On June 24, a former Baltimore Police Department officer named Michael Wood caused a stir online when he began tweeting some of the horrible things he claims to have seen during his 11 years on the job.

Washington Post reporter Radley Balko spoke with Wood about his allegations.

Two days later, the Baltimore Police Department, in a statement to WMAL radio, said Wood’s allegations were “serious and very troubling”.

“The Police Commissioner has made clear that the Baltimore Police Department will never tolerate malicious conduct.”

The release continued: “We hope that during his time as both a sworn member and as a sergeant with supervisory obligations, that Mr Wood reported these disturbing allegations at the time of their occurrence. If he did not, we strongly encourage him to do so now, so that our Internal Affairs Division can begin an immediate investigation. In a recently published letter to the Baltimore Sun, the Police Commissioner made clear that his reform efforts remain focused on rooting out the type of conduct that is alleged.”

Wood, in a phone interview last week, spoke about his service and what he’s seen.

How long were you a cop in Baltimore? When and why did you leave?

Eleven years. I joined in 2003.

I was a sergeant when I retired. I started by walking the Western District on foot. That’s where Freddie Gray was killed. That was my first beat. I also worked in the Southern and Northern districts for a while. Then I was promoted to the Violent Crime Division. I did street work with a narcotics division for six months. Then I was promoted to Major Crimes. I left in January 2014 due to a shoulder injury. I wish I could say my injury came with an interesting story, but it’s pretty boring.

Some of your tweets about what you saw are pretty shocking. You mentioned seeing cops urinate and defecate in the homes of suspects, even on their beds and their clothes. How common was that?

There’s a particular unit that does that. It’s their calling card. Everyone knew it.

Any cop who has worked in Baltimore knows about it. You definitely won’t find a cop who has done the raids who hasn’t heard about it. They usually blame it on the dog. But everyone knows it goes on. Outside of that unit it happened, but it was rarer.

Can you tell me the name of that unit?
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It’s always your knockers. The street enforcement unit. The guys who do the “street rips” [busting low-level drug offenders on the street]. So when I say it’s a particular unit, I don’t mean it’s this particular group of guys. The names of the units change; the personnel changes. But it’s always the knockers.

So it isn’t that there is a particular set of rogue cops who are known for doing this, but it’s more of a tradition, part of the culture?

Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it probably started out as a few guys who did it for laughs. But now it’s just sort of known that this a thing they do.

But it’s also little things that people outside of policing don’t know about, and that aren’t even really talked about among cops. Something like using your baton to knock on someone’s door when they’ve called 911. It leaves a little dent in the door. So if you go to a house with a lot of dents in the door, you know that’s someone who has called 911 in the past.

What’s the purpose of that – to signal to other cops that there have been problems at the house?

It’s not even that.

It’s just a way of venting some frustration when you’re irritated at someone who called 911. But it damages their door.

You’ve received a lot of praise on Twitter, but also some criticism. One common criticism asked why you didn’t report these incidents. Why didn’t you?

To an extent, I’m totally guilty. I should have done more. My excuse isn’t a good excuse, but it’s reality: You report that stuff, and you’re going to get fired. I mean, of course you’re going to get fired. Or they’re going to make your life miserable. I mean, look what happened to Joseph Crystal [a former officer who says he was harassed after reporting police brutality].

It all goes back to this whole us versus them thing. You suit up; you get out there; you’re with your brothers. You’re an occupying force. Your job is to fight crime, and these are the guys you do it with. So you just don’t see the abuse. It doesn’t even register, because those people are the enemy. They aren’t really even people.

So you talked about how you started to see things differently while you were doing narcotics work. When was that?


The first things I’d report were internal things, some racial stuff within the department that bothered me. But I still only reported internal things I saw.

Cops getting mistreated by other cops . . .

Right. Because reporting that sort of thing won’t get you into trouble. It’s reporting the external stuff that will end your career.

