Tony Barksdale is a retired commissioner from the Baltimore Police Department. He believes violence can be solved, and he’s committed to see that happen.
Listen to This Episode
- Tony Barksdale is a retired Deputy Commissioner of Operations from the Baltimore Police Department. He served as an officer in the city for twenty years.
- Tony has developed a model that proved effective in reducing Baltimore’s violent crimes. Now he wants to share what he’s learned with communities around the country.
- Tony grew up with corrections officers in his family. He was also inspired to join the force by a troubling event in his childhood, as well as a drive to make his grandfather’s neighborhood safer.
- Tony’s advice for anyone who wants to end violence in their areas is to get involved in the local community, and to let police know about criminal activity—but only if it can be done without the threat of retaliation.
This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
Tony Barksdale is a retired Deputy Commissioner of Operations and a former Acting Police Commissioner for the Baltimore Police Department. Tony served as a law enforcement officer for twenty years in one of the toughest cities in America. His mission today is to show communities how Baltimore reined in its most violent offenders instead of those involved in non-violent crimes. I talked with Tony, what inspired him to become a police officer, and why he holds onto the hope that violence is a problem that can be solved.
I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Tony is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.
This is Episode 32. You can read along if you’d like at pluralofyou.org/032.
I’ve mentioned before on this podcast that crime and violence have never been lower in human history than they are in the 21st century.1 In the United States in particular, crime overall has decreased significantly since it peaked in the early 1990s, yet violent crime in the US continues to persist in many urban areas, including specific neighborhoods in Baltimore.
In 2015, riots following the death of Freddie Gray, a man who died in police custody, led to a crime wave in the city and homicides spiked, mostly among young black males. The city’s newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, ran a headline at the end of 2015 that read “Deadliest year in Baltimore history ends with 344 homicides.” That referred to the fact that Baltimore recorded more homicides per capita that year than at any point in the city’s history.
If we watch the news long enough these days, I’m sorry to say we’ll probably see plenty of other terrifying stories along the same lines. When I talked with Tony about his work to end violence, the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando had happened a day or two before. At that point, it was the deadliest shooting by a lone gunman in US history.
It can be tough to hold onto hope for humanity when we’re inundated with events like these, partly because of how the media prioritizes its news coverage, but Tony believes we don’t have to accept violence as a norm in society. He developed an anti-violence model during his time in law enforcement that can steer police departments toward their most dangerous citizens, and he’s promoted it since retiring because he’s convinced that we can all work together to make society safer.
Tony and I met via Twitter not long ago. What drew me to him was that much of what he’s written about law enforcement differs from what I’ve read in the past, but he speaks from experience. There’s something else I’d like to say about Tony: I’ve been genuinely touched a few times by the people I’ve interviewed for The Plural of You. I mean, everyone I’ve talked with is worthy of praise in their own ways, but sometimes just talking with them has left me feeling enriched. Tony is one of those people.
After we talked, I felt a real sense of comfort that’s hard to describe, and I think that’s because he believes so strongly in what you’ll hear him say. The subject’s a heavy one, but I hope what Tony says will inspire you like it did for me.
Here’s Tony Barksdale, retired Deputy Commissioner of Operations for the Baltimore Police Department.
Interview with Tony Barksdale
JM: Somewhere I got the impression that community policing would be a great solution not only for violence in our country but to improve relations between police departments and the public. You’ve pointed out that community policing only works as part of a larger enforcement strategy and not as the solution in itself. I hadn’t heard that before. Would you mind explaning what you mean by that?
TB: Community policing is a great concept, but in a community or city where you have so much violence [and] a lot of drug issues, you definitely have to look more towards a focused enforcement model.
I’m not saying you have to go to the broken windows model, which is the complete opposite of community policing. With community policing, you have more engagement with the community, of course. With the broken windows model, as far as my experience was early on in my career, we saw more mass arrest. I am against mass arrest, but I am also against a model that’s not honest with the community.
