just as no one looks up the unfounded reports to determine by so many shootings or rapes or robberies were dumped as fraudulent report.  Supporters of Mr. O’Malley have cited as many as 11 “internal audits” of his Baltimore Miracle as confirming the accuracy of underlying statistics.  But of course, those internal audits would have to have been conducted under the authority of either Mr. Clark, who is openly saying the opposite, that he was thwarted in his effort to fully audit numbers that he found dubious, or even more absurdly, Mr. Hamm, who openly acknowledged that he was actually advocating for and engaging in the suppression of honest-to-god felonies.

Asked by Ms. Miller about an independent audit in 2006, amid the gubernatorial campaign, Mr. O’Malley was unequivocal:  “No, I’m not asking for an independent audit.”

Bottom line is that right now, we have the numbers that we have, and anyone looking at them can do the math using the data that Mr. O’Malley and his police department have generated.  That’s all that can be assessed.  But if it’s garbage in, then it’s garbage out.  And, yes, I’m saying from the moment you know that the O’Malley administration piled 3,000 more aggravated assaults onto his predecessor’s totals, then had his own assault numbers nosedive 30 percent in the same years that murders rise, it’s garbage in.

As to the first line of defense by the O’Malley camp, let me go back to something I said earlier, in the interview with the Marshall Project:  The hard-on here is not for Martin O’Malley.  Not at all.  My politics are generally to the left of the Democratic Party, so unless the Republicans figure out how to bring back LaFollette or the libertarians figure out a way to embrace a better political platform than selfishness, I’m going to be voting for the Democratic nominee.  If it’s Martin O’Malley, he likely has my vote.  And while I found his peformance in Baltimore as an anti-crime crusader to be wholly lacking, destructive and disingenuous, I think his general fiscal management of the state, his support for gay rights and his abhorrence of the death penalty are all commendable. Win some, lose some, and we all need to admit that even in the best of times, voting in this republic always owes a little something to Mr. Hobbes.

If I have a strategic political fear, it’s this:  Our modern media culture over the last fifteen years may have been too fraile and eviscerated for newspapermen or broadcasters to unspool the time and manpower to do the independent audit that Mr. O’Malley’s astonishing claims of crime reduction deserved.  It was hard enough for The Sun, down so many bodies, to break the rape-report scandal, or for Jayne Miller, working at a local TV affiliate, to get Mr. Clark to offer up his audit results, or Mr. Hamm’s sledgehammer admission.  And sadly, maybe the whole thing just doesn’t justify more resources for an honest discussion about Baltimore policing strategy, or to settle a tit-for-tat debate in a Maryland election cycle. On the other hand, if Mr. O’Malley were to actually become a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, then I have to worry, from my perch on the left, about the Koch Brothers or some other deep-pocketed players paying all the investigators anyone would ever need to run FOIA requests on three years of Baltimore police reports, pulling all the unfoundeds, and simply talking to all the surviving complainants, or further still, pulling all of the larcenies and common assaults and finding all of the unjustified downgrades.  That’s the dumpster dive right there — the one that Mr. O’Malley mentions, and perhaps assumes no one would go back and dig through because, well, no reporter ever really did.  But the stakes are so much higher when it comes to the American presidency, and opposition-research at the national level pays so much better than journalism.   Even so, let me say that the tactical fears of a left-leaning Democratic voter aren’t enough to make me pick this fight.

No, I’m writing this mess because I covered crime and the drug war and wrote up what I learned in newsprint and books and television drama for 25 years.  It’s what I spent my adult life doing, and overall, I watched while zero tolerance and mass incarceration and broken windows became the predominant political slogan — not merely in recapitalized, rebuilt financial capitals like New York, where mass affluence itself did more to change the landscape than mass arrest, but in second-tier industrial cities that could ill-afford to brutalize a much greater share of its poorer populace.  And for the first time since I began reporting on this stuff, the worst of those philosophies is now, finally, on the defensive.

It’s true that Mr. O’Malley didn’t invent the drug war, or the overpolicing that preceded him in different forms — which I specifically spoke to in my original remarks to the Marshall Project — and it’s also fair to note that a lot of people, left and right, and not just Mr. O’Malley, bought the Guliani-Bratton line and exported it nationwide.  But it’s also true that the Martin O’Malley who finished that first promising year as mayor with a meaningful decline in the murder rate, an improvement in the homicide clearance rate and an unwillingness to resort to mass arrests and street sweeps — that fellow disappeared when the going got tough.  Two years later, when Baltimore’s murder rate proved too stubborn, what took over at City Hall was a faithless disregard for police work itself, and a real impatience with the slow but necessary process of improving and reforming a troubled department.  Instead, the wagons rolled and the jail was filled, and a lot of marginal, and even many innocent people in the most vulnerable communities in Baltimore were targeted.

