This Cop Broke Baltimore’s Blue Wall Of Silence
Baltimore detective Joe Crystal watched a fellow officer beat up a handcuffed suspect. After he broke ranks and reported the assault, he was run out of town, his career ruined. During his former city's most chaotic week, he went back.
Joe Crystal hadn’t been back to Baltimore since he left the city in November, weeks after he had resigned from the police department. Leaving Baltimore hurt so much he tried to forget. He gathered his business cards, old files, and photos of drugs and guns seized from busts and lit them on fire in his backyard. He gave away his box set of The Wire. He threw his BPD shirts in the garbage.
Before “everything went to shit,” as Crystal put it, he had been one of the Baltimore City Police Department’s brightest young stars. “A work ethic that is unmatched,” said one officer, “and has the utmost integrity.” Crystal, another officer said, “made it his personal goal to become the best narcotics detective the department had and he attacked that goal with ferocity.” He was “a stubborn motherfucker,” in the words of a third officer, and he loved the street action and lived for the job. Made detective a year after graduating from the academy. Assigned to one of the most prestigious investigative units in the department. On the short list for a federal task force. All by the time he was 26.
But none of that mattered on the night of Oct. 27, 2011, when he witnessed an off-duty cop brutally beat a handcuffed suspect, saw a detective cover it up with a police report full of lies, and watched his sergeant approve the whole thing.
One thing some Baltimore police couldn't tolerate was a "snitch."
Crystal was supposed to keep his mouth shut about what he saw, but he didn’t. He broke the "blue wall of silence" and blew the whistle on his colleagues, and the way many of his fellow officers saw it, he had sided with a small-time criminal over his brothers in blue. The harassment and the threats followed. His career as a Baltimore police officer crumbled. Police in Baltimore have rallied around cops who have killed or beaten suspects, cops facing criminal charges, and cops who turn a blind eye to misconduct. But one thing some Baltimore police couldn’t tolerate was a "snitch."
“There’s pressure in every occupation to not rat out your colleagues,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But the difference with police is that your colleague has “got to come back and put his life at risk to help you.”
The blue wall of silence is an age-old tenet of policing. New York City Police Officer Frank Serpico was shot in the face by a suspect when he didn’t receive backup during a drug raid months after he reported corruption within his department in 1970. In the early '90s a New York City commission investigating the department found that the code of silence was strongest among officers working in high-crime, dangerous neighborhoods. Similar studies found the wall’s impact in departments across the country. A Los Angeles commission concluded that the code of silence was “perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints” against officers. A New Orleans study found that “anyone who rats on another guy will find himself never promoted. Those signals come from the top and work their way down.”
Among Baltimore locals, Detective Joe Crystal was a hero. But within his own department, he had become a villain. He had betrayed the brotherhood, and for that he was driven out of the Baltimore City Police Department. He had spent years chasing down drug dealers and gunrunners, but this was the first time he felt unsafe.
Crystal moved 1,000 miles away, with no plans to return. But then in April, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died from a spinal cord injury he suffered in police custody. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts suspended six officers involved in Gray’s arrest and transport. Two officers had arrested Gray in West Baltimore without probable cause, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby later concluded. Cell phone video footage captured the officers dragging Gray into a police van. The department admitted that officers did not put a seatbelt on him, and the medical examiner said that Gray got hurt badly during the ride in the wagon. Beyond that, the specific facts surrounding Gray’s death remained a mystery. There were many questions, but, as happens so often in cases of possible police misconduct, no officer was talking.
Crystal followed the Gray story from his living room in Santa Rosa, Florida, on a sleepy suburban block a world removed from the street action of Baltimore City. He watched the protests, riots, fires, police lines, and 10 p.m. curfew arrests on TV. It felt wrong being away from Baltimore as this all went down, and so he returned.