In the early Nineties, we had what was called the Police Athletic League. We had officers dedicated to kids that came into these police athletic leagues, the local schools, and rec centers. That model was supposed to pay off in the future. The whole thing was, twenty years from now, these kids are going to be in a great position and the violence is going to drop in the city. Well, just last year in 2015, the city recorded a record high in homicides per capita.
While that model was going in the early Nineties, I was a detective in Narcotics. I knew there were plenty of violent individuals running around then. We had a lot of arrests, but the homicides were still up, the shootings were still up. Back then, I started to think, ‘There has to be a better way to get this done. We’re producing statistics but we’re not helping the city.’
As a matter of fact, when you run around—I hate saying run around [laughs]. If you’re on the street and you’re just going from arrest to arrest, look at all of the people in that city that now have criminal records. Look at all of the people in that city who can’t afford bail, and we’re piling them into the jail system. Then you start to look at what happens to them once they’re in jail or once they get out, what’s their future?
I had one arrest that really troubled me. It was when I was a detective, I was about to be promoted to Sergeant—this is in 1998. It was in Gilmore Homes, the location where the Freddie Gray incident occurred in Baltimore. There was a late-night drug shop, and there were about a hundred addicts being sold heroin at one time. That’s what they used to do: get as many addicts together at one time and cause as much confusion so we couldn’t pick out who was the one in the crowd distributing the drugs. My squad, we jump out and people start running everywhere.
An older guy runs into me with heroin in his hands. It was late [laughs], and I’m saying, “Oh, come on.” I said, “Okay, give me the dope. Put your hands behind your back.” This gentleman said, “Can I please ride with you? Don’t put me in that wagon, please. I can’t take it.” I said, “Okay, sure. You can ride with me.”
We got down to Central Booking. The corrections officer said, “Detective, this gentleman is asking that you stand beside him through the process.” I said, “Okay, that’s fine.” This is completely not the norm. I stand with him, and he said, “Please don’t put me in a cell by myself.” I said, “Okay.” I go to the corrections officers and say, “Please put him in a cell with some guys who maybe had a little too much to drink. Don’t put him in a cell where he’s going to get hurt. Please look out for him.”
JM: Did he indicate why?
TB: No, he didn’t say why this is going on. I’m like you, I’m like, “What is going on?”
About thirty days later, I’m in court and the case gets called. Up stands two well-dressed members of the United States military—I forget which branch. They turn and ask if I’m present in the courtroom. I’m wondering what is going on.
The guy I had arrested stands up. It turns out he was a Vietnam war hero. Because of what he suffered through in Vietnam, he had turned to drugs. He turned in that courtroom and told me thank you for how you treated me. “Thank you.”
JM: Sounds very humbling.
TB: It was a lot. I thought about all of the arrests I had made at that point. I worked in a strong squad and we would cross the city, making arrests. I thought about what power I had in making arrests and who was I arresting. My mind really started to turn at that point to say, ‘You’ve got to do better with getting the right people.’
Community policing, broken windows, that’s okay. What I wanted to do became focused enforcement and not lock up the world.
JM: You want to not perpetuate those structural problems.
TB: Exactly. I don’t want to be a part of it. What I wanted to do was focus on individuals that we can all agree upon—when I say all, I mean police and the community—that these individuals are dangerous and should not be on the street.
To do that, I went to—by this time, I’m a sergeant and I’m on the way to being a lieutenant. I had a small group of detectives, I hand-picked them. We started to go through the detectives’ notes and I said, “Let’s find names that keep coming up.” When we started to find those names, that’s where we started to focus.
The results of focusing on the right individuals, it changed my career. It really did.
JM: Is that how you came to develop your anti-violence model?
TB: Yes, sir. It’s based on focused enforcement. It’s intelligence driven. Once you’re identified as a killer or what we call a stick-up boy—
JM: Repeat offenders.
