Can Baltimore address intense violence and police reform simultaneously?

In an effort to address rising violence, officials are reassigning 100 officers from mostly administrative posts to join street patrols


By Kevin Rector
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Days into 2017, as Baltimore's historic spike in homicides stretched into a third calendar year, Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis announced the latest approach to violence.

They would reassign 100 officers from mostly administrative posts to join street patrols.

The Baltimore Police Department seal is seen on Commissioner Kevin Davis' uniform as he listens to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh during a joint news conference in Baltimore, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, to announce the Department's commitment to a sweeping overhaul of its practices under a court-enforceable agreement with the federal government. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The Baltimore Police Department seal is seen on Commissioner Kevin Davis' uniform as he listens to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh during a joint news conference in Baltimore, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, to announce the Department's commitment to a sweeping overhaul of its practices under a court-enforceable agreement with the federal government. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

They did not say where they would find the officers. But according to transfer documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, nearly half were members of the Police Department's Community Collaboration Division — the unit that was expanded after the unrest of 2015 to rebuild relations with the community.

The reassignments slashed the unit by more than 80 percent.

A week later, Pugh and Davis appeared again in the same ornate room in City Hall to announce the agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform the department. Among the requirements: to "develop and implement community-engagement plans" to create opportunities for "routine and frequent positive interactions between officers and community members."

The debate around resources and budgets, and whether the need to protect lives and property is in conflict with the march toward justice, isn't new. But analysts say it has become more complicated.

"It's not that you're just taking on a new challenge," said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. "You're taking on a whole new approach to policing.

"We are going to have to go the extra mile here to get over this initial learning process, this steep learning curve."

Justice Department investigators concluded that police in Baltimore routinely violated residents' constitutional rights, and most often in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods; used excessive force; dismissed sexual assault complaints improperly; and engaged improperly with protesters, youths and those with mental disabilities.

Under the consent decree, officers will be required to contact a supervisor before making arrests for minor crimes such as resisting an officer or disorderly conduct. They will be barred from using restraints such as chokeholds, unless deadly force is authorized, and from stopping and detaining people who are in the company of others suspected of a crime without being able to make a case that they have committed a crime or are about to themselves.

They will be required to undergo new training. Techniques that have in recent decades become staples of the Baltimore police officer's tool kit — such as indiscriminately "clearing corners" in trouble spots — would be prohibited.

Meanwhile, violence in the city has grown in the 21 months since the death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old Baltimore man died in April 2015 after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. On the day of his funeral, the city erupted in arson, looting and riots.

Homicides in Baltimore jumped from 211 in 2014 to 344 in 2015 — the most, per capita, in city history. There were 318 more killings in 2016, the second deadliest year.

And with 28 homicides in the first 27 days, 2017 is now on pace to surpass both.

 

The Police Department — it's the eighth-largest in the nation, in the 29th-largest city — routinely blows through a $480 million budget before spending millions more in overtime.

The police union says the department has too few officers. Many activists think it has too many. Some residents complain of a constant, harassing police presence in their neighborhoods. Others say they don't see officers often enough.

The collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union controls the shift structure under which officers work. City officials have said the system presents a staffing problem, and low recruitment and retention have exacerbated the issue.

Pugh, who took office in December, has unfrozen 100 police officer positions to help address the violence. But the timeline for when those positions will be filled is unclear.

Early city estimates have put the cost of complying with the consent decree in the millions.

Other cities that have entered into similar agreements have underestimated the eventual cost.

The federal government does not pay for the reforms it mandates.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, whose approval is required to make the consent decree binding, has scheduled a preliminary hearing this week to discuss his concerns about the deal.

He has cited a lack of clarity around the cost, the city's ability to comply, deadlines for specific initiatives and the interplay between the deal, the police union's collective bargaining agreement, and judicial precedent around standard policing actions such as stopping a person on the street.

While the administration of President Donald Trump is seen as skeptical of federal oversight of local police departments, analysts expect the deal to move forward in some form.

Baltimore is not the first city to attempt consent decree reforms while battling high crime. Analysts say other jurisdictions — from Los Angeles to Camden, N.J. to Prince George's County — have handled it successfully.

Many see the reforms proposed for Baltimore as part of the public safety solution, rather than as a competing draw on limited funding.

In order for the reforms to be successful, analysts and activists say, the city will have to be smart about tackling inefficiencies identified in the consent decree quickly in order to redirect the savings — in time and money — toward reforms and the crime fight.

Some savings, they say, will come through improvements to technology, such as the purchase of mobile computers for patrol vehicles. Some will come from redirecting resources away from street enforcement of minor infractions and toward violent offenders, gangs and the drug trade.