He arrived at the airport on a Saturday morning, the first day he could get off from his new job at the Walton County Sheriff's Office in Florida, and drove his rented black Dodge Charger north toward the city. He was 30 now, his arms just as chiseled and his head just as bald and his New Jersey accent just as thick as the day he became a cop seven years before. Officers and locals called him “mini-Vin,” because he looked like Vin Diesel and stood 5’6”. He turned the volume up on the speakers. Tupac’s “Hail Mary” boomed through.
He felt nervous being back in the city. As he drove through West Baltimore, he saw officers posted up all over, gathered on corners and lined up against storefronts.
“Hope they don’t see me,” he said.
How strange it was that Joe Crystal was trying to avoid police when all his life he had only wanted to be a cop. Both his parents were patrol officers in New York City. His father’s career had ended after a stickup man robbing a bodega hit him in the head with a baseball bat, leaving him temporarily paralyzed on the left side of his body and with permanent brain damage.
During Crystal’s senior year of high school, his parents told him he didn’t have the discipline to become a police officer, so he signed up for the Coast Guard and finished boot camp three days before the Sept. 11 attacks. He trained to become a boarding officer, and over the next few years, he led raids on ships suspected of transporting goods for suspected terrorists.
“Joe was always the guy that, if I had a high-risk boarding, I made him the boarding officer over all the ones who outranked him,” said Geoff Snapp, Crystal’s team leader. “He was the most knowledgeable of the bunch. Very outspoken. And if he saw something going wrong, he had no problem who he irritated.”
After six years in the Coast Guard, Crystal turned his focus back to becoming a police officer. He applied to the NYPD first, but didn’t hear back for a while. His father suggested he apply to Baltimore. Crystal wanted street action, and Baltimore was a good city for that, his father said. The night before his first day in the police academy, he laid out his uniform. He snipped off loose threads with a nail clipper and singed off the shorter ones with a lighter, just like they did in the military.
“It was like a high,” he said. “It felt like I was preparing for this moment my entire life.”
Crystal stood out from the start at police academy, and at the end of the first day the officers overseeing the training appointed him class leader. When a fellow recruit got into a car accident, Crystal visited him in the hospital. When another, Michael Baysmore, got into a conflict with two other recruits, Crystal defused the tension before any bosses heard about it. When the six months of academy training finished, the department honored him with the Commissioner’s Award, given to the trainee who shows the most leadership.
As Crystal drove through Baltimore this May with Baysmore riding shotgun, they recalled foot chases through housing projects and drug raids that made the evening news. They drove through West Baltimore, past blocks and blocks of boarded-up row houses, past abandoned factories, past empty streets and severe blight, past all the signs of a once booming city that had fallen on hard times.
Baltimore had thrived through the first half of the 20th century. Then the factories closed, the ports slowed down, and whites and middle-class black people fled for the suburbs. Baltimore became the heroin capital of America, a Drug Enforcement Administration report declared in 2000, and local cops joked that the next sports team to come to the city should call itself the Baltimore Gel Caps. In 2001, Baltimore had the highest violent crime rate of any big city in the country. The mayor at the time, Martin O’Malley, instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy in the police department, modeled on the controversial “broken windows” enforcement strategy partially credited for reducing crime rates in New York City and Los Angeles. Officers began sweeping up thousands of residents each year, often on shaky low-level charges.
“The mayor insisted on arresting everybody,” said a Baltimore police sergeant, who, like other officers interviewed for this story, requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to reporters without approval from the department. “That fostered a negative relationship with the community, and once you have that bad relationship it grows.”
When he ran for governor of Maryland after seven years in city hall, O’Malley touted that under his watch the city’s annual homicide total had fallen below 300 for the first time in decades and that violent crime had dropped by 41%. But whether those numbers were just part of a nationwide drop in violent crime, a sign of improved policing, or the result of manipulating statistics remains up for debate. In a series of reports, the Baltimore Sun called into question changes in accounting that seem to have played a role in the precipitous violent crime drop. “They cooked their own books in remarkable ways,” David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former Sun reporter, told the Marshall Project in April. “Guns disappeared from reports and armed robberies became larcenies. Deadly weapons were omitted from reports and aggravated assaults became common assaults.”