TB: Yes, repeat offenders. We just focus on you. You cannot work too many of these cases at one time because of limited resources. The object is to identify you and to put together a solid case for prosecution, always keeping in mind that, from day one, this case is going to trial and this case has to be solid, beginning until the end.
I was fortunate in Baltimore. The United States attorneys are a powerful group. The state’s attorneys are definitely as involved on the state level. When my team started to bring better cases to them, we found things started to go smoothly. We got the convictions, we would get the next case going, and we kept subtracting the most violent individuals, the repeat offenders.
JM: It sounds like it’s been successful.
TB: It [sighs]—it was successful. I’m retired now, so it’s gone through some significant changes. It’s sad to see.
In preparing for this interview, I pulled some of the statistics for the model. In the first six months in 2007, the model produced a 65% homicide reduction and a 74% shooting reduction in the two toughest districts in Baltimore City: the Eastern and Western Districts.
JM: That’s impressive.
TB: Yes, and they kept it up. I [sighs]—I look at those numbers and wonder where the city could be if they stayed with the model, but that’s not in my control. They’ve moved to a community policing model. Right now, the department, the city is struggling to top the horrible 2015 violence numbers.
JM: What’s appealing about community policing versus a model like yours? Do you know why they would choose that over something like you’re promoting?
TB: It’s politics and, at the same time, maybe that’s the direction that the commissioner believes he wants to take the department. I look at the number and say, “Hey, it’s flashing.” If the department was a car and all of the dashboard lights are flashing, pull over. Take me in for service.
That’s not what’s going on. They’re sticking with this model, and the homicides are still going. We just had a thirteen-year-old kid killed the other night. “Well, it was 1:30 in the morning”—that doesn’t matter to me. That’s the type of thing that doesn’t have to be.
Community policing looks good. You’ve got the great pictures with the community, you’re smiling with them, and you’re at a cookout. It appears everything is going great, but you’ve got to look at your crime! You can get to a community policing model when you get control of your crime, but now’s not the time. You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to confront these violent, repeat offenders.
Right now, that has to be the focus, not the feel-good. We can feel good after we win, but they’re not winning right now, if you understand me.
JM: This is something you’re clearly passionate about. I can hear it in your voice. Do you remember what sparked your initial interest in law enforcement?
TB: My mother and my grandmother were both corrections officers.
I remember as a kid the first day I was walking to school by myself. It was maybe my first or second day. I was crossing the street, and a guy approached me. He had a whole bunch of folded towels in his hand. He said, “Hey, give me your money.” I’m a kid, I mean maybe eight or nine. I said, “No.” I grew up in West Baltimore, you can’t— [laughs] Even at a young age—
JM: “You’ll have to try better than that.” [laughs]
TB: [laughs] Exactly! I started looking for something to throw at him. Maybe if I could get past him, I could make it into the schoolyard and into the building.
As I was saying no, he got frustrated. He flipped a towel up and he had a gun, a revolver. He pointed that revolver right in my face and said, “Give me your money.” I reached in my pocket and I gave him my money. He cursed at me and took my money. He jogged away.
I got into school and the principal, I’ll never forget, her name was Ms. Staten. There was a nice woman in the school; her name was, I believe, Ms. Trodgen. They said, “Why are you late?” and I told them I had gotten robbed. It was so much at that point, I just broke down. They hugged me, got me some water, and said, “It’s going to be okay.”
They called the police, and I’ll never forget the officer came. He was huge, he appeared so huge. I don’t know if it was because I was a kid and it was my first real interaction with a cop. He bent down on his knee and he said, “You did the right thing. You did great. Everybody’s not like that, okay?” [sighs] That made a difference to me as a kid.
Throughout my life, I’ve seen cops do good things. I remember seeing cops help old ladies cross the street, I’ve seen them make arrests, I’ve seen positivity with policing. When I was in my early twenties, I saw more and more young officers who looked like me—well, I wasn’t in my twenties just yet, but I saw more and more officers that looked like me. I said, “That’s it. I want to be a police officer.”
