This past year has seen an enormous amount of attention paid to the toxic divide between police departments and the poor, black communities they serve. One thing we’ve learned is that tribal loyalty often prevents police officers from criticizing each other or their departments publicly—and at least sometimes, they lie when one of their own faces charges of misconduct. That’s why the recent emergence of Michael Wood Jr., a retired Baltimore cop, as a critic of law enforcement culture landed with impact: His voice was the relatively rare one that spoke with the knowledge of an insider but the unforgiving skepticism of an outsider.
In this video, you’ll meet Wood while he drives the streets of the city where he served as a police officer for 11 years, and hear him lay out his conception of what’s going wrong in the world of policing and how it could be made right.
Only have a minute? Here are the parts you shouldn’t miss:
At 2:40, Wood describes his biggest fear while working on the force.
At 6:20, he identifies the type of officers who are most likely to act irrationally in high-stress situations.
At 8:10, Wood pivots to a systemic problem throughout the force: how easily anger among officers can turn toxic.
At 10:30, Wood offers his own proposal to change the cycle.
BALTIMORE POLICE WHISTLEBLOWER MICHAEL WOOD ON JUSTICE REFORM: ‘THIS IS A REVOLUTION’
On June 24, Michael A. Wood Jr. was working on his yard with his wife when he just had it with the cops.
Wood isn’t a criminal, and he’s not one of those right wing survivalists who equates law enforcement with tyranny: In fact, the 35-year-old is a retired Baltimore Police Department sergeant. Wood says he saw extensive wrongdoing during his 11 years on the force, and he alleges the BPD abide by a “blue wall of silence.” That is, BPD members won’t come forward to report wrongdoing or testify against one another. They’ll back each other up no matter what, says Wood.
“As long as we protect our own, who cares about what’s right,” Wood says of this mentality.
So, on that day in June, he decided to blow the whistle—via Twitter.
Since then, Wood has posted tweets about alleged corruption and excessive use of force, among other improprieties he says he saw on the job. He also does three to four interviews daily on the topic of policing.
While his whistleblowing started off about the BPD, he has expanded his activism and discusses justice reform more broadly than about the department. Though he has called out law enforcement in Baltimore and across the U.S., he does not fear retribution, he says.
As the case continues into the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Newsweek chatted with Wood a bit about how his life has evolved since his tweets gained national attention. He is now studying for a doctorate and is a speaker with the criminal justice nonprofit Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
Wood admits he didn’t become a cop to make the world a better place. “I was always going to be a cop. It was like one of those things. When I was a kid, my mom would tell you I was always going to be a cop,” he says, explaining he would always dress up as a police officer for Halloween. “I would always try to hook her up to date cops so I could be closer to the profession.”
So why did he become a cop?
“I watched COPS and Knight Rider and things like that. I wanted to be cool or whatever, I guess,” Wood says. “You want to go out there and go after the bad guys.
“I was willing to help, but I don’t think that was the driving motivation. The driving motivation was the power and the thrill of it, and doing something exciting.”
Wood’s first assignment was foot patrol. His post was in the Western District—and specifically the Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was arrested. Gray’s arrest and subsequent death sparked a wave of riots in Baltimore, mirroring protests in Ferguson and New York against police brutality.
Wood started speaking out during his last few years on the job. He had become skeptical of aggressive pursuit of minor drug charges and quality-of-life offenses, and said that much in private Facebook groups.
“They still are in Reefer Madness mode—they’re afraid of marijuana,” he says. “It’s like, dude, it doesnt do anything. They won’t even read the science behind it. And they’re testifying in court as narcotics experts!”
Other cops in the Facebook group rebuffed his criticism of drug enforcement, with one calling him “a liberal hippy who was trying to protect a thug,” he says. He eventually got kicked out of the Facebook group.
Wood also drew ire from the department for an extracurricular project. In his off time, he wrote a 500-page professional guide for aspiring sergeants and lieutenants. Along with managerial tips, the guide discussed respectful interaction with civilians—including those with cameras. He said he was pushed into a job in the supply unit as punishment for writing the guide.
The Baltimore Police Department has not yet responded to a request for comment from Newsweek.
Wood says police reform is taking place. Promises, however, have fallen short. And the pace has been too slow. He believes, however, that reformers will win out in the long run. How they accomplish their goal, however, might not sit well with some.
“I’m not very optimistic about the police and politicians coming into this willfully,” he says, explaining: “The facts are on our side—we’re going to win this. Ultimately this is the right side of history. So whether this movement is violent or nonviolent is entirely up to the law enforcement community, because they’re the ones escalating this.
“We need to remember that our job in law enforcement is to de-escalate.”
So will this civil unrest get worse?
“I dont see any reason why it wouldn’t. People say, ‘Why riot?’ I’m on the side that says, ‘What else are you supposed to do?’”
He continues: “There’s always violence involved in revolution, and this is a revolution—and it doesn’t have to be violent. The people who are resisting are the problem.”
Without unrest such as riots, he says, recent police reforms wouldn’t have taken place.
“There’s been a dramatic change in the last year. Without these events, you’re telling me things wouldn’t have changed?” he says. “Come on!”