The long road back
Baltimore’s police department is broken. The city struck a deal with the Justice Department to fix it. Now comes the hard part.
By J.F. Meils and Allihies Melton
Capital News Service
BALTIMORE — The problems began long before the death of Freddie Gray, the young black Baltimorean who in 2015 succumbed to injuries he received in police custody, sparking a riot.
But it wasn’t until the Justice Department investigation of the Baltimore Police Department was released more than a year later that the depth of the issues were revealed. The report’s pages told the story of a force failing at basic policing for years, if not decades.
Just a sampling of the report’s chapter headings include allegations of discrimination against African Americans; unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; use of unreasonable force against juveniles; retaliation for speech protected by the Constitution; suggestions of gender bias; failure to hold officers accountable, and a broken relationship with the community.
In April, the city and Justice Department entered into a massive reform agreement, or consent decree, which step by step catalogues the changes the police department must make. They are profound.
Amid rising crime in a poor city, Baltimore’s force must transform itself in almost every conceivable way, from its basic approach to policing and the technology it uses to the data it collects to the transparency and accountability it has historically shunned.
It must do all this under the gaze of an independent monitoring team overseen by a federal judge. And it must occur against the backdrop of a steady rise in crime that included the shooting death in November of Det. Sean Suiter, a death that locked down the surrounding neighborhood for nearly a week.
A citywide crisis
Baltimore ended 2017 with 343 homicides, the third straight year the city experienced more than 300. Police also reported a significant rise in robberies and aggravated assault.
“I can tell you that violence in the city is out of control,” Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said in early November, when she announced that heads of 30 city agencies would meet daily at police headquarters to coordinate on crime-reduction efforts.
No federal funds were provided for complying with the Justice Department’s consent decree, which the city and the Justice Department signed in January 2017 and which was announced at a press conference in Baltimore attended by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch. A federal judge approved the agreement in April.
“The police department in Baltimore is not even close to being in the 21st century yet,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in an interview with Capital News Service. “The reason why is we’re a poor city. We have budgetary restraints. This consent decree compels elected officials to put money into reforms.”
Without direct federal aid, the department is relying on city funds and state grants. According to the consent decree, Baltimore’s police department must develop a “reasonable and cost-effective plan” to identify and buy the technology the department needs to comply with the agreement.
The police department’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year is $497 million, with more than $10 million earmarked for compliance efforts.
At 227 pages, the decree is 70 percent bigger by page count than the next largest, the one created for Ferguson, Missouri, which ran 133 pages. Baltimore’s consent decree unfurls across more than 500 paragraphs, many of which contain elements that require compliance before the decree will be lifted.
The initial term is five years, subject to indefinite renewals at the discretion of a federal judge who, along with a 20 plus-member monitoring team, oversees its implementation. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund released a letter to the monitoring team in November asking for focus on 20 key areas of the consent decree as well transparency throughout the process.
New Orleans, which agreed to a then-monstrous 129-page consent decree in 2013 following years of questionable policing, quickly learned that compliance is complicated.
“We have 492 paragraphs [in our consent decree]," said Danny Murphy, deputy superintendent of New Orleans Police Department's compliance bureau. "For each one we had to do a deep dive, work with monitors to make sure we were on the same page. What is the compliance expected? How are we going to measure it?”
For Baltimore’s police, it would be quicker to describe what they don’t have to change than what they do.
The Baltimore consent decree includes long, detailed sections that redefine the department’s overall style of policing, how stops, searches and arrests will be conducted and measured, as well as intricate new directives on the use of force, officer accountability, data collection and implementation of new technologies.
Despite the enormity of the task, Chief Ganesha Martin, who heads the police department’s efforts to comply with the consent decree, is undaunted.
"We started working on consent decree reform before there was a consent decree [in place]” Martin said. "I have been told that no other jurisdiction has been as prepared as we were and done as much pre-work on the consent decree without really having the mandate to do any of it."
The legacy of zero-tolerance
Martin will oversee a sea change in the way policing happens in Baltimore. That means rewiring more than just police culture, but the culture around the police.
“After the [Freddie Gray] unrest, the attitude on the streets towards policed changed,” said Mike Hilliard, a 27-year-veteran of the Baltimore Police Department who retired in 2003. “People seemed to be less respectful and less afraid of them. The bad guys didn’t fear them anymore.”
For some, the issue that led to the violence after Freddie Gray’s death was not about fear or respect, but the legacy of so-called “broken windows,” or zero-tolerance, policing, where aggressive enforcement of small crimes is believed to deter bigger ones.
The policy, its detractors say, can ruin the relationship between the police and communities, as noted in the Justice Department’s investigation that preceded the consent decree.
In response to the prosecutions of the officers involved in the Freddie Gray arrest, some observers believe the police also began backing off some enforcement, frightened they’d be brought up on charges if they ended up in a similar situation.
Baltimore used the zero-tolerance approach most notably from 1999 to 2006, under the mayoral administration of Martin O’Malley, who went on to serve two terms as Maryland’s governor.
“What we did here [in Baltimore] was just zero-tolerance all the time and that didn’t work,” Hilliard said. “It’ll drive down crime short term, but it kicks the crap out of the community, so you start losing your relationship with them that you had before, and that’s a problem between the community and the police.”
O'Malley has been widely criticized since Freddie Gray's death for championing zero-tolerance policing as Baltimore’s mayor, an approach many believe added to tensions between police and residents.
