Baltimore police plainclothes units now in uniform, marked cars

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said it was done to increase officers' visibility in the community


By Justin Fenton
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Police Department has ordered most of its plainclothes units into uniform and assigned them to work out of marked cars, the latest shift in the agency’s approach to the controversial policing style.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison confirmed the change, and said it was done to increase the visibility in the community of officers in the District Action Teams, or plainclothes units.

A Baltimore Police promotional ceremony in 2018. (Photo/Baltimore Police Department/Facebook)
A Baltimore Police promotional ceremony in 2018. (Photo/Baltimore Police Department/Facebook)

“We want to make sure we have the maximum visibility,” Harrison said. “We want them to be highly engaged with members of the community, whether in an enforcement capacity or community policing.”

Plainclothes officers differ from undercover officers, who assume a false identity. Instead, plainclothes officers conduct investigations and surveillance wearing street clothes, trying to blend in while not having to answer 911 calls. Known over the years in many corners of Baltimore as “knockers” or “jumpout boys,” the units have long been touted by police commanders over the years as being the most crucial to going after criminals.

But they’ve also long been associated with the largest number of complaints and misconduct. The officers of the Gun Trace Task Force — and the others charged in the fallout of the scandal — operated in the plainclothes units of the department for years, in many cases committing crimes on other assignments in the department before coming together on the gun unit.

Following the federal racketeering indictment against the GTTF officers, then-Commissioner Kevin Davis ordered plainclothes units into uniformed patrol. “I’m not a big fan of these modified uniforms, these tactical vests, the T-shirts, the jeans, the baseball caps,” Davis said at the time. “I don’t think it represents our profession the way it should, and I’m doing away with it.”

A few months later he created the District Action Teams, who worked in uniform but were charged with doing proactive investigative work.

The Police Department under subsequent regimes changed its apparel again, putting the teams in a modified uniform of khakis or military-style tactical pants with vests that say “POLICE” across the chest.

In June, the New York Police Department disbanded its anti-crime plainclothes units and transitioned them into assignments including the detective bureau, neighborhood policing, and other assignments.

“When you look at the number of anti-crime officers that operate within New York City, and when you look at a disproportionate, quite frankly, number of complaints, shootings—and they are doing exactly what was asked of them,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said at the time. “I think we can do better. I think that policing in 2020 is not what it was in five, 10, 20 years ago.”

In brief comments Thursday afternoon, Harrison did not say that the mission of the District Action Teams was changing.

“It’s making sure we’re biggest bang for our buck and having the maximum visibility effect to deter as many crimes as we can, because we’re being visible, being highly engaged, being highly responsive to citizens needs,” Harrison said.

Harrison has previously stressed the need for proactive — but constitutional — policing.

“There is a level of proactive policing that has to be done in this community and every community,” Harrison told The Baltimore Sun last year, “in order to prevent crime and displace it and apprehend people who commit it. Otherwise we’re only being responsive, we’re not being proactive in prevention.”

In the late 2000s, police leaders created the Violent Crimes Impact Division, which had nearly 300 detectives working in plainclothes. Last year, the District Action Teams counted about 100 officers.

Beyond the District Action Team units, the Police Department has other officers that work in plainclothes such as those assigned to federal task forces or the Regional Auto Theft Taskforce.

©2020 The Baltimore Sun

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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