Regrettably, with political worlds still left to conquer, Mr. O’Malley is still out there, nationally, defending a zero-tolerance policy that didn’t help make the city much safer, but taught the Baltimore department things it never should have learned.  And those lessons — like the ones taught by his unconstitutional street sweeps — will be with us here in Baltimore a long time.

In January 2007,  a decorated Baltimore officer named Troy Chesley was shot to death while off-duty in a botched robbery by a suspect who had, four days earlier carjacked a green van in the same neighborhood.  We know this only because the victim of that earlier carjacking called police after the officer’s murder and said he had tried to report the earlier crime but been summarily dismissed by the responding officers.  His claims of having been a victim of a major felony were not reported, and of course, Officer Chesley, went into his fatal encounter having never seen an incident report or a lookout on the stolen van.  Less than two weeks later, Mr. O’Malley was inaugurated as Maryland’s governor.

And he’s still with us, still climbing political hills, and still insisting by dint of juked stats that it was worth it, that zero-tolerance wasn’t the awful bargain that it actually was in Baltimore.  He’s arguing that he had to break some eggs to make an big, glorious, 40-percentage-point omelet, and it’s that argument — and not Mr. O’Malley — that matters here. Zero tolerance and the drug war and this American gulag we’ve built need to end before they coarsen and brutalize the American spirit further.  So, hey, I’m sorry, Marty, but there’s no goddamn omelet.


Reprinted without permission

08 Jan
January 8, 2015


Ted Lippman (1929-2014)

17 Dec
December 17, 2014


It’s hard to scale the heights of requiem without stumbling into a deep ravine of sentiment and cliche, and I know some will measure what follows against the known place of the old Baltimore Sun in the pantheon of American newspapering. No, we were not a Washington Post of the last late century, with Bradlee’s feet on the desk and Watergate dueling scars adorning a set jawline, or a New York Times for the Middle Atlantic, our paper-of-record certitude enshrining our every effort. We certainly weren’t some rough-and-tumble tabloid squealing about headless bodies in topless bars, or even a Chicago broadsheet or Hearst rag for which Hildy Johnsons might labor with gin on their breath and cigarette burns between their typing fingers.

We were pretty staid. Too staid, perhaps, and a little too proud of a noble, grey history. We were often accused by our younger sibling, the Evening Sun, of pretense and pomposity. H. L. Mencken, who we vaguely claimed but who had in fact labored for most of his career at the evening edition, remarked famously that the morning paper’s scribes wrote like accountants. Even when I arrived in 1982, there was still some of that. And yes, we puffed ourselves up with the idea that what we wrote mattered.  The wall-sized photograph of the Baltimore skyline in the fifth-floor conference room was crowned by The Sun’s light-for-all masthead and underlined by the affirmation: “The Baltimore Sun.  One of the world’s great newspapers.”

Evening Sun wags — and every last one, even the hacks who couldn’t write a lick, thought themselves a wag when compared to the morning paper’s Brooks Brothers-wearing, Washington-bureau-coveting pecksniffs — quickly fashioned a savage, get-over-yourselves reply: “The Evening Sun. One of the world’s newspapers.”

Having been hired straight out of college by The Sun, I might have done better, in the short run, to have landed at the evening paper, which held local coverage to be its bread and butter. By contrast, the morning staff was intensely hierarchical, and a boychild hired to be the junior cop reporter was staring at a couple years running the police districts, then a three- or four-year sojourn in a county bureau, then perhaps, an extra hand in Annapolis during the legislative session. If you jumped through all those hoops without falling on your ass, if you looked and dressed the part, and if you showed enough level-headed temperment to master The Sun demeanor, a Washington posting might just beckon. Or perhaps even one of the coveted foreign bureaus.

In previous decades, the newspaper had put a premium on Harvard men, and yes, there were a lot of bylines with waspish names, right down to the juniors and thirds, initials for given names and old family monikers lodged somewhere in the middle. There was, at the old Baltimore Sun, a certain code of employ.  The place smelled of a certain gracious, dry rectitude, with just a slight trace of formaldehyde. I think I smelled of something else, something more common to ordinary newspapering.