More, they say, will come from the "comprehensive staffing study" required by the consent decree to assess the appropriate number of sworn and civilian personnel needed "to perform the functions necessary for BPD to fulfill its mission."

Jonathan Smith oversaw consent decrees as chief of special litigation for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama. Pitting reform against public safety, he said, is a "false choice."

Relations between police and the community in Baltimore have deteriorated to the point that victims and witnesses aren't willing to come forward and police are left without tips in some of the most violent neighborhoods in Baltimore, Smith said.

"We know the strategies and tactics being used until now have not worked to reduce crime and are not going to work to reduce crime," Smith said. "That makes the reforms all the more urgent."

He said implementing the reforms could exacerbate staffing shortages, in part because training pulls officers off the streets and into classrooms, and backfilling shifts can become difficult.

But there are also opportunities, he said. New officers brought in to fill empty positions receive training on new policies from the start. And training everyone properly will reduce the need for specialized units.

For example, he said, the reduction of the community collaboration division could be cause for concern now, but at its core, the consent decree requires that "engagement be part of what every officer does, not just part of what some officers do."

Once engaging community members in a friendly way is part of every officer's job, Smith said, there won't be a need for a collaboration division.

Davis said he believes the reforms will help the department reduce crime — in part because he has already experienced the consent decree process as a commander in Prince George's County.

He noted the decline in violent crime in Prince George's County since it came out from under the nearly decade-long decree in 2009.

"It's all doable," he said. "Change is hard, and people have anxiety when change is afoot. All I have been saying to police officers is, 'Listen, we're going to get better training, better technology, better equipment and better help in the crime fight from the community.'"

Ganesha Martin, chief of the Police Department's compliance division, has said unilateral efforts by the department to implement reforms have primed it to hit the ground running under the consent decree.

But the deal cannot jeopardize public safety, she said, and officials overseeing the consent decree — from the judge to the yet-to-be-selected federal monitor — must recognize that Baltimore is burdened by a high rate of violent crime and be willing to work with the department as it tries to right it.

"I want them to be able to take high-level concepts and be able to break them down into a mechanism and manner that is easily translated to the streets, and to not get in the way of officers who have to do really hard jobs every day," she said.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the police union local in Baltimore that represents rank-and-file officers, said there are "definitely going to be some challenges and a conflict" in Baltimore between the reforms and the crime fight.

"Some of the stuff that the DOJ recommended we think is unconstitutional, and the police commissioner already put into place some policies that we think are overreaching," he said.

He cites the department's new use-of-force policy, which imposes new limits on the circumstances under which officers can use weapons.

"It's going to restrict the police officers from actually being able to do their jobs," Ryan said.

Others — including law enforcement analysts and civil liberties advocates — disagree. They say past concerns that reforms would undermine the crime fight proved unfounded.

David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said there is "an inherent difficulty" in introducing reforms and dealing with high crime rates at the same time.

But there will never be a time when that isn't the case, he said, and allowing unconstitutional policing to continue indefinitely is not an option.

"There are precisely zero police departments in this country that have gone through consent decrees that haven't had to fight crime at the same time," he said.

Rocah said arguments against reforms were made in Baltimore a decade ago, as well, when the ACLU of Maryland sued the city over its "zero tolerance" policing strategy.

The advocacy group won, and the city saw a dramatic decline in arrests.

The decline coincided with a drop in crime, he said, not an increase.

"Everyone who I have heard advocating for police reform in Baltimore, including myself, wants a safe city, wants people to feel safe and to be safe," he said. "Changing the culture of policing in Baltimore and changing the way police officers are perceived by significant segments of the city's population is a necessary condition for that."

David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies policing and consent decrees, pointed to New York City.

For years, police in New York relied on controversial stop-and-frisk policing, and crime fell. Civil liberties advocates challenged the practice, it was ruled unconstitutional because it was directed disproportionately at minorities, and police dropped it.

Some law enforcement officials warned of a new wave of crime. But that never happened.

Instead, Harris said, crime continued to fall. He said the same thing can happen in Baltimore.

"The idea of addressing violence and public safety is not at war with the idea of reforming the Police Department," he said. "They do not contradict each other."

Ray Kelly, a community organizer with the No Boundaries Coalition, said the "time is ripe" to implement reforms.

Community members and police officials are finally agreeing in large part on what needs to be done, he said, and that will pave the way for cooperation to stop the violence where it never could have existed before.

"The parties involved in our city all recognize that these reforms need to happen, and since we've agreed, we need to put them in place as soon as possible," Kelly said. "We can actually create a safer environment by working together, and not pointing out the deficiencies in each other."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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