With declining crime numbers and support from city hall at their back, some officers adopted an ends-justify-the-means mentality, the sergeant said. Locals complained of excessive force and of arrests without probable cause. In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP sued the city for civil rights violations, winning an $870,000 settlement. A 2014 Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that the city had paid out $5.7 million to more than 100 plaintiffs in police brutality lawsuits from 2011 through 2014.
“Baltimore had a mind-set: It’s us against everybody else. Some people take that too far.”
“When you’re in Baltimore, it’s a dangerous city,” Crystal said. “Baltimore had a mind-set: It’s us against everybody else. Some people take that too far.”
Aspects of the department’s aggressive mentality suited Crystal. As a patrol officer, he won over veterans with his eagerness to chase down suspects on foot. He made so many drug arrests that his sergeant told him to slow down, he said. Some veterans were complaining that they had to pick up too much of Crystal’s patrol work while he was away filing arrest paperwork.
Crystal made his first gun arrest a few months out of the academy. Then he wrote a search warrant that led to a bust that netted four unregistered guns. Baltimore police brass loved gun arrests, and they rewarded Crystal. Almost exactly a year after his academy graduation, Crystal was promoted to detective and assigned to one of the department’s top investigation units, a violent crime unit that had previously disbanded and reemerged under new leadership and a new name because of too many brutality complaints. Crystal’s detective badge became his most prized possession. He attached a money clip to it so that he could use it as his wallet. He kept it on the nightstand beside his bed.
“Nothing will compare to that badge,” he said. “It was everything. It was more than my job. It was my life. I was whatever I was investigating at the time.”
Guns and violence in Baltimore were often tied to drugs, so Crystal followed the drugs. Narcotics took a unique dedication: obsessive enough to hit the streets at any hour an informant called with a tip about a package about to be dropped off at a stash house, patient enough to lie on a roof surveilling a drug crew for hours and not just swoop in at the first sight of a hand-to-hand, and trustworthy enough to build long-term relationships with a network of confidential informants.
“His work record was more than stellar,” said the sergeant. “He’s intense. He seems never to get tired. He was getting all these big cases. He had a gift for talking to people and a really good gift to do investigations.”
Those investigations popped into Crystal’s mind as he drove east through the city. Then he turned onto Prentiss Place. The block was at the base of a highway overpass, with vacant, weedy, trash-filled tracts of land on either side of it. Boarded-up row houses lined the narrow street. A group of men huddled beside a van stood up as the car approached them. Crystal and Baysmore eyed them. The men eyed them back. A familiar face among them, the cousin of a neighborhood dealer Crystal had busted, nodded at Crystal and put out his hands, as if to say, “I got nothing on me.” Crystal drove past him and stopped in front of a house near the end of the block. The block, he said, looked the same as it did on Oct. 27, 2011.
Joe Crystal rode shotgun that evening. Sgt. Marinos Gialamas drove. Detective Keith Tiedemann sat in the back. The three cops in the unmarked car rolled through East Baltimore looking for somebody to arrest, even though their shift was over.
Tiedemann was the reason the men had not yet clocked out. Crystal didn't think much of Tiedemann's skills as a detective. But his father had been a big-timer in the department, a major at Internal Affairs before he retired, and Crystal’s unit had to make sure Tiedemann made his numbers, Crystal and other officers said. We’re not going home, Gialamas had told Crystal, until Tiedemann gets an arrest.
The car crept up a street known for heavy dealing. A crowd of people dispersed. The officers couldn't tell who might be a dealer or buyer. But then a man tossed something over a chain-link fence and burst into a sprint. Tiedemann took off after him. “If he would have just put the drugs in his pocket and walked away, nothing would have ever happened,” Crystal said. “He would have just blended into the crowd and we would have lost him.”
