A big job for the Texan at the center of the consent decree

Ganesha Martin, neither a police officer nor a Baltimorean, is the face of police reform for many residents

BALTIMORE — It’s late on a Tuesday when Ganesha Martin steps into a church basement on West Belvedere Avenue, down the road from Pimlico Race Course. It’s not the first meeting the Baltimore police chief has been to this week — or even this Tuesday.

“How many of you all have heard of the consent decree?” Martin says to the group of pastors, parents, grandparents, activists, and teachers — members of the Pimlico Merchants Association — assembled at Manna Bible Baptist Church.

It’s a deadly serious topic — the agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city to reform the police department, forged after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. But Martin, a police division chief in charge of compliance with the consent decree, interrupts herself, distracted by two older women with matching hairstyles seated in front of her.

She smiles broadly. “Are y'all twins?” She laughs and the crowd laughs with her. “Aww. That is so cute.”

Martin’s in her element here. She can read a room. Sometimes her Texas accent barely registers and other times it’s much thicker. She cracks jokes, and that adds some ease to tense conversations.

Her speech — clocking in around five minutes — is the same at every community meeting.

One night, as she fights a cold at a Harbel community meeting in Northeast Baltimore, Martin smiles as she talks through the police department’s goals. “Good evening, everyone, I apologize. I am a bit under the weather,” she says. “If I fall...any doctors?”

Chief Martin on Baltimore resiliency

“We don’t let nobody stop us”

The perfect job

Martin is a commanding presence. Over 6 feet tall in heels, with hair flowing to her shoulders, she stands around to chat with community members she knows and with those she doesn’t.

“You couldn’t have written this job description and told me it would be perfect for me,” Martin says. “But this job has been really perfect for me.”

It isn’t quite the life she’d imagined for herself when she was a kid growing up in Dallas.

“I had this thought of who I was going to be,” she says. “I was going to be a Texas litigator, in the courtroom — which I got to do, which was fun.”

When she graduated from law school at Texas Tech, after earning a journalism degree at Baylor University, Martin took a job at a firm in New Mexico. “I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ambitious,” she says. “They wanted me to open a branch office, so I moved out to Albuquerque.”

She did open that branch office — and then took over another about three hours south, in Las Cruces.

But Martin missed “the big city flow of things.” In 2011, after six years in New Mexico, she decided to move on.

“I saved up enough money to not have to work for a year and I visited my brother several times in D.C. and I thought, well, D.C. would be a great place for me to figure out what to do next,” she says.

It was in the nation’s capital that Martin decided to start a nonprofit dedicated to introducing underprivileged youth to the world of international economics. But before she could even get the program up and running, another career turn came along.

Working for the mayor

Martin’s godmother had gone to a party in Baltimore and collected cards from a bunch of lawyers. Martin was having coffee with one of those lawyers — Katrina Dennis — when someone walked in who knew both Dennis and then-Mayor of Baltimore Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

“They got to talking about me and what I was into, what I wanted to do, and he said he thought I’d be great for this job with the mayor, and two weeks later, I was working for the mayor of Baltimore,” Martin says.

Martin promised herself she’d work there for a year and then return to law.

“One year turned into two, and then two years turned into three, and now it’s been five years and five positions,” Martin says. “Somehow, I keep seeming like I get closer to the fire.”

Dennis, who works as a commercial litigator, says she never doubted that Martin would find her place in city government.

“From our very first meeting, I could tell that she was destined to play a very important role in the community,” Dennis wrote in an email.

As Rawlings-Blake’s special assistant, Martin says she got to know Baltimore “from top to bottom.”

“I went with her to every event, sat in all of her meetings,” Martin says.

Martin was promoted to assistant deputy mayor of public safety and emergency management, overseeing six agencies, one of which was the police.

In Ganesha Martin’s office, there is a corner table “for inspiration,” which includes photos of powerful women like Michelle Obama and Madeleine Albright. And a SpongeBob policeman. (Capital News Service/Photo by Julie Depenbrock)

After Freddie Gray

In 2014, Martin was appointed chief of staff to the police commissioner, and then acting legislative director in 2015.

She went to Annapolis to push the department’s legislative requests. “And when I came back, I told the police commissioner I really feel like something is going to happen with the community. I’ve got to focus on the community.”

