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Baltimore Police Commissioner, Experts and Residents Tackle Reform of Troubled Department

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By Barrington M. Salmon

For more than 50 years, the Baltimore Police Department has earned the reputation as a tough, bruising department that leveled most of its rough treatment and casual cruelty on the

Charmed City’s Black residents.

African American residents in their 60s and others in their 30s speak of the brutality visited on them by a police force many came to despise and distrust. They spoke of harassment, beatings, detainment and arrests at the whim of the officers, as well as their anger and frustration of having no public official to turn to to force rogue officers to comply with the law and treat Black people humanely.

The Rev. Graylan Hagler, who was born and grew up in Baltimore, recalls the way Black residents were treated.

“I’ve been hearing some stuff (about the changes) on the periphery,” he said. “Historically, the police department was used to enforce segregation even after the Civil Rights Act. We couldn’t go into certain neighborhoods so they pulled you over on “a routine check.”

Rev. Hagler said his father bought a Lincoln Continental in the late 1960s and he was pulled over regularly. It was also well known in the black community that initiation for white officers was to snatch a Black person off the street and beat them.

“That was the ‘Blue Code.’ Everyone in the department had to have blood on their hands,” said Rev. Hagler, a veteran Civil Rights and social justice veteran and senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church. “There’s always been this really hostile relationship, especially with poor black communities. You saw it with Freddie Gray. There’s a high crime rate because the police isn’t engaged, and the city is not engaged with the community either.”

Yet, one particular response by recently appointed Police Commissioner Michael Harrison surprised a number of people and held out hope that the department may actually be on the cusp of change. Media reports indicate that Sgt Ethan Newberg, a 24-year veteran, was running a warrant check when a man passing by criticized him for placing the suspect on a wet street and walked away. Sgt. Newberg chased him down, grabbed him, tackled him, handcuffed him and arrested him. The sergeant filed a report saying that the passerby “challenged him and become combative and aggressive.” However, after department officials reviewed Sgt. Newberg’s footage from his body camera, the real story came out.

“From what I saw, he did nothing to provoke Sgt. Newberg, whose actions weren’t just wrong but deeply disturbing and illegal,” said Police Commissioner Michael Harrison in a press conference announcing charges against Sgt. Newberg. “I don’t know how something like this would have been handled in the past, but I knew as soon as I saw this video, I know how I’d be handling it.”

Sgt. Newberg, the second highest paid city employee in 2018, was arrested on June 6, charged with false imprisonment, misconduct and second-degree assault and suspended without pay.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper said he was heartened by Commissioner Harrison’s decisive action.

“Given its institutional history, that the Baltimore Police Commissioner moved so quickly, and so decisively is a very positive sign,” Chief Stamper told The Final Call. “Let’s hope that as the story unfolds further we’ll learn that at least some of Newberg’s superiors and/or peers had also come forward with their own observations of his conduct, past and present.”

“This is an example of major systemic (and workplace culture) failure,” Chief Stamper continued. “Supervisors (and peers) have a responsibility to blow the whistle on alleged wrongdoing of the type you describe. And the department (or, preferably, an independent investigative body) has an obligation to conduct timely, accurate, and thorough investigations into all instances of alleged misconduct. Failure to do so, sends a message throughout the cop culture: brutality, bigotry, corruption will be excused. It sounds like Newberg’s bosses (and peers) did him no favor by not holding him to account long ago. Although, of course, he had an obligation to conduct himself with dignity, respect, and self-discipline.”

Wake Forest Law School Prof. Kami Chavis said Commissioner Harrison’s decision was unexpected.

“Wow!!” she exclaimed. “A little justice. When anyone performs a criminal act, he or she should be punished. To have trust for police officers, violence should not go unpunished. You cannot have people operating above the law. This is a very important step.”

“No longer can an officer tell a different story,” added Prof. Chavis, Associate Provost for Academic Initiatives and director of the Criminal Justice Program. “The officer committed an  egregious act and then lied. It almost tells us a little bit about the morality of some of the officers. We have so long operated in this type of culture in Baltimore where this type of behavior was commonplace.”

Critics of the department and officers behavior would find a great deal with which to agree with Prof. Chavis.