Crystal stepped out of the car to find the drugs. Gialamas drove off toward the pursuit. Crystal followed on his radio. A call came in about a suspect fitting the description of the dealer busting through the back door of a house on Prentiss Place around the corner. Police surrounded the house. The suspect surrendered. Crystal headed over. The suspect, Antoine Green, sat handcuffed on the curb. All the vacant houses on this block, Crystal told Green with a friendly grin, and you picked the only mothafuckin’ one that had somebody in it.
“A lot of the guys who sold out on the street, they’re just doing what they gotta do,” Crystal said while driving through the city this May. “At the end of the day we’re all men. It’s a cat-and-mouse game. Their job is to sell drugs and my job is to arrest 'em. Some days they’re gonna win. Some days we’re gonna win. On that day we won.”
The police van left and Crystal and other officers secured the scene. Then an off-duty officer, Anthony Williams, showed up and approached Gialamas. They spoke for a minute or two, and then Crystal heard Gialamas radio for the van to come back. Officers opened the back of the van and pulled Green out. Gialamas ordered Crystal and other officers to get Green into the house. Crystal stood by the front door and watched Williams take Green into the kitchen.
Days, months, years later, Crystal would wonder if he could have stopped it right then. But at the time, Crystal said, he hadn’t realized what was happening. Gialamas had been one of the best sergeants he’d ever worked with. Crystal considered Gialamas a friend. He was a veteran cop, with nearly two decades on the force, revered by his high- and low-ranking colleagues. “I had never seen him do anything underhanded,” Crystal said. “He didn’t have that type of reputation.”
He heard the beating go on for minutes.
Crystal didn’t realize what was happening, he said, until he heard banging, crashing, guttural grunts and shouts. He heard the beating go on for minutes. He watched Williams drag Green back out of the house. Green’s shirt and jeans were torn and he was limping. Later, Crystal learned that Green’s ankle had been broken. He learned that the woman who lived in this house was a girlfriend of Williams’.
The police report Tiedemann wrote up said that the wagon returned to the scene because Green “expressed a desire to apologize to Ms. Epps for breaking into her home.” Inside the home, the report continued, Green “then attempted to charge and head-butt off-duty officer Williams,” and that led to a “scuffle.” Crystal realized that the cover-up had begun.
“The guy it happened to, he wasn’t a great guy, but no man deserves to be beaten up while in handcuffs,” Crystal said. “I can’t describe how sickening of a feeling it was to be a part of that.”
Back at his apartment that night, Crystal called another sergeant, an old family friend, to ask what he should do. The sergeant told him to keep his mouth shut. If he talked, Crystal recalled the sergeant saying, it would fuck up his career. But Crystal thought the sergeant was being too dramatic. So he told a friend who worked in the state’s attorney’s office, and a year later the state’s attorney’s office filed charges against Williams and Gialamas.
Crystal made it about two hours without any cops recognizing him on his first day back in Baltimore in seven months. Then a uniformed officer saw him at his favorite restaurant during lunch. Then a lieutenant spotted him when their cars were side by side at a stoplight later that afternoon. Crystal small-talked with them, and the cops smiled and said it was good to see him. But Crystal’s smile disappeared as soon as they parted ways.
“Now every mothafucker’s gonna know I’m here,” he said to Baysmore.
“Hell yeah,” said Baysmore. “Mothafuckas gon’ think you out front leading the protest.”
For the rest of the day, Crystal’s phone blew up with text messages from old friends in the department and the state’s attorney’s office, asking if it was true that he was in town. One lawyer invited Crystal over to his house that night to watch the Manny Pacquiao–Floyd Mayweather fight. Crystal declined. A friend in the department had warned him to be out of the city before the 10 p.m. curfew. “You know Batts would love to lock you up,” the friend had said, only half joking. But Crystal assumed there were some Baltimore officers who would enjoy slapping a pair of handcuffs on him. They had made that clear after word got out that he’d reported Gialamas and Williams.