What happened between 2007 and the last few months to make you decide to come out with the external abuses so openly?

It’s been a gradual progression. I got my master’s degree. The critical thinking required to earn my degree helped me more fully process those revelations I had in 2007. It taught me to think about things differently, to evaluate information in different ways. I started reading news from alternative media, seeking out different perspectives. Then I think the national discussion after Ferguson really drove it all home for me. That whole discussion was so divisive, but it was also instructive. So much of it goes back to a lack empathy. You start to see how neither side is able to see things from the other’s perspective.

Were there other cops in Baltimore who shared your concerns?

A: Oh, absolutely. I was personally inspired by my lieutenant, Anthony Proctor. He didn’t grow up in a good neighbourhood. He had a rough family life. He talked a lot about it, about how it affected him. So had this unique perspective on how cops can be better. We need more cops from tough backgrounds. We need people who have lived in the rough neighbourhoods to patrol them, and to oversee the other officers who walk those areas.

But there’s a powerful bureaucracy at any big city police department. A few guys run the whole show. A few old white guys hand-pick who climbs the ranks. So Proctor and I started fighting to get the good ol’ boy network torn down.

But again, that’s internal. It’s a lot harder to address the external problems.

Do you think these problems are unique to Baltimore?

I haven’t talked enough with cops from other cities for them to feel comfortable opening up to me. But I’ve been to conferences. I’ve been around other officers. It’s all the same.

You could take a cop out of Philly and put him in Baltimore and he’d get along just fine. You can take a cop out of New Orleans or Chicago and do the same. Big cities obviously are going to have different problems. But the culture is the same everywhere. The driving part of the police in Ferguson is no different than it is in Baltimore: It’s us against them.

During the Ferguson protests, some military veterans were critical of what they saw in the images coming out of St Louis County. They said the cops there were doing things that would never fly in the military, like pointing their guns at peaceful protesters. I’ve heard similar criticism of drug raids by veterans who conducted raids in Afghanistan and Iraq – they dislike the term “police militarisation” because they say police raids in America are far more aggressive than what the military does overseas.

Oh sure. You see these raids where the cops are lasering each other. They have their guns pointed at each other. The raid starts, and they’re pointing their guns at suspects, kids, bystanders.

You point your gun at someone you don’t intend to kill once in Close Quarters Battle school and they’ll throw you out.

So here’s the impossible question: How do we make things better?

I think it starts with empathy.

We need to stop all this warrior talk, the militaristic language, and the us-versus-them rhetoric.

We need a better metaphor. Police officers aren’t warriors. They aren’t soldiers. I don’t even like the mentality that we’re “enforcing the laws”. Maybe a term like “protectors”.

President Barack Obama’s policing commission uses the phrase “guardians, not warriors”.

I could get behind that. The important thing is to change the mind-set, to foster a sense of empathy, so police officers see themselves as the protectors of these communities, not as an occupying force that’s at war with them.

But I also think we need to start thinking more critically, more creatively, and more from a data- and science-driven perspective.
Officers stand guard during protests over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Former cop Michael Wood is opening up about the dark side of policing that he saw while working in Baltimore.
JABIN BOTSFORD/Washington Post

Officers stand guard during protests over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Former cop Michael Wood is opening up about the dark side of policing that he saw while working in Baltimore.

Let me give you an example. When it gets really hot in Baltimore, people in poorer neighbourhoods spill out into the streets. This is because they don’t have air conditioning.

Because crime goes up when the temperature goes up, the police department sees it as a recipe for violence. So they respond by sending scores of cops into these neighbours to clear out the corners. The city ends up spending thousands of dollars on overtime just to basically harass the people in these neighbourhoods for trying to keep cool.

What if instead of spending all that money on police overtime summer after summer, one year you just bought air conditioners for poor people? Would that work? I don’t know. But it would help relations with the community. And we know that what we’ve been doing doesn’t work.