Baltimore’s mayor and police chief ignored their own post-Ferguson policing proposals

In the wake of a string of consequence-free deaths of black men at the hands of the police last year — from Michael Brown to Tamir Rice to Eric Garner — America learned a lot about how not to go about policing ourselves. In responding to what began as peaceful protests, police departments in Ferguson, New York and elsewhere used military-grade weaponry to selectively, and violently, enforce law and order with no regard for the rights of the protestors.

In the wake of these clashes between police forces and protestors, the Working Group of Mayors and Police Chiefs, a subset of the US Conference of Mayors, released a report in January entitled “Strengthening Police-Community Relations in America’s Cities.” The report outlines a number of ways in which police departments can improve their interactions with the communities they are charged with serving and protecting, ranging from body cameras to recruiting police officers who represent the demographic makeup of the communities they are responsible for. Some of the highlights:

  • Community policing is more than just a policy; it’s a philosophy: “Police officers should treat all people with dignity and respect. Given the history of tension, police should be particularly sensitive to minority communities. If people feel disrespected in their encounters with officers, the experience will leave a long-lasting negative impact that will be shared with family and friends.”
  • Credibility starts at the top: “The chief’s leadership, direction, focus and credibility are critical to the department’s success and to how it is viewed by the community.”
  • Officers should be representative of the communities they police: “Departments may need to use non-traditional means to attract recruits who are representative of the diversity in the community.”
  • Lethal force is a last resort: “Training must concentrate on preventing unwarranted use of force, offer officers alternatives to the use of lethal weapons, and clarify when use of lethal weapons is appropriate.”
  • Use the right equipment the right way: “Body-worn cameras can be an important tool, and funding to assist in purchasing cameras, providing training in and standards for their use, and appropriately storing data collected via cameras is essential if more departments are to be camera-equipped.”
  • Quantity doesn’t equal quality: “Changes are needed in the way police departments measure the efficacy of their activities. The measurement system should reflect the community policing culture and importance of prevention so that success is not based solely on rates of reported crimes and arrests.”
  • Independent review: “To increase public confidence, police departments should call on independent or outside investigators and agencies when a death occurs during an encounter with an officer.”

The ideas and proposals in the report are wholly uncontroversial. Reduced to one sentence, the report argues that police departments should understand that they are part of the communities they police, they should avoid killing citizens and they shouldn’t be able to lie about it when they do. It’s really not that complicated.

Commissioner Batts and Mayor Rawlings-Blake speak to the press, via Creative Commons

Commissioner Batts and Mayor Rawlings-Blake, via Creative Commons

Which is why it’s so frustrating to read through to the end of the report and find that Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Anthony Batts, the mayor and police commissioner of Baltimore, are part of the Working Group of Mayors and Police Chiefs. In other words, they helped produce, and then signed on to, the Working Group’s report on improving police-citizen relations.

This makes Freddie Gray’s death, and the Baltimore Police Department’s response to the protests over his death, even more frustrating. The events of the last few weeks provide point-by-point examples of members at all levels of Baltimore law enforcement doing things that the report specifically advises against.

First, Freddie Gray died as a result of injuries sustained during a “rough ride,” in which the suspect is tied up in the back of a police van without a seatbelt and the van is intentionally driven at high speeds and with sharp turns so as to injure the suspect. The police station was a two-minute drive from the location at which Freddie Gray was arrested, but nearly 40 minutes went by between his arrest and his arrival at the station.

Rough rides are far from uncommon, both in Baltimore and other cities. They show a dehumanizing lack of respect for the suspect, in this case leading to the driver of the van being “depraved heart murder.”

Second, the Baltimore Police Department repeatedly lied about the circumstances and nature of his death, asserting on multiple occasions that Gray’s injuries were self-inflicted. As the investigation into Gray’s death unfolded, Commissioner Batts made now-discredited claims that Gray was not taken on a rough ride, and that a second suspect in the van said that Gray was quiet and did not appear injured when entering the van.

