Baltimore is poised to begin the process of substantial police reform with the release early next month of the monitoring plan for the first year of the city’s police consent decree. But experts say three straight years with more than 300 homicides and frustration over a perceived lack of accountability for officers threaten to stymie efforts without a sustained push from the community.
David Jaros, a criminal law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, described the city as in a “real fragile moment.”
“You cannot discount both the human tragedy and the broad epidemic of crime in Baltimore,” he said. “Something has to be done and be done quickly, but the danger is the progress on policing will be entirely forgotten in an effort to deal with the crime problem.”
To that end, the monitoring plan will come weeks after Gov. Larry Hogan announced his initiative to combat violent crime in Baltimore, which includes increasing penalties for gun crimes, truth-in-sentencing legislation and stiffer sentences for repeat offenders convicted of gun crimes.
Advocacy groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund will monitor crime policy going forward while continuing to push for reform, according to Monique Dixon, the organization’s deputy director of policy and senior counsel.
“I think among advocates, we know that you don’t have to choose between lawful policing and civil rights,” she said. “You don’t have to give up your civil rights to have low crime and lawful policing and everyone is still determined to demonstrate that to provide officials examples of cities doing it right.”
Jaros said there is a general recognition that the “tough on crime” tactics instituted under prior administrations contributed to some of the problems in policing and it would be a mistake to return to those tactics. But the argument that constitutional policing must suffer to combat violent crime is a “false choice,” he added, that threatens to hamper large-scale reform efforts.
“It’s wrong to conflate police reform and the crime control problem but it’s also a mistake to discount how much the focus on crime control and the quick fixes that are being proposed threaten to upset efforts to change how policing is done in Baltimore,” Jaros said.
No ‘silver bullet’
Having a consent decree in place with parameters for police behavior will help the department implement strategies that are more effective than attempting to find a “silver bullet” to solve public safety problems, according to former Justice Department attorney Jonathan M. Smith.
“You can’t arrest your way out of a crime problem,” said Smith, now executive director of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “You need to build relationships in the community.”
Federal charges against members of the department’s gun trace task force, who are accused of robbery, extortion and selling drugs seized during investigations, did further damage to the credibility of police in Baltimore.
“The gun task force and those officers have done far more harm to the reputation of Baltimore police officers than any other single act in the city,” Jaros said. “There’s a balance where the public and the community need to recognize how challenging the job can be, both tactically and physically, and at the same time police officers need to recognize that some of the critiques are very valid and that protecting fellow officers that have done wrong ultimately hurts fellow officers.”
The monitoring team, headed by Venable LLP partner Ken Thompson, and a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department did not respond to requests for comment last week.
The monitoring plan and Hogan’s proposal follow the quiet conclusion of the criminal and administrative proceedings against the six police officers charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, with no public findings of wrongdoing.
“The lack of accountability for the officers involved in Freddie Gray is very disheartening,” Smith said. Baltimore residents, he added, “look and see what happens to their kids and their neighbor and their cousin and their uncle and it’s really hard to say that the system is responding in the same way to them as it did to those officers.”
On the other hand, the Justice Department’s report following a patterns and practices investigation of the Baltimore Police Department after Gray’s death confirmed what many residents already knew about policing in Baltimore, Dixon added.
“It really was eye-opening and caused residents to feel, ‘Wow, they finally believe us,’” she said. “This next year is going to be critical as we move into the monitoring phase of the consent decree.”
The consent decree is not expected to overhaul the police department swiftly or completely, Dixon added.
“I think that police reform advocates are tired but they’re still determined to realize reform,” she said. “They know that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Unlawful policing didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to stop overnight.”
Smith echoed Dixon’s sentiments and stressed “reform doesn’t happen in a straight line” and “the process is going to take years.”
The commitment of Baltimore citizens and advocacy groups to reform the police department, combined with a strong findings report and consent decree, sets Baltimore apart from other cities that have gone through the process, according to Smith, who oversaw consent decrees with multiple cities, including Cleveland, New Orleans and Seattle.
“I have never seen a community that has come together in quite the way Baltimore has,” said Smith.