But damn, I was proud to be there in my twenty-second year, and yes, I aspired to join that long grey line. And yet the guardians of the old Sun, while polite and even tolerant at points, could be intimidating. Nothing made the young metro-desk proles go slack-jawed faster than the vision of a Price or an O’Mara gliding through the newsroom on home leave from the Paris or Jerusalem bureaus. These were men who closed hotel bars in Beirut and Rome, who buttonholed world leaders, who strutted through coronations and shooting wars.  And even more whispered and enigmatic was a newsroom visit by one of the kohaneem of the Sun’s inner temple, the editorial writers.

Mostly, these men — and for a long while they were mostly men, and very much white — would only deign to journey up from their fourth floor Holy of Holies and maneuver through the newsroom maze to consult with the National Desk or the Foreign Editor, or the top editors in their corner offices. There was nothing that a metro reporter could tell these gents about something as pedestrian as Baltimore, Maryland. The whole of the city was self-evident to these men, as were we who scurried through its political wards and police precincts.

I say this with no cynicism whatsoever.  I was a kid then, and the resumes of these giants were speckled with the great postings of American journalism. They had seen great happenings at close hand. And they had written of real spectacle and history, the stuff of real purpose.  Me, I was still waiting for the State Police barracks in Hagerstown to identify the second victim in that three-car fatal.

My favorite of the high priests was physically unprepossessing.  In fact, he was elfin.

Theo “Ted” Lippman, Jr. was a man who I managed to pass in the hallways and corridors three or four times a week.  He was never without a scrap or two of paper, always in mid-assemblage of a pithy column on politics or current events that ran to about 500-600 carefully chosen words and was lodged at corner left on the opinion page beneath the totem of staff editorials.  I wrote it long, goes the old newsroom saw, because I didn’t have time to write it short.  Lippman’s column was always so disciplined and tight, so keenly edited, that I imagined beads of blood forming on his forehead as he trimmed his way into ten or eleven column inches.  He was always worth the read.  Even more so when compared to many of the droning, this-bears-watching, yet-on-the-other-hand staff editorials perched atop his signed column.

Mr. Lippman was also an expert on the life and work of Mencken, the great essayist and skeptic who bestrode the joint Evening Sun-Morning Sun newsroom like a colossus. The Baltimore paper had not produced anyone as elemental to American culture and, though many had ceased to read Mencken as part of the literary canon, he remained the essential icon for those of us on Calvert Street.  For one thing, Mencken could turn a phrase; his memoirs and essays are often brilliant and, at points, genuinely timeless.  For another, we were all of us wandering the dim halls of an ancient ink-stained cloister, and such places demand at least one founding saint.

Ted Lippman’s editing of Mencken’s work, published several years before, marked him in my mind as more than one of the paper’s better political columnists.  He was an Author, a man of letters capable of assessing and framing the legendary work of the Great Sage.  That he had published other political biographies of Ed Muskie, Spiro Agnew and Franklin Roosevelt compounded my awe.

Moreover, Mr. Lippman’s knowledge of the American presidency seemed to be without peer.  He could conjure trends and historical precedent in fresh ways, and his column became a veritable provocation of theory and argument in presidential election years.  Before arriving at The Sun in 1965, he had been the Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution, the great Southern citadel of progressive change in the civil rights years. He had covered the March on Washington and King’s great oratory at the Lincoln Monument.  He had covered the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missle Crisis.  Old Axe-Handle himself, Lester Maddox, had derided Ted Lippman in print and by name as one of the “pinks, punks and eggheads” who were so foolishly serving godless communism in advocating for social justice and integration.

When we passed in The Sun’s hallways or found ourselves sharing an elevator, Mr. Lippman would invariably nod, offer a quiet how-are-you and proceed past. Never do I recall having the effrontery to venture more than a “good column today” or  some bland muttering about the weather. Mostly, I just smiled back and considered myself wanting in the eyes of one of the old Sun vanguard.  Not that I could bear to say much more to O’Mara, or Price, or any of the priestly class; I was still unwashed and unpromoted, still running the police districts and gathering string on ghetto murders, still donning blue jeans and polo shirts, still unable to sustain myself for more than twenty minutes straight as an apostle of The Sun way.  I was a reporter.  I worked with reporters; we spilled soup and coffee on ourselves, wrote too long for the newshole and then had our last grafs trimmed away.  This Lippman fellow — he was a journalist.

