Don Fry Commentary in The Daily Record: Baltimore police reform is progressing

Police Line Crime Scene

By Donald C. Fry
June 25, 2021

It was disappointing to read in a recent news article that there is a perception among some in Baltimore, that reforms called for in a 2015 consent decree between the Department of Justice, the City of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) either aren’t working or have yet to be put into action.

This points to an unfortunate lack of awareness of the significant progress being made on the reforms, which were established to ensure Constitutional policing, generate strong police-community relationships, address officer misconduct and much more, all while improving public safety.

Despite reform progress, the city’s continuing challenge with addressing a high homicide rate dominates the news and overshadows good news.

The fact is progress is being made as outlined in a semiannual report issued May 14, 2021, by the Baltimore Consent Decree Monitoring Team that was appointed by United States District Court Judge James K. Bredar. The team operates as an independent body overseeing BPD’s implementation of the required reforms.

As the Monitoring Team notes in the 96-page report:

“Reform is now moving off the drawing board and [into] practice and performance. New policies and training on officer interactions with community members—on use of force, stops, searches, arrests, responding to individuals in crisis, responding to reports of sexual assault, and peer intervention—are hitting the street. Foundational studies and plans—on behavioral health support services and crisis response, technology, youth diversion, staffing, recruitment, hiring, and retention—have taken on life and are spawning organizational change. Revamped or fortified personnel practices—for promotions, performance evaluations, commendations, and officer wellness—should mean more fairness, transparency, and compassion for officers. The ongoing overhaul of an historically dysfunctional internal investigations and discipline system promises more accountability—and ultimately greater community trust.”

The Monitoring Team concluded that “…the broad reform that the Consent Decree envisions is no longer merely aspirational. It is plausible.”

That’s a big step forward from 2017 when the Monitoring Team, led by Ken Thompson, a partner at Venable LLP, began its work with the city and what was widely considered a dysfunctional police department with a host of complex internal and external problems.

Here are some of the key findings on the reforms in the recent Monitoring Team’s report:

  • BPD is nearing completion of a remaining few of the dozens of policy revisions required by the Consent Decree.
  • The growth and output of the training academy is a signal achievement that has led to the effective delivery of Consent Decree training in many core areas, including use of force, stops/searches/arrests, impartial policing, behavioral health awareness/crisis intervention, peer intervention, First Amendment activity, and responding to reports of sexual assault.
  • By training officers and 911 personnel in behavioral health awareness and crisis intervention, and by starting the ambitious work of fortifying the behavioral health system and making behavioral health professionals available 24/7 to respond to crisis calls, the City and BPD are at the leading edge of nascent efforts nationwide to rethink public safety.
  • The imminent implementation of a new Records Management System will facilitate more efficient report-writing, more effective supervision, and—at long last—collection and analysis of data on police encounters, particularly stops, searches and arrests.
  • By competently performing an increasing number of internal assessments, BPD’s audit unit is becoming a key component of a culture change that would turn BPD into a reflective, self-correcting agency that prioritizes policy compliance and best practices.

All this doesn’t mean reforms haven’t hit speedbumps. For example, the Monitoring Team found that efforts to overhaul the BPD Public Integrity Bureau (PIB), which investigates allegations of police misconduct, “remains a work in progress.”

Meanwhile, “Implementation of BPD’s community policing plan will continue to be challenging given the persistence of patrol officer shortages, community mistrust, and violent crime.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who took Baltimore’s top law enforcement job in 2019, is to be commended for the steady documented progress the department has made. It’s important to note that the department was implementing many of the reforms while juggling the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic and local protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd just more than a year ago.

As Commissioner Harrison noted in a May 26 discussion with the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) during a Newsmaker Speaker Series event on police reform, he is well aware of the challenges ahead. But he remains undeterred and plans to continue to meet with communities to get the word out about progress that has been made.

At the top of the Commissioner’s wish list is hiring more personnel so he can get more officers into communities to make further progress building “trust and legitimacy,” he said during the GBC event.

Building trust and legitimacy, Harrison noted, needs to be the top priority for all police departments. “You have to first create the appropriate policies and we don’t really have trust and legitimacy because police departments for too long have created their policies out of their own silos without community input.”

Fortunately, as the Monitoring Team report highlights, the BPD is making strides to turn those silos into bridges and aiming to build trust and legitimacy over time through the reforms called for in the Consent Decree. It is progress that is needed and long overdue.

See the Monitoring Team report.

Source: The Daily Record

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee

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