The department has lurched from crisis to crisis for years, with office-involved shootings, harassment of residents and beatings caught on body cams or videos. The depth and breadth of the corruption that grips the department exploded in 2018 during a trial involving seven of eight members of the elite Gun Trace Taskforce. Witnesses testified that taskforce members who were supposed to be taking illegal guns off the street. Instead, the officers were reselling the guns and drugs it seized right back onto the streets.

In the trial where one prosecutor called the officers “gangsters with a badge,” eight cops were  indicted, six pled guilty, and four opted to testify in the case as government witnesses. During the trial, Gun Trace Task Force member Detective Maurice Ward, testified that officers would use illegal GPS devices to track targets, break into homes to steal money, and keep BB guns in their vehicles “in case we accidentally hit somebody or got into a shootout, so we could plant them.” Ward, who pled guilty, recounted an incident where cops “took a man’s house keys, ran his name through databases to find his address, went into the home without a warrant and found drugs and a safe. The officers cracked open the safe, which had about $200,000 inside. They took $100,000 out, closed the safe back up, then filmed themselves pretending to open it for the first time.”

This corruption case deepened the suspicion of the public which had piqued following the trial of Freddie Gray, who was detained by police, taken on a rough ride, suffered severe spinal injuries and died in hospital. Gray’s death triggered civil unrest, the torching of a number of businesses, looting and other related activities, arrests of those who’d taken to the streets and dozens of officers being injured. Yet after the trials and acquittals of three of the six police officers who were charged and indicted, public anger, resentment and frustration ratcheted up.

The riots following Mr. Gray’s death crystallized the divide between both sides. About six blocks from where residents Jackson and Glover live, up the road on Pennsylvania Avenue, looters burned stores and businesses, torched vehicles and shattered glass. Some were venting their anger, others used the opportunity to steal and pillage.

In 2015, BPD has operated under a consent decree. As explained on the web page of the Consent Decree Monitoring Team, “Following an investigation that began in 2015, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) found reasonable cause to believe that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) was engaged in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations, which allegedly included making unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produced severe, unjustified disparities in stops, searches and arrests of African Americans; using excessive force; and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression.

Baltimore Attorney Kenneth Thompson heads the Consent Decree Monitoring Team which is working to help BPD adopt a number of specific reforms aimed at ensuring effective, safe and constitutional policing. The team’s work is mandated by US District Court Judge James K, Bredar.

“This (consent decree) is driven by decades of perceived mistreatment. Folks have felt police has always gotten a free pass,” Mr. Thompson said. “Sometimes there are officers with problems. They may have issues, problems at home and domes problems. The proper technology would red flag officers who need help to supervisors.”

Mr. Thompson said the team is comprised of former police chiefs, other experts in policing and police reform, members of the Civil Rights community, academics versed in psychology, social science, organizational change, data and technology and community engagement.

“The personnel in DOJ, to their credit, have been good stewards,” he said. “This is a lawsuit. The plaintiffs are kicking ass. They want change. It’s possible that the department resents us coming in. I don’t know. The city and police department have been true partners. The will is there. They want to save culture. The question is whether they will have money and capacity to do the job but I’m confident we’ll do it.”

He identified three of the biggest challenges that hinder successful implementation of the reforms. They are: strengthening Internal Affairs so that the department properly investigates instances of misconduct or other deleterious behavior by police officers; outdated technology and staffing issues.

“The old unit had to be disbanded. It was so dysfunctional,” he said of the Internal Affairs Unit, which has been renamed the Police Integrity Unit. “In the old days, it wasn’t a very hospitable environment. It’s clear that there was favorable environment for those doing wrong. The DOJ saw minimalization of charges. Now, it’s easier to file complaints and we’re making sure offenses were filed properly.”

Mr. Thompson said the team is putting in place a classification manual and is revamping the investigation manual.

“The unit is short-staffed and the technology is not up to par,” he said. “And it’s difficult to follow data. We’re making sure that the investigators are trained properly. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress but we’re still dealing with challenges. The department has indicated a really strong desire to change. But we still have a lot of things to do.”