JM: As horrible as that experience was when you were robbed, you had that response afterward [where] everyone was trying to comfort you and encourage you, and the officer told you were doing the right thing. I feel like that’s the kind of thing you wanted to reciprocate and pay forward to everybody else when you became an officer yourself.
TB: I definitely feel that way. Look at me: I said “feel that way” like I’m still active. I’m retired.
TB: I don’t want people to suffer. I know the world isn’t fair, I know that, but I know that things can be done about gun violence and violent offenders. I know it can, I showed Baltimore that it can be done—the team, the police department showed that it can be done.
I just want to help. I want to continue to help in any way possible.
JM: Again, it sounds like you’re passionate about this. I imagine there were situations when you felt overwhelmed or frustrated. I’m wondering: what sustained you all those years? Why, even today, do you still hold out hope that there can be a difference?
TB: I don’t even want to say the word, but I am obsessed with trying to help.
I’ve seen so many crime scenes. I drive through the city and I can remember crime scenes, I can remember how bodies were laying, I can remember inside of certain houses.
JM: That’s something I never considered, that as an officer you’re exposed to all of these traumatic experiences. Even driving through the city can trigger those again.
TB: Yeah, it happens. I responded [sighs] when police were severely injured, I remember that. There’s a lot that goes on that cops don’t show you. As I’m telling you this, I can remember all of these things, but what keeps me going is I know it can be changed. I talked to some individuals on Twitter, “Oh, things won’t change.” You’ve got to believe that it can be changed, you can.
This doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why your show, this is incredible that you do what you do. I don’t feel there’s enough hope out there.
JM: Well, thank you. Yeah.
I’m assuming it wasn’t all negative.
JM: I’m sure you had some positive experiences, too. Do you have any stories that you’re fond of from your time on the force?
TB: You’re absolutely right, there is a lot of positives. It can come from fellow officers or it can come from the citizens.
I remember one time I was working in Cherry Hill with my partner. The city had this thing about any open fire hydrants must be shut off. I see an open fire hydrant and there are a whole bunch of kids out. I turn to him and I say, “Mikey, I’ve got to shut the fire hydrant off.” They’d even given us the tools to shut the fire hydrants off. [laughs] He said, “I’m telling you, don’t get out of this car.” I said, “I’ve got to! That’s the order! We’ve got to shut it off.” He says, “Okay, go ahead.”
I get out of the car and I say, “Okay, kids. I’ll get you ice cream if you get out of this water. Come on, anybody at the ice cream truck”—it was coming down the street. I said, “I’ll treat the ice cream, but I’ve got to shut this off.”
I turned around, and I started feeling the water hit the back of my shirt and go down my neck. They had diverted the water up on me. I was dripping in water. He’s sitting in the car and he says, “Told you!” [laughs]
TB: I wasn’t even mad with the kids, they were kids! It was the funniest thing. Here I am working in Cherry Hill, which at that point was one of the toughest and still is one of the toughest communities in Baltimore, and they are drenching me with this water. I just laughed. That was good.
Just the teamwork, some great officers, then the citizens. Sometimes the community and the citizens are worried about being labeled as informants. You make a good arrest, you get the right person, you’re walking the arrest out of the neighborhood. You might make eye contact briefly with an older citizen, and they just give you a wink. They don’t say anything, they just give you a wink.
JM: A sense of relief.
TB: Yeah, that’s all they can say, that’s all they can do, and it’s more than enough. That was more than enough to keep me coming back to try to help that community.
There were definitely great times, great people, so you’re right about that. There are a lot of plusses to the job. It’s not all negative.
JM: For people that are concerned about relations between police and the public, or the problems of violence in our country, would you have anything you could say to reassure people [that], “Hey, we can do this. We can solve these problems. It’ll be okay”?
TB: I think that, if you look around, there are things that work. It’s going to the things we know can work.
I’ve got to tell you, we’re talking about things: look at the incident in Orlando and how quick something like that can happen. Look how the public reacted. They didn’t fold. What did they have, over 600 individuals lined up next day to give blood?