A Brunswick, Ga. native, he had a perfect, gentle drawl. He wore seersucker in the summer. And bow ties, for the love of Christ.  That’s right: The man could come correct in a fucking bowtie, looking as if he was ready for either the Scopes trial or the Pettis Bridge. Watching him, I actually conjured an entire fictive backstory for the man: Lippman, Jewish name. Southern heritage, though. A great great grandfather who was one of the sutlers following Sherman’s army into Georgia, then settling to embrace life on a small town square. Maybe a dry goods store. Then a couple generations of gentle assimilation along Atlanta’s Peachtree Street, until finally, young Theodore rebels just enough to tell his father that the family business will have to do without him, that he is a man of letters. And eventually, he writes his way to the top tier, an advocate for a new South and a careful, thoughtful observer of real history. Not that I had the courage to inquire directly. As I said, I don’t think I ever formed any sentence longer than a basic greeting or compliment, but it was enough: The sight of Ted Lippman moving past me in a hallway made me proud to work at my newspaper.

His daughter got to Calvert Street about six years after me, hired off the San Antonio Light by the Evening Sun.  She was a tall drink of water, too, seemingly towering in heels over her father in the rare moments when I saw them together. But don’t go there yet: She was married and so was I, and of course, she was Evening Sun. Our early interactions were spiced with the requisite amount of soft, familial snide that passed for inter-edition collegiality. The woman actually thought she worked for the better newspaper. Or at least, she carried it like that.

When the papers were merged and we were working on the same metro staff, I got to know her a bit better. I once spilled a coffee on her desk blotter and earned some playful wrath for it. I offered to buy a new blotter, she asked for a hardback copy of Homicide instead. When she published her first novel a few years later, I happily blurbed it. We did a bookstore signing together once in White Marsh. That sort of thing.

Years later, I was separated, out of a marriage. Her, too. Ignoring the fixed newsroom wisdom that for good of the human species, veteran reporters should never mate or reproduce, we began to date and, at some point, it was time to face the lady’s parents. The scenario, fraught enough under the usual circumstances, takes on added comedy when an ex-metro desk scribbler, and a cop reporter at that, shows up to claim the hand of the daughter of an old Sun sachem.  On the Calvert Street of Ted Lippman’s day, an editorial writer and signature columnist wouldn’t wipe his ass with a police reporter, especially one as badly dressed and unevenly tempered as some we might name.

By then, both of us had left The Sun. I was among the youngest journalists taking a 1995 buyout offered by the newspaper chain that had purchased the paper; Ted Lippman was among the oldest. The fact that I had taken up with Laura after publishing a couple books helped my cause somewhat; the television work was, of course, tinged with apostasy. And even for as much of a progressive as Ted Lippman managed to be in his own era — his 1970s beard alone was enough to make his insurance-salesman father apoplectic at the idea of his son’s possible leftist allegiances — I’m sure I was a lot for him to swallow. Once, at a family gathering in a Baltimore restaurant, I made a remark about having been called a Marxist in print by someone. My father in law didn’t hesitate.  “Well,” he asked, his face offering only bland curiosity, “are you a Marxist?”

It turned out the version I had fabricated of the Lippman family history had only small shards of truth. My wife’s great grandfather went to the southland a Jew, and was even a president of his Alabama temple. But his son got wise to his environs and reached adulthood as a Methodist, and the grandson, Ted Lippman, was so far removed from the sons of the covenant that he fairly broke out in a sweat at being confined to a synagogue for the exhausting, three-hour duration of my son’s bar mitzvah. Nonetheless, I spent my years as Ted’s son-in-law engaged in a prolonged effort to bring him back to the tribe, if only for comedy’s sake.  Cinephiles will remember the running gag in Cat Ballou, in which Cat’s rancher-father is convinced that his Native American farmhand is, like all of his race, certain to be among the ten lost Israelite tribes. “Shalom,” he continually greets the kid, much to the farmhand’s annoyance.

As it was with me, arriving at my father-in-law’s Delaware shore home, taking a seat on the sofa and interrupting his perusal of the Sunday morning political talkfests with as much Yiddishism as I could cram into ordinary sentences. “Gevalt, what kind of narishkeit is this you’re listening to? Wolfowitz is a behaima. This whole thing with the weapons of mass destruction? Bupkis. So, nu, what else is on? You have the remote?  Geviss.”

Alas, Ted Lippman never broke character. None of it stuck. Not a word.

His wit was dry, and always with that laconic Southern windup.  It was not the call-and-response banter of the East Coast; his best lines would be carefully set up, much as in his columns. Once, when Laura was trying to prevail on him to order carry-in sushi with the rest of us, her father refrained from any single negative assertion with regard to the eating of raw fish and seaweed, merely conveying looks of increasing perplexity and dismay.  And then finally, an hour later, eyes twinkling, as he opened the box flap of his dissenting order from Mancini’s:

“Pizza. Now this is American food.”