Dr. Natasha C. Pratt-Harris is the principal investigator collecting data from a survey on community experiences and perceptions of BPD that she and her colleagues conducted at the behest of the Consent Decree Monitoring Team. After plumbing the community’s thoughts over a two-month period, she said she honestly believes that significant and sustained change is coming to Baltimore City. She added that although a prevailing sentiment from residents’ comments is the feeling that nothing will change, the major finding from the 640 people polled is that the community wants to see the police engaging and engaged with the community.

“That was clear,” said Dr. Pratt-Harris, an associate professor and coordinator of the Criminal Justice program in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology with Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“I spoke to Leonard Hamm, the police chief at Coppin State and former BPD commissioner, and he talked about the simple things. Officers don’t even say ‘Hello, I am …’ A part of this is the militarization of police forces. Officers are trained heavily in arsenal and firearms training.”

Dr. Pratt-Harris said she recognizes that police officers are doing the most dangerous job ever, they are encountering difficult and challenging circumstances every day and because of the shortage of officers, they thrown into traumatic situations day in and day out yet going to see specialists to help them deal with the trauma is voluntary not mandatory.

“Officers are involved in trauma but no one is acknowledging the trauma because mental illness looks like weakness,” she said.

Mr. Thompson echoed Dr. Pratt-Harris’ sentiments about the need for engagement.

“Before he took job, he did a walking tour in different districts,” he said. “People seemed to be so enamored with him. He has connected well with these folks. Told him that whatever he’s doing, he should keep doing it. He’s righting this ship. He wants effective policing but you gotta do it right … he has chutzpah to do what’s right. I think he’s the real deal.”

Yet the road to a new or reformed is fraught with challenges.

Chief Stamper and Capt. Joseph Perez said it’s going to be very difficult to transform a department with entrenched bias, suspicion of the people they’re purported to serve and a sense of entitlement that makes certain officers act with impunity.

“The biggest challenge is dealing with public, mostly because there’s a lack of trust and a lack of community on our part,” Capt. Perez said. “The biggest thing is building that trust. Traditionally, in police departments across the country, they like the heavy-handed officers. You almost never see officers recognized for work in the community. We have to go back to basics, go back to the community. I’m not talking about optics. We have to go into the community, build trust.”

Capt. Lopez, a New Yorker who has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, said it’s a good move by Commissioner Harrison who has said BPD officers should go into the community for 20 minutes a shift.

“(But) many officers are resistant. It’s culture and begins in the academy. You can absolutely  guarantee that every single person will say they want to help people, serve. But the academy fosters and ‘us vs them’ mentality. They see the community is threat and they’ve got to have each other’s back. It’s the thin blue line, not reporting each other.”

Rev. Hagler, Prof. Pratt-Harris and longtime Baltimore City resident Nick Dorsey each note that the problems in which the department is enmeshed is a reflection of the problems the city has and a microcosm of what’s occurring in the US.

“The police are nothing but a microcosm of the larger society,” said Dr. Pratt Harris. “As with individuals, issues of race and what it means to strive and struggle are playing out. The problems found in BPD are found in the system, every school system, hospitals and elsewhere. The police department is mimicking larger society. We have to accept, acknowledge and address these issues.”

Dorsey, a District of Columbia city employee, went deeper.

“We’re dealing with a lot of social ills. There are major issues with the city that residents have to take ownership of,” he said. “The police are a major problem but not the only one. The school system is in disarray and the family system is disheveled. There are areas with no rec centers with nothing for kids to do. There are a lot of people who are homeless, have nowhere to lay their heads.”

“Until we can get people to see the value in Baltimore, invest in Baltimore city, settling down, buying homes, little will change. I’m going to give the commissioner some time, get in there, see for himself what’s going on, listen to the people, then some changes can be made.”

Barrington Salmon has been writing professionally in the United States, Ethiopia, the US Virgin Islands and elsewhere for more than 25 years. Barrington has written for publications as varied as Voice of America, BET.com, The Washington Times, Convergence and Diverse Issues in Education, ACUMEN Magazine and the Washington Times. He writes for several newspapers and publications including The Final Call, The Washington Informer, Black Press USA and Trice Edney Newswire. One of the highlights of his writing career was serving as Mayor Marion S. Barry’s speechwriter for about three years. His website is BarringtonSalmonWrites.com and Barrington is on social media, including Twitter and Facebook.

Baltimore Police Commissioner, Experts and Residents Tackle Reform

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