JM: Yeah, then I saw there were people walking by the lines, handing out supplies to the people waiting in line, so it was like people [were] helping the helpers.
TB: That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what gives me hope. When I see other people who care, people like you. You care, and I care, and I know there are at least 600-plus minimum in Orlando that care. We are here, we are on this Earth, and we’re here together.
The negative cannot beat us. It can’t. I know it’s hard, and I know we go through tough times, but we’ve got to keep going and just stay on positivity and helping one another. If I sound like a hippie, then so be it. Call me a hippie, I don’t care.
JM: Not at all.
TB: I’ve been through it, I’ve been through the hard times. We’ve got to hold on and make it back to the good times.
JM: Is there anything that you would recommend someone could do to make a difference? I think you’re living proof there is a possibility that things can change. Maybe someone doesn’t necessarily know how they can get involved. I look at situations like—there are some neighborhoods in Baltimore that have been struggling for years and years, and there’s not a lot of hope there. What can someone do to make a difference in that way?
TB: If you can safely—and when I say safely, I mean where you don’t have to worry about someone approaching you or your family members. If you can safely advise police on crime in your community, then do so. If you can’t do it in a safe manner, I would not say risk yourself or your family in that direct route. Perhaps you could on a day where you had some time, maybe, you could go to the district, if the police district is outside of your neighborhood, report it directly.
You could attend community meetings or build a community group that tries to keep things straight in your neighborhood. There are some neighborhood groups that are so strong, criminals won’t even walk down the block. There’s a drill [that] the members, if they see these two guys, they’re on the phone calling 911. If they see something strange, they’re on the phone calling for the police. Some of these communities, they’ll come out. They won’t stay behind their doors, they’ll come out on their steps and say, “Officer, they do not belong around here, and this is what they were doing.” When you see that in a community, that’s really powerful.
I would love to see more communities like that, but I do understand. There are some hard neighborhoods with some evil individuals roaming around. You need the police to do a little more work before you can get to that, which is in my mind moving closer to a community policing model. Before you get there, you’ve got to subtract more of these violent offenders off of the streets.
It can be done. The whole thing is if you can do it safely.
JM: What if someone wanted to learn more about you and your work? Where would be the best place to learn more about you or even get in touch with you?
TB: Info at tonybarksdale.com would be the best method. I’m really hoping to get into the consulting world and I’d really like to try to help, so that is the best way to reach me.
JM: You’re on Twitter, also.
TB: Yes, sir: @deputybarksdale.
JM: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?
TB: No, sir. Just the stuff we talked about, that’s a lot for me. I haven’t talked about everything together like this. It was definitely a good conversation, thank you.
JM: Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Thanks for all of your help. I really appreciate it, Tony.
TB: Okay, sir. Take care.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
That was Tony Barksdale, formerly of the Baltimore Police Department. If you’d like to help end violence wherever you are in the world, then here’s a homework assignment. First, you have to believe it’s possible, like Tony said. Second, if you see something, say something. Get involved with your neighbors and your local police department, and talk about these things. This will probably take a lot of persistence on your part, depending on how the culture is where you live, but persistence is what moral foundations are built on. If you really believe that we don’t have to tolerate violence in our society, keep Tony’s approach in mind and be proactive about it. Again, remember: if you see something, say something.
The Plural of You is a podcast produced by me, Josh Morgan, in beautiful Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.
This will be the last episode from Edinboro. After I press Stop on this recording, I’m going to pack up my gear, and my wife and I are actually moving down to Baltimore. We’re excited about it. Tony has even offered to give us a tour around the city, and I’m eager to take him up on it.
If you’d like to say hello sometime, I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at pluralofyou, or you can email me at the website, which is pluralofyou.org. You can also check the website to find past episodes, subscribe to future episodes, or to get involved in dozens of helpful causes.
That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.
- This statement was based on ideas presented in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker and the work of economist Max Roser. (Back to citation.)