The harassment had started a few days after Crystal contacted the lawyer at the state’s attorney's office. On Nov. 7, 2011, Crystal wrote in his journal, a sergeant walked up to his desk and said, “Do you smell cheese?” and handed him a Post-it note with a drawing of a piece of cheese on it. That same week, when Crystal walked into a break room filled with officers, the chatter stopped and the officers ignored him. Officers began addressing him with “Hey snitch” or “Hey rat” or “Hey Splinter,” the latter referring to the rat character in Ninja Turtles. When he was talking to a couple of officers out on the streets one day, another officer pulled up in his patrol car and said, according to notes Crystal kept in the journal, “Hey, are you guys having a cheese party? It looked like you guys are huddled around looking for a rat with cheese.”
“It was just a domino effect,” said a Baltimore officer. “One person started treating him bad, then the next person, and it just got to a really bad point.”
Crystal turned to the police union. He told Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police president Bob Cherry about the harassment, and he said that Cherry told him the department “was blood in blood out, and that’s why [the violent crimes unit] was mad at me,” and maybe he should consider going to another department. (Cherry didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.) Crystal hoped to transfer out of his unit. He asked a sergeant, the old family friend, where he could go. As Crystal wrote in his journal, the sergeant told him that no supervisor wanted him because he was “a rat.” The sergeant then said, “You better pray to God you’re not the star witness against Gialamas, 'cause your career is already fucked, but if you are the star witness against him you should just resign.”
On the advice of another sergeant, Crystal met with the lieutenant in charge of a violent repeat offender squad about a possible transfer. The lieutenant told him, he wrote in his journal, that he didn’t want him on the squad because he had snitched. The lieutenant said, “'When you are on the VRO squad you have to do things in the gray area,' and he did not think I could do that.”
In late 2012, when Crystal and his wife returned home from Thanksgiving dinner with her parents, Crystal found a dead rat under the windshield wiper of his work car. Fearing for their safety, he had his wife move into her parents’ house.
Crystal had crossed the blue wall of silence, a code among officers remarkably similar to that of the outlaws they arrest. The problem was not just that he had broken code, the lieutenant was suggesting, but that other officers could no longer trust him. Police work involves a lot of “real-life ambiguity,” said Moskos, the former Baltimore officer. An officer makes split-second decisions, to chase a suspect or not, to use force or not, to let a suspect go because it turned out he had no drugs on him or not. Those decisions are hard enough without having to worry about your partner going back to the station and filing a report stating that you made the wrong call.
The code of silence conflicts with the laws on the books. In 2008, a jury awarded $1.4 million to three officers who had sued the Long Beach Police Department and its chief for failing to protect them against retaliation after they had reported that colleagues had gone lobster diving while on the clock. One of the officers had testified that the department’s chief had called them “malcontents” during a meeting. The Long Beach police chief was Anthony Batts.
By the time Batts came to Baltimore in September 2012, nobody wanted to ride with Joe Crystal. It was unheard of for a narcotics cop to ride solo, multiple Baltimore officers said. When Crystal radioed for backup, no one would show. Eventually, his sergeant told him that the department was revoking his detective shield and sending him back to patrol. “Low performance” was the only explanation he got.
“I felt like the floor dropped from under me,” he said. “Everything I worked so hard for was falling apart.”
Still, he was sure time would fix things, and he seemed right. After a few transfers, he ended up in a gang unit with bosses who treated him well, and by 2013 he was back to doing serious police work, including a role in the investigation that brought down Black Guerilla Family gang leader Tavon White. “2013 was a good year,” he said.
But the year ended poorly for him. His bosses were promoted or transferred, replaced by unfriendly faces. His new lieutenant was the one he’d left in the violent crimes unit, and his new major was once Gialamas’ partner. Crystal soon found himself working what he considered dead-end details on minor cases. Then in February 2014, the trial started, and the harassment heated up. Somebody created a fake Joe Crystal Twitter account that claimed Crystal had made up lies about Gialamas because they were hooking up with the same woman. Officers were calling him “snitch” to his face again. Crystal testified anyway. Gialamas was convicted of misconduct and sentenced to probation. Williams was convicted of assault and obstruction of justice and served 45 days in jail.