He was ever agreeable, unless either of his daughters wanted to argue with him, at which point he delighted in playing the provocateur. He would often back into outrageous statements and positions, then profess shock when Laura or Susan would go for the hook. Then he would reel them in with even more indefensible outrageousness. He consistently denied any childhood memories in which he was complicit or guilty in their eyes, insisting that he had no recollection of any such circumstance. When he let you know him, he was hilarious. And damned clever.  And just as I was proud to work at his newspaper, I was proud to find myself in his family.

I tried to hug him a few times. Jews hug. We do it with relations that we love and we do it with those that we don’t much like, because, hey, with the ones you don’t like, a warm wrap-around puts the schlemiel to shame for whatever mishegas he’s done to annoy you in the first place. And, too, family is family. At any moment the Cossacks may ride into town and carry off one or two of us.  So hug while you can.

I would throw an arm over Ted Lippman now and again because I loved him. And yeah, he would squirm a bit; Protestants aren’t adept at physical embrace, though to be fair, my mother-in-law, Madeline, took to it fine. But her husband? Cornered prey. Finally, on a morning of doorstep goodbyes, my sister-in-law broke everyone up:

“Well, if David’s going to hug Daddy, I suppose I’ll have to do it, too.”

And she did. After which her father looked on me as if I was turning his own children against him.

For fun, we debated politics. I would stake out a position to the left of the Democratic party and then fight from that fixed position against the encyclopedic knowledge of my father-in-law. By standards of my own argumentative family dialectic, it was gentle stuff. Mostly, we talked about The Sun, the newspaper’s struggles and the many buyouts that followed our own. We marked the departures, the forced retirements and finally the firings of so many people that we knew and cared about. There was no schadenfreude. Ted Lippman had been a Sun man in the halcyon era, when it meant something. And as a kid, I had at least been allowed a brief glimpse of the garden before the hissing snake of out-of-town ownership, the bite of the bad Wall Street apple, and the long fall from grace. In the last couple years, it pained me that I could offer less and less newsroom gossip to my father-in-law, or that what gossip I knew was about people too young to tickle his memories.

“Shame,” he would say, the single word sufficing for all that had happened to the newspaper.

He had tried to keep a hand in, to write a column or a book review now and again, to keep those muscles sharp.  But it got so bad that at one point, the op-ed editors — on orders from Chicago — were no longer paying even nominal fees for columns and essays. And Ted Lippman was a professional, and no professional writes for free.  When the paper was slow to pay for one of his last printed columns, my father-in-law, with Southern pride and patience, repeatedly called to inquire about the missing check. Finally, after months, he called the newspaper’s editor in chief directly:

“Tim?  This is Ted Lippman  I know now that you’re not going to pay me for the column, but I’m writing my memoir, and I’ve reached the exact place in the story where I need to know why you won’t pay me for the column.”

The check arrived a couple days later.

But he was a forgiving man, and if a fight ever wounded Ted Lippman, he never showed it. Not to me. He held no grudge against that editor slow to the petty cash drawer; in fact, the story of getting paid at last was worth more to him than the fee itself. The Lester Maddox column that railed against him stayed framed behind his desk for his whole career and into his retirement. Even the bosses with whom he had tangled at The Sun on matters of real significance were, in the end, benign colleagues when he spoke of them in memory.

As for me, the proto-Marxist, bear-hugging, television-hacking member of the rabbinate, I knew I was near enough to his heart when he gifted me all of his heavy clay poker chips and two decks of vintage playing cards featuring the high and mighty of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. These were touchstones of Herculean, late-night card contests featuring Price, O’Mara, Jenkins and the other grey legends, sacred relics rescued from a lost, fallen temple.

They are deeply prized.  As was he.




The endgame for American civic responsibility. Pt. I

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

I’m going to write something fresh about Ferguson, Missouri, and the once-extraordinary notion that law enforcement officers — uniquely authorized, trained and armed as they are to use lethal force against American civilians in peacetime as is necessary to serve the commonweal — need not be identified when they have in fact taken a human life.  The notion that police officers are entitled to anonymity after such an action is not merely anti-democratic; it is, in fact, totalitarian.  The idea that a police department, with all of its resources and sworn personnel, might claim to be unable to protect an officer from retribution, and therefore employ such anonymity to further protect the officer from his citizenry is even more astonishing.  And any police agency showing such institutional cowardice which might then argue its public should continue to come forward and cooperate with officers in police investigations and to trust in the outcome is engaged in little more than rank hypocrisy.  After all, if an armed and sworn officer — backed by all the sworn personnel of his agency, by the power of its prosecutorial allies, the law and the courts — is afraid, then why should any witness or party to any crime, unarmed and unallied as they are, be asked to come forward and participate publicly in the process?

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