Baltimore police union responds to DOJ report with reform recommendations
The police union is asking officials to include better training, more hiring, and technology upgrades in the consent decree they are negotiating following the DOJ report
By Kevin Rector
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Baltimore's police union is calling on city and federal officials to include better training, more hiring, technology upgrades and whistleblower protections among the reforms in the consent decree they are negotiating following the scathing U.S. Department of Justice report on policing in the city.
The union also wants clearer policies, less focus on arrest and other statistics, faster investigations into complaints against officers, refurbished facilities, a scaled-back use-of-force policy and a "citizen academy" to teach local residents what it's like to be a cop. And it asked the Justice Department to weigh in on the trend of local residents filming police encounters, suggesting it establish a rule requiring observers to remain a significant distance away from officers at all times.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, the union that represents city police officers, outlined the recommendations in a nine-page document delivered to the Justice Department this week.
The union suggests it is uniquely positioned to help solve the "climate of dissatisfaction" it says has developed among its members and the broader community amid years of bad policy and unscrupulous department leadership.
"Those we represent have recognized that the policies and practices put in place by past administrations have led us to this point," Lt. Gene Ryan, the union's president, wrote in a letter to Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "Our union as a whole welcomes the Department of Justice and the reforms that they can bring to the Baltimore Police Department to better the agency and Baltimore."
Justice Department investigators said they found a pattern of indiscriminate stops and searches that affected black neighborhoods disproportionately, a dismissive attitude among officers handling sexual assault cases, and unconstitutional tactics aimed at suppressing crime.
The consent decree, which could be finalized as early as next month, is to include court-enforceable reforms based on input from the city, its residents and local police, Justice Department officials have said. What those reforms will be remains unclear.
The Justice Department confirmed it had received the union's recommendations and said it will consider them along with recommendations from community members and other stakeholders.
Some in the community have said the police union is likely to be an obstacle to necessary reforms. The union has opposed the participation of citizens in the trial boards that evaluate complaints of officer misconduct.
At one recent community meeting, Ray Kelly, co-director of the nonprofit No Boundaries Coalition, called the police union "our No. 1 opponent for reform."
The union has argued that residents don't understand the job of officers enough to pass judgment on their actions as members of trial boards. It has not given its blessing to allow citizens to serve on such boards, a step required under a state law that went into effect this month before civilians may participate.
In an agreement in principle signed by the Justice Department and city officials, a precursor to the consent decree, the Justice Department "acknowledges that the City and BPD are subject to state law and collective bargaining obligations." Some residents have expressed concerns that the union's collective bargaining agreement — which is also being negotiated — will be used to block significant reforms.
The union says it supports reform and concerns about its putting up roadblocks are a "red herring." Union officials say they recently held focus groups among its 4,500 active and retired members to understand which reforms are most important to them.
Officials say the document they sent to the Justice Department this week, which they provided to The Baltimore Sun, reflects members' priorities.
The union is calling for whistleblower protections for its officers. The union said the reform is necessary because supervisors continue to order rank-and-file officers to do things explicitly criticized in the Justice Department's report.
"Officers are reporting that they're given direct orders and pressured to continue practices that have been identified by DOJ as problematic and possibly unconstitutional," the union wrote. "Whistleblower protections should be instituted so that members of the BPD who bring violations of the Consent Decree directly to the Federal Monitor will be shielded."
The union gave similar reasons for why the department's policies should be clarified. Supervisors "at all levels interpret policy as it suits their own operational needs," the union wrote, "at times using phone communication to order the circumventing of policies."
T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, declined to comment on the claims Wednesday, saying he had not seen the union's full list of recommendations.
The union is asking the Justice Department to weigh in on residents filming police.
The union wrote that it "recognizes the right and merit of recording Officers actions," but that in "the current environment of terrorism and anti-police violence, Officers cannot assume that those surrounding them with cell phones are devoid of violent intent."
The union requested "a very clear written policy, communicated to the citizenry, that clarifies the boundaries required for a safe operational space," and suggested a "minimum 21-foot rule."
It also recommended police "develop a public service announcement" regarding officers' body cameras, saying some residents "mistakenly believe" the cameras must be turned off at their request.
The union asks that the department's use-of-force policy, updated this summer, be revisited. The policy for the first time requires filing a report when an officer points his gun at a suspect without shooting or flashes a Taser's electrical current without firing.
The union's focus groups found "that the new policy failed to differentiate between a use of force and a show of force," the union wrote. It said the policy is now "too broad" and encompasses "de-escalation" tactics, and that the higher numbers of use-of-force incidents under the new definition have hindered "our members' ability to be promoted, apply for employment with outside agencies, and seek new assignments within our agency."
The union said new training is needed "to offset decades of indoctrination by past failed policies," that patrol shifts are "grossly understaffed," that the physical condition of many police facilities is "atrocious," and that the department as a whole needs a "technology overhaul and upgrade" because its current systems "are outdated and fragmented."
It also said the department should publish more of its policies on its website — which the department has attempted to do in recent weeks — and more crime data to show increased transparency, and highlight more positive acts by officers.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service