The trial put a public spotlight on Crystal’s experience. News outlets reported the harassment. In March 2014, Batts called Crystal in for a meeting for the first time.
Batts had taken over a department under fire two years before. On top of scores of brutality complaints and the recently settled civil rights lawsuit, the Baltimore City Police Department had faced a series of scandals. An officer had been arrested for shooting and killing another officer following a dispute outside a strip club. Another had pleaded guilty to working with drug dealers to sell heroin. Seventeen officers had pleaded guilty to taking payments in exchange for sending tow jobs to a single auto body shop.
When Batts arrived, he deemed himself a “reform commissioner.” But he got off to a shaky start. He was an outsider to Baltimore, and many officers lost some faith in him when he told the Baltimore Sun that he had seen a man hand another man “red things in balloons” — “a dope deal right in front of me.” According to multiple narcotics cops, nobody in Baltimore kept drugs in red balloons — only vials, gel caps, or plastic baggies.
More scandals made headlines under Batts’ watch. One officer pleaded guilty to selling Social Security numbers. Another officer pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor. A third was caught on video assaulting an unarmed man at a bus stop. Batts admitted that, though the department possessed footage of the incident, the officer had stayed on the job for months because of miscommunication among high-ranking police officials. Batts had vowed to remove “bad apples” from the department. So headlines about officers harassing a whistleblower cop were particularly embarrassing. (Batts didn’t respond to multiple interview requests for this story. The department declined to comment.)
Batts asked Crystal where in the department he wanted to work, and Crystal said he hoped for a federal task force, and Batts said OK. He ended up on the same task force Tiedemann was on. Now that the trial had passed, Crystal thought, his career could get back on track.
Then on June 25, while on his way to work, Crystal picked up his wife from a canceled dinner plan. On the way to drop her off at home, he was rear-ended. The accident report noted that Crystal was not at fault. It was a department car, so Crystal reported the incident. A week later, internal affairs informed him that they had opened an investigation into the accident, though the notification didn’t cite what rule he was accused of breaking.
Over the next few months, the investigators interviewed Crystal’s colleagues, though they had nothing to do with the accident. One colleague told Crystal that they were asking many questions about Crystal’s integrity and seemed to be digging for any blemishes in his past.
“They were going at him so bad,” said an officer who spoke with the investigators. “I had never seen that. They were looking for something. You could tell it was higher-level people trying to go after him. Their remedy for dealing with the Crystal thing was just get rid of him. They wanted him gone by any means necessary.”
One evening in September, Crystal’s longtime partner came over to his house unannounced. Crystal had bought the home a year before and had fixed it up into his and his wife’s “dream house,” he said. He built a new deck. He set up cushy chairs, a flatscreen TV, and a bar in the basement. He had planned to spend the rest of his life there. The partner and Crystal talked for many hours in the living room. They talked about good times and they talked about all that had happened over the past year. They both cried. They could both see where the discussion was going.
“Dude,” the partner said, somber but forceful, “you need to get the fuck out of here.”
On Sept. 3, Joe Crystal resigned from the Baltimore City Police Department. At the time, even though they had been convicted more than six months earlier, Williams and Gialamas remained on the force.
Not all — perhaps not even most — officers within the department disapproved of what Crystal had done. Sgt. Lisa Robinson told the Baltimore Sun in May that she hoped the Department of Justice review of the BPD, which came in response to Freddie Gray’s death, would look into “the ‘stop snitching’ culture that is prevalent on the streets of Baltimore as well as within the Baltimore Police Department.” But those against Crystal were louder than those who supported him. Those who supported him risked their own careers. One of Crystal’s police friends said that he faced some harassment himself just by association. “Being friends with him meant having to sacrifice and I was fine to do that,” he said. Those officers who believed that Crystal did the right thing watched how he was treated for it. And perhaps that is Crystal’s most lasting impact on the department.