So she and the commissioner created the Bureau of Community Engagement, which Martin headed up.

Then, a black man from the neighborhood near Gilmor Homes — 25-year-old Freddie Gray — died after being injured in police custody, and the riots and the investigation began.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who came on board in the aftermath of Gray’s death, gave Martin yet another job after a federal investigation of the department: ensuring officers comply with changes under the consent decree.

“I knew immediately I wanted her in charge of the Department of Justice efforts,” Davis said. “Her emotional intelligence is really high. She cares about making not just the Baltimore police department better but policing in America better.”

Martin started looking at consent decrees across the nation to find out what had worked in other departments and what didn’t.

“We really just tried to educate ourselves,” Martin says. “A lot of those cities fought consent decrees early on, so we really wanted to learn from their experiences.”

She visited Seattle, New Orleans, and Los Angeles to examine the reforms each police department had put in place under federal consent decree.

It was New Orleans that she found most similar to Baltimore in its poverty, crime, and general lack of resources.

“We took a lot of lessons from New Orleans,” Martin says. One of those lessons: To be successful in your reforms, you need someone to make sure the department is complying.

Compliance managers are people with business backgrounds or processing backgrounds who can help the sworn commanders in the department actually “come into compliance,” Martin says. (So far, Martin has hired six compliance managers.)

‘Baltimore is different’

Once she had come up with a list of reforms, Martin asked the community’s opinion.

“I know we always like to say Baltimore is different, but Baltimore is different,” Martin says. “For us to have a consent decree that matters and that’s sustainable, and that speaks to your experience, to your grandson’s experience, to your daughter’s experience — we’ve got to have the community involved.”

Martin grew up with a father who was a firefighter and a mother who was a paralegal. She says they taught her to stand up for those most in need.

“One of the reasons I became a lawyer was because I hate bullies,” Martin says. “And so, in this job, we get to figure out how to kick bullies out of this department where they don’t belong.”

Martin also sees it as her role to help police officers get the training, technology, and everything else they need to “make them better instruments in the community.”

Mary Pat Clarke, who serves on Baltimore City Council, said she doesn’t know Martin well, but feels “confident in her experience, dedication, good sense, and wisdom in conducting her crucial role in compliance with the Justice Department’s Consent Decree.”

In her free time — when she has free time — Martin volunteers with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Three years ago, she became a big sister to Natasha Bailey, who was then 17. Bailey likes the way Martin presents herself. “She is a very good person,” Bailey said. “And she is very hard working.”

Though the two have had their disagreements, Bailey said theirs is a bond that “can never be broken.”

Martin, who makes more than $140,000 a year, has struggled to get Bailey the help she needs. “I’m trying to get my little sister in a Job Corps and all of the hurdles she has to go through are completely ridiculous,” Martin says. “I just love her to death for staying motivated.”

“I have two degrees. I’m a person of means,” Martin adds. “I have a car. I have all these things that neither she nor her parents have, and to get her into a program that’s supposed to help her in her life has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.”

Bailey did make it into Job Corps, a Department of Labor program which offer free education and vocational training to young people. She hopes to go on to college and start her own fashion design business.

Martin’s office is decorated with photos of powerful women. There’s Madeleine Albright with an arm around Martin. There’s Michelle Obama on a magazine cover. Martin poses before the framed photos on her desk, her degrees, her accolades.

Most nights lately, Martin doesn’t get home to her fiance in Silver Spring until 10 p.m. And even when she’s home, she often ends up doing paperwork until midnight.

“My work mantra is I’ll work to 11, 12, 1 o’clock,” Martin says. “I’ll work on weekends, I don’t care. I’ll work 24 hours a day, but I’m going to try to go to two, three countries a year.” So far this year, Martin has traveled to South Africa, Iceland, and the Swiss Alps.

In a 2016 alumna profile for Texas Tech News, Martin talked about her police work.

“I think the best thing about my job is that I feel like I am able to create change that affects the quality and the trajectory of people’s lives,” Martin said in the article. “When I think about that, it is just overwhelming to me that I would be able to do that, particularly in Baltimore. You actually feel like what you are doing means something to people’s lives.”