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Suzanne Sangree, now chief of police legal affairs, says the police commissioner and deputy commissioner ‘are really invested in the kinds of reforms that would reduce liability.’ (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

‘Teachable moments’ in progress

Program to train police and reduce costs also learns from experience

Ask those involved for a success story of Baltimore’s “teachable moments” program, which aims to cut down on police misconduct lawsuits and their cost to the city, and one name gets mentioned repeatedly.

Dondi Johnson.

Johnson died in December 2005, two weeks after he became a quadriplegic due to injuries he suffered in the back of a police van that picked him up on a public urination charge. A jury awarded his family $7.4 million in April 2010, in part because officers did not fasten Johnson’s seat belt in the van.

The case resulted in the city’s Law Department sending police a memo about the importance of properly securing suspects in vehicles. A police department audit of its paddy wagons determined the vehicles were properly equipped with seat belts but officers were not using them. Seat belt reminders subsequently became part of roll call training, and further spot audits and “boots on the ground” have resolved the problem, according to Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who oversees the department’s Bureau for Professional Standards and Accountability.

“Any successful city police department has to have good communication with [its law department] to identify teachable moments,” Rodriguez said.

It was this kind of outcome City Solicitor George A. Nilson had in mind more than three years ago when he started the teachable moments program.

It was June 2011, a month after The Daily Record reported that the city had paid more than $16.8 million to settle lawsuits from July 2004 to March 2011. Nilson — whose office had supplied the figures — drafted the protocol that would become the teachable moment program, “Baltimore City Law Department Process for Relating Police Department and Similar Decisions with Police Training and Instruction.”

The two-pronged approach consisted of counseling for the officers involved in the lawsuits and using the incidents in the litigation as part of the department’s training program.

Nilson acknowledged recently the program remains a work in progress.

“I think we generally and the [police] department in particular are getting better,” he said. “I think teachable moments is working in the sense that we are giving more information to the police department.”

Police will be receiving information from more than the Law Department in the weeks and months to come. The Board of Estimates, the city’s spending panel, approved last week a $28,000 agreement to provide two programs to officers to address “command and control incidents” and “practical incident command systems.”

The contract has been in the works for a few months, but the announcement coincidentally came less than two weeks after the U.S. Justice Department said it would be investigating the city police department’s use-of-force policies — an investigation the mayor and police commissioner invited after the Baltimore Sun reported that the city had paid $5.7 million in police brutality suits since January 2011. With the figures reported earlier by The Daily Record, that brought the total for the last decade to about $21 million.

Beefing up

Rodriguez, the deputy police commissioner, said the so-called “collaborative reform” with federal investigators would be a good thing for officers and the community. He also welcomed the chance to provide officers with “national best practices” through the training programs.

“We constantly have to train and change to evolve with the needs of the community and to meet the needs of the law,” he said.

Nilson added he was prepared to share with federal investigators or the outside teachers any or all information and experience the city has gleaned from the police brutality cases.

Rodriguez has started what he describes as “teachable moments on steroids” to address what he and Nilson said can be the biggest hurdle in the initiative: settlements are often reached several years after the underlying incident occurs. State law requires potential plaintiffs to notify the city of an incident within 180 days, but most have up to three years to actually file suit. Getting a complaint to trial can take a few more years, while the settlements can come at any point in the process.

“We want to be on the front end, not the back end,” Rodriguez said.

To accomplish that, any complaint filed against a police officer in court now gets copied to the internal affairs division, which can start its own investigation and potentially remedy the problem before it gets to court.

“If there is a policy gap or lapse we want to address it,” Rodriguez said. “The goal of what we’re trying to do is eliminate red tape for officers and trying to eliminate barriers for officers so they can do their jobs safely and within civil and criminal laws.”

Nilson, for his part, said he is “beefing up” the program. Outside counsel are now required to tell a committee that decides on police settlements whether their case is a teachable moment and give reasons why. The settlement committee also now formally decides if each case before should become a teachable moment.

“It reminds us how we have more business in settlement committee than approving settlements,” he said.

The communication between police and the Law Department has created “a feedback loop more robust than just teachable moments,” according to Suzanne Sangree, the chief of police legal affairs, who previously wrote many teachable moments memos as chief solicitor under Nilson.

“This commissioner and this deputy commissioner take these memos very seriously and they follow up very thoroughly,” said Sangree, referring to Rodriguez and his boss, Commissioner Anthony W. Batts. “They are really invested in the kinds of reforms that would reduce liability.”

Deeper issues

Robert L. Smith Jr., who spent 20 years with police in a variety of positions, said he was not aware of the teachable moments program but would have been receptive to it while on patrol. But Smith, who went to law school, ended up in legal affairs and is now a Baltimore solo practitioner, said the issues go deeper than remedial training. He criticized what he described as an “us vs. them” mentality he sees in many current officers.

“One of the problems I’ve seen is even supervisors don’t know how to deal with the community they serve,” he said. “Instead of trying to prevent crime, they are arresting people and making probable cause fit the arrest.”

Smith handles four or five police brutality cases a year and also defends officers before the police trial board, meaning he has “constant contact” with rank-and-file officers.

“Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse,” he said.