In spring 2015, a Baltimore City police officer filed a complaint against a detective for an undisclosed incident of alleged misconduct. After meeting with a superior about the complaint, the officer changed his mind. “I wish not to move forward with my complaint for fear of retaliation and that the investigation will negatively impact my career,” he wrote in an email obtained by BuzzFeed News. “Unfortunately I feel if I move forward with this complaint my career will be forever changed to my detriment. I just watched a detective that I know go through an enormous amount of stress and eventual severance from the department for a complaint he made against fellow detectives. I really do not wish to experience even a fraction of what he went through.”
Crystal had become a cautionary tale within the Baltimore police force.
Crystal had become a cautionary tale within the Baltimore police force. Members of the “BPD Friends” Facebook group called him “a supersized Dummy,” “a bumbling idiot,” “scumbag,” “someone who couldn’t cut it in Baltimore as a true copper!”
To many on the outside, though, he had become a symbol of the integrity that every officer should strive for. In December, Crystal filed a lawsuit against the department on charges that it violated whistleblower protection laws, and national news programs picked up the story. “Hero cop,” one news anchor dubbed him. Frank Serpico called to tell him he’d done the right thing. Crystal’s Twitter replies were filled with messages of praise and support. Around this time, Gialamas and Williams resigned. The Baltimore Police have moved for Crystal's lawsuit to be dismissed, saying that his rights were not violated.
Freddie Gray’s death brought more attention to Crystal’s experience, and he did more cable news rounds in the days following the riot. During a town hall at Morgan State University, the moderator asked what people wanted to see changed in the police department.
“I’m just gonna mention one name: Detective Joe Crystal,” said a man in the audience. “The administration did not support him, the Fraternal Order of Police did not support him. ... If we can’t protect police officers, how are citizens gonna...” but the applause drowned out the rest of his answer.
The public support, however, didn’t do much to help Crystal’s career. None of the big city police departments he reached out to responded. His father was friends with a high-ranking deputy at the Walton County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, and this was the only place to offer him a job. Sheriff Michael Adkinson wrote, in an email explaining the hire to his deputies, “I believe the integrity displayed by then Detective Crystal is at the core of what we are about.” And so in November, Crystal and his wife and dogs moved to Santa Rosa, Florida.
Over the following months, Crystal spent his night shift chasing down drunk high schoolers who stole golf carts and responding to noise complaints about college kids playing music too loud in the house they rented for spring break. He was far from the street action of Baltimore. He did not conduct any investigations. Those who knew him well suspected that he was unhappy.
As his first day back in Baltimore wore on, and the memories rushed back, Crystal seemed to grow depressed. Then he turned to Baysmore with an idea, asked if Baysmore was down.
“Fuck yeah,” replied Baysmore, now an officer on Coppin State University’s police department. “Ain’t got shit else to do today. I don’t know the next time I’mma see you.”
The men then went to the roof of a tall building overlooking a housing project in East Baltimore, one of Crystal’s favorite surveillance spots. They got down on their stomachs, elbows on the gravel, and peered into the project’s courtyard. They lay silently, eyes looking for movement. They locked onto a young man sitting on a railing between a building and the parking lot.
“I ain’t seen you work in a long time,” said Baysmore.
“Sad thing is, I would do this for free,” said Crystal.
A teenager on a bike. A man in a pickup truck. Two nervous-looking twentysomethings. An old man with a limp. Five people piled in a car. It was all very discreet, blended into the movement of the neighborhood. But in 40 minutes, Crystal and Baysmore had spotted five possible hand-to-hands.
“Too bad we can’t arrest them,” Baysmore said, and the men chuckled.
“I miss this, man,” Crystal said. “I miss this city.”