O’Malley disagrees, pointing to what’s written into the consent decree that he said were already policies implemented while he was in office, such as transparency on data.
“This is a 350-year legacy of race and injustice intertwined with law enforcement in our country,” O’Malley said in a Capital News Service interview, “and none of us is so good as a city so that we can escape that in three or four or five years of trying. You got to go out everyday and you actually got to do the work and embrace openness and transparency in policing.”
The Justice Department investigation that preceded the consent decree detailed widespread distrust of police among Baltimore’s black residents, including the city’s youngest.
“In a lot of our eyes, the police are just another gang on the streets,” said Shahem McLaurin, 23, who grew up in Baltimore and lives in McElderry Park, near the Johns Hopkins medical campus. “The difference is they just get away with stuff legally.”
McLaurin, who has launched the Baltimore Start Project, a youth organization in the city, said asking for help from the police "can be like a death sentence" in certain parts of town.
"We don't look for police," he added. "We avoid them."
Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, blames the system—specifically the city's history of zero-tolerance policing.
“You can’t go through those [zero-tolerance] years of locking up so many people, and many of them for very minor things, and then not think it’s going to have a lasting impact,” Scott said.
And Del. Cory McCray, D-Baltimore City, points to a byproduct of that same style of policing—a lack of familiarity between cops and the communities they patrol.
The problems began, McCray said, when police "...just started whooping your tail instead of trying to get to know you.”
Shantay Guy, director of the Baltimore Community Mediation Center, said non-white Baltimoreans often feel “distrustful, attacked and bullied” by cops. Meanwhile, the officers themselves feel they were “labeled and stereotyped” by many of the same groups, she added.
Ganesha Martin, the police division chief, agrees. “Particularly in the current environment, police officers are even more of a target,” Martin said. “And so I often try to get people to see police officers without the uniform. Because that’s really where the judgment comes—it’s not them as individuals, it’s what people in some of our communities believe that they represent to them.”
The Justice Department investigation found that police officers are not consistently and appropriately disciplined.
Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board, created in 1999 and reconstituted with new members this year, is theoretically empowered to police the police by fielding complaints, investigating them and making disciplinary recommendations to the police.
However, the members don’t have any true ability to enforce discipline against individual Baltimore police officers. They can only investigate them and recommend disciplinary actions.
"I think there’s inherent bias when you have one person or one group of persons making decisions when there’s a conflict,” said Bridal Pearson, chair of the review board. “I think that’s antithetical to transparency.”
In the past, when a civilian review board recommendation conflicted with the police department’s own review, the commissioner went with the internal affairs recommendation nearly every time, said Jill Carter, director of Baltimore's Office of Civil Rights.
Community groups like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle worked to change the rules on who can serve on administrative trial boards, or those that are used internally to determine police discipline and are populated exclusively with police officers.
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, along with other advocacy groups, helped change the law so it was no longer illegal for civilians to serve on trial boards. But the contract between Baltimore’s police union and the city expressly forbids it.
“They’ve baked in all these levels of protection from basic accountability to the community,” said Lawrence Grandpre, director of research of Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle.
“We have no trust that the immense power police have can ever be checked by administrative or legal mechanisms, as long as the community is isolated from the administrative process,” Grandpre said.
Another hill the department must scale involves technology.
The consent decree requires Baltimore to upgrade the technological tools police officers use, which will help the force track and report crime more efficiently. Martin, the police division chief, acknowledges the problems with the department’s outdated technology.
“It’s a big mess technology-wise here in the police department,” Martin said.
And changing to new systems will require training and patience. “One of the things the police commissioner always says is there’s two things cops don’t like: how things are now and change,” Martin said. “You start changing technology, even though it’s horrible technology and it’s very inefficient—it’s what they’ve been used to for 15 years.”
For example, in Los Angeles, another city recently under consent decree, patrol cars are equipped with mobile data computers that allow them to run information such as address histories, criminal histories and warrants and allows them to almost immediately file reports.
In Baltimore, Martin says, police officers still write their crime reports by hand. At the end of their shifts, district officers drop their reports into a mailbox, where they wait until someone takes the reports to headquarters, where an officer on desk duty types the report into a computer system.
The amount of time it takes to enter a report delays the process of field-based reporting and perhaps, police work.
The city is still awaiting the arrival of mobile data computers, which would replace the out-of-date filing system. The department will debut 400 to 500 computers in the next year, Martin said.
“People are just completely surprised that we don’t have computers in cars and that we still use Lotus Notes” — an old email and document computer system, Martin said.
Baltimore police 2.0
In May 2016, the city unveiled the $11.6 million body-worn camera program for police. In July, Baltimoreans watched body-cam video that appeared to show officers planting drugs they would later return to and declare to be evidence. Allegations like this and others led State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s office to dismiss dozens of court cases that included testimony from the officers involved in the suspect body cam videos.
The department says that by the end of 2018, every sworn officer should be equipped with a body camera.
But the consent decree goes beyond training in new technology to include training in how police approach people.
All officers are mandated to attend “Fair and Impartial Policing” training, which will include topics like implicit-bias that help educate officers on their own prejudices and how to counter them in the field.
While all this is in process, the department is also trying to recruit cadets to a force in the middle of remaking itself. The department is down about 500 officers from 2012, Martin said. Recruitment, hiring and retention are focuses in the consent decree.
But with more than 2,500 officers, Baltimore’s police department is still one of the largest forces per capita in the country.