On June 24, Freddie Gray’s death was two months in the past, and America had moved on. The protests had stopped. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had indicted the six officers involved, but it seemed unlikely that any major policy changes would follow, either in the city’s most blight-ridden neighborhoods or in the police department’s approach to them. The world seemed ready to ignore Baltimore again.
But Michael A. Wood Jr. wasn’t willing to look away just yet. An 11-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, Wood retired in 2014 and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in management while living in small-town Pennsylvania. But he’s also an increasingly vocal social-media advocate for police reform, and at 11 a.m. that day in June, he hit his breaking point. “So here we go,” went his first Twitter salvo. “I’m going to start Tweeting the things I’ve seen & participated in, in policing that is corrupt, intentional or not.”
Wood then commenced a picaresque encyclopedia of police malfeasance and brutality, 140 characters at a time. His claims—even if unverifiable—were severe:
- “Targeting 16–24 year old black males essentially because we arrest them more, perpetrating the circle of arresting them more.”
- “A detective staging a hit & run to cover up crashing a departmental vehicle.”
- “Punting a handcuffed, face down, suspect in the face, after a foot chase. My handcuffs, not my boot or suspect”
In the following weeks, Wood was interviewed by the Washington Post and the BBC, among many others. America was waking up to police violence, and Wood was becoming a viral celebrity.
“Officers are scared that they’re going to get shot. Drug dealers are scared that they’re going to get arrested or shot,” Wood explains now. “And we’re pitting those two groups against each other for something that doesn’t even work.”
On June 25, the Baltimore PD issued a statement in response to Wood’s claims: “The recent allegations made by Mr. Michael Wood are serious and very troubling.... 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....”
But while the BPD was claiming the moral high ground, Baltimore lawmakers and national media were busy investigating the department’s role in inciting the Gray protests. The police responded to the national outcry by diminishing their presence in some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, precipitating a summer of record violence. Critics charged that the department essentially left the city to fend for itself, echoing Wood’s point that today’s police are prone to spiteful retribution—a far cry from Wood’s vision of an internal police culture that is “professional, competent, ethical, compassionate, and loyal to the United States Constitution....”
That description—so simple, yet so radical—appears in the 500-page manual for police work that Wood self-published in 2012. Ostensibly a study guide for officers seeking higher rank, the book subtly anticipated the kinds of reform that Wood now calls for outright. As public opinion grows incrementally more skeptical of police behavior, Wood’s book and testimony indicate a possible way forward, one in which reform comes from within the cop community itself.
On paper, Michael A. Wood Jr. is the perfect candidate to change the system from the inside. “I am the prototype” of a trustworthy cop, he says: idealistic, college-educated, military-trained, white.
Born and raised in Maryland, about 25 miles northeast of the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was killed, Wood dreamed of a law-enforcement career from childhood. But there were no police in the family, and he knew he lacked the proper discipline, so Wood enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Upon leaving the service, he enrolled in the Baltimore Police Academy, but he noticed something was amiss before he even finished class.
"We provide knowledge, career direction, and most importantly, support for leaders to do the right thing at all times."
“We had people in Baltimore with only GEDs—people who can’t write anything,” Wood says of his classmates at the Academy. “They can’t understand the concepts. They can’t understand what a crime is, what probable cause is.”
Nevertheless, he began his career in 2003, an eager-to-please 23-year-old. Before long, he witnessed the first of many incidents that he would later share on Twitter. It came during a quiet moment on patrol. Another detective was exiting a restaurant when he accidentally bumped shoulders with a woman walking in.
“I expected him to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and hold the door for her,” Wood says. “But he turned and just cracked her across the face. And no one else responded.”
As a fellow officer, “I didn’t see that the thing was appalling. I thought, ‘Man, that dude’s an asshole. Why did he do that?’ But I didn’t see the systemic part—that we were covering that up.”
Increasingly frustrated by the lack of training and knowledge among his peers, Wood founded the Police Leadership Association and wrote the manual that he hoped would serve as a one-stop course in ethical, informed policing. “We provide knowledge, career direction, and most importantly, support for leaders to do the right thing at all times,” he writes in the foreword, “whether they are fighting the evils of the street, or, more commonly, the pressures of internal politics.”
Elsewhere, the book is preternaturally attuned to issues that have since become mainstream. In the section on rape, for example, Wood espouses trauma-informed care, a social-work practice that places a survivor’s well-being above the strict fulfillment of institutional protocol.
His superiors didn’t appreciate his effort, or his tone. Wood found himself getting passed over for promotions and re-assigned to desk work. A nagging injury finally forced his early retirement in 2014, by which point he’d long stopped thinking he could make a difference from within. Even when the Ferguson protests erupted, he says, he remained in denial regarding the extent of moral rot.
“I maintained a level of naïveté still,” he says, “Like, ‘It’s not going to happen in Baltimore. We’re not going to do something crazy like kill an unarmed person.’ And then we did.”
In light of his online crusade, the obvious question for Wood is why he didn’t report any of the incidents he saw while on the force. For the answer, one need only consider the case of Detective Joe Crystal, the ex-military officer who testified against two fellow Baltimore officers in a 2011 police brutality case and subsequently endured threats and harassment. Crystal found his requests for back-up ignored, had his security clearances revoked, and was told that no other officers would ride with him. He’s since left the force and is suing the department for mistreatment.
Wood says it took leaving the force to rid himself of the pack mentality. In his words, Baltimore’s police department is run “by a good ol’ boy network.” The result is cult-like ideological entrenchment, and a resistance to objective data.
“Why do we call ourselves a science when we’re a fucking religion?” he asks. “Everyone that has a badge on now says that we need to crack down on dealers. But we’ve seen that if you legalize and regulate marijuana, the use among juveniles goes down.”
At heart, Wood advocates for evidence-based policing rather than wagon-circling and secrecy. He’s on a first-name basis with high-profile community activists who—along with State’s Attorney Mosby, herself from a long-running police family—he sees as an overdue vanguard of 35-and-under agents of change.
But despite his newfound evangelism, Wood is hardly an optimist. “If you look at [police culture] as a tree, every single branch is wrong,” he says.
Convincing cops to act compassionately is one thing, but Wood knows that his fight is bigger than that. He wants to explain how corporate interests control politics, perpetuating a destructive war on drugs that keeps cops on edge. The data—and public opinion—is increasingly on his side, but Wood has once again found himself at the foot of an uphill battle: “It’s like trying to convince people that the Earth is round.”
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