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Editorial: A chance to better Baltimore

Anyone who cares about the future of Baltimore should read the U.S. Justice Department investigative report on the city’s police practices, released Wednesday. The 163-page report, in addition to being a clear-eyed, detailed and sweeping indictment of what’s wrong in the department, also fairly lays much of the blame where it belongs – not exclusively on the rank-and-file cops but also on the historic and cultural context of government-sanctioned racial discrimination in Baltimore and the consequences of scorched-earth policing embodied by the zero-tolerance and stop-and-frisk tactics used to drive down crime.

We’re not going to belabor the particulars of much of the report, but we think it’s critical to focus on the shortcomings that have to do with leadership, accountability and transparency. These failures are at the heart of the mistrust between the community and the men and women who serve in local law enforcement. It was heartening that the agreement in principle signed by Justice Department and city leaders recognizes this and that officials are taking it into account as they negotiate a consent decree.

Here are the key areas that have to be fixed:

Leadership

Even when smarter, more community-sensitive practices were adapted by the BPD, the lack of consistent leadership – particularly at the mid-level supervisory level – ensured they would fail. For instance, a community policing initiative that has been widely embraced, including by the Fraternal Order of Police, failed, in large measure because there is a “persistent perception among officers that their performance continues to be measured by the raw numbers of stops and arrests they make, particularly for gun and drug offenses,” the report noted. And when a midlevel supervisor tries to do the right thing he or she is often thwarted – as detailed in the experience of a sergeant who pointed out inconsistencies in officers’ accounts of the use of force on a handcuffed suspect only to have a ranking officer overturn his handling of the issue.

BPD leadership has failed, too, the report noted, because it has not provided the training and equipment for street officers to adequately respond to the full range of challenging situations they confront every day in Baltimore.

Accountability

Time and again, the department blatantly ignored its own processes designed to investigate and adjudicate complaints of misconduct. Of the 2,818 use-of-force incidents the department recorded in a six-year period, only 10 were investigated. Serious use-of-force incidents went entirely unreported. Data on sexual assault cases often isn’t even collected. Supervisory review forms are left blank.

The information the department does collect is incomplete, misclassified or appears to have been sanitized, particularly when it came to investigating allegations of racial bias. The department’s internal affairs records, for instance, recorded only one complaint of officers using a racial slur in a six-year period even though scores of such incidents had clearly occurred.

In a broader sense, the report forever shatters the notion that problems with the police department are caused by a few “bad apples.” No longer can city leaders or the FOP trot out that excuse. Everyone responsible for the safety of Baltimore’s citizens has now been put on notice.

Transparency

Any police department should operate under the scrutiny of an effective citizens review panel and with citizens easily able to file complaints and track their outcome. Here’s what the report had to say about the department’s current practices: “BPD’s accountability system is shielded almost entirely from public view, and the civilian oversight mechanisms that are currently in place are inadequate and ineffective. These flaws damage the Department’s legitimacy in the community. Community members are unable to obtain information about BPD’s complaint and discipline systems at almost every step in the process. Complainants face many hurdles in filing complaints, but once they are filed, it is difficult for complainants to obtain information about how the complaints are progressing or whether and when they will be acted upon.”

Amid the litany of shoddy and predatory practices detailed in the report are glimmers of hope. The Justice Department, at several points, praised the city and the police department for its willingness to reform. And Commissioner Kevin Davis has justifiably earned widespread praise for his determination to weed out bad cops – and supervisors – and to win back the community’s trust.

The next step is for community members and organizations to weigh in on what needs to be in a consent decree to make sure Baltimore can one day point to its police department with pride. We urge our fellow citizens to take this request seriously. Read the report and the agreement in principle – you can find them on our website, and the agreement contains information on how you can offer your views and suggestions.

Anyone who cares about the future of this city and understands how critical its success is for the state of Maryland will want to play a role in the reforms.