The man who filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest, showing that Gray was very clearly injured before being placed in the van, was himself detained without charge. His detainment, along with the arrest of Ramsey Orta — the man who filmed Eric Garner being choked to death by the police, who were not indicted in the case — shows how difficult it is to achieve justice in police brutality cases even when there is video evidence.

Third, in response to the protests in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, the police have violently cracked down in an unnecessarily and unequally violent manner:

That protestor was pepper sprayed, taken down and dragged by his hair before being arrested for breaking the curfew imposed in Baltimore — a curfew that was only lifted yesterday after being in place for nearly a week. That curfew was selectively imposed, with white Baltimoreans largely having no reason to fear for their safety if they were out of their homes past the 10pm deadline:

The only part of the Working Group report that appears to have worked as intended in Baltimore is the call for independent review in cases where a citizen is killed by the police. In this case, that independent review was conducted by the medical examiner and state’s attorney’s office. In other cases, such as Ferguson, the Department of Justice has had to step in to identify wrongdoing.

Taken together, the difference between the goals laid out by Rawlings-Blake and Batts in the Working Group report and the behavior of their police force in Baltimore is stark. The discrepancy shows that community policing is great in theory, but progress in implementing it nationwide — even in departments that have officially endorsed it — is distressingly slow-going.

All too often, police departments will treat the idea of community policing as a quaint side project rather than embracing it wholesale. Police departments in cities that have embraced community policing more fully, such as Tampa, have seen success in improving relations between the community and the police department. Not only does this mean fewer instances of police brutality, it means a safer city as a whole.

However, unlike Tampa, Baltimore’s version of community policing appears to be more of a talking point than a policy. The city has paid out over $5.7 million in police brutality settlements since 2011 — cases that have continued to strain the relationship between the city’s police force and its citizens. Mayor Rawlings-Blake has been in office since 2010, and Commissioner Batts has held his post since 2012.

If there is anything to be gained from revelations such as these, it’s that it makes the case for reform that much stronger. As Robert McCartney and Wesley Lowery wrote in the Washington Post on Saturday, the events in Baltimore are likely to accelerate the push for less aggressive policing practices around the country, shifting away from the aggressive “broken windows” policing that marked major American cities in the 1990s and 2000s in favor of proposals outlined in the Working Group’s report.

For instance, in 2005, when likely Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was the mayor of Baltimore, there was one arrest for every six of the city’s residents. O’Malley’s zero-tolerance policing strategy encouraged officers to measure success by volume of arrests, resulting in more and more citizens getting locked up over petty and often nonexistent offenses. As one could imagine, many of the charges didn’t stick, leaving a city full of residents with legitimate grievances against the city’s law enforcement infrastructure — the kinds of grievances that could have been avoided if the police were instructed to act as part of the community instead of an occupying force.

Arrests have been steadily falling in Baltimore since 2005, but the the relations between police and the community have remained strained. As 22 year-old Baltimorean Harry Collic said, quoted by McCartney and Lowery, “We feel like targets. You can come home with your work uniform on, and they still check you for drugs.” To the extent that law enforcement under Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Batts is less-aggressive than it was under their predecessors, it’s still aggressive. While it’s difficult to change a police department’s culture overnight — in Baltimore’s case, the veterans in the city’s police force were trained in O’Malley’s zero-tolerance regime and the police union remains an obstacle for reform — it’s fair to say that more could have and should have been done to change it under Rawlings-Blake and Batts’ leadership. They indicated as much when they signed on to the Working Group report.

Progress is incremental, especially when it comes to undoing literally centuries of institutionalized violence and racism in America’s law enforcement systems. It’s one thing to say that problems exist, and that it would be great if those problems didn’t exist. It’s another thing entirely to actually take the economic, cultural and institutional steps necessary to fix those problems.

That the mayor and police chief of Baltimore helped write, and then endorsed, a slate of well-intentioned proposals that they were unable or unwilling to hold themselves accountable to shows that they are part of a larger system of injustice that they both cannot fully control and are complicit in reinforcing. They serve as an example both of what is wrong with our criminal justice system, and how to begin fixing it.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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3 Responses to “Baltimore’s mayor and police chief ignored their own post-Ferguson policing proposals”

  1. 2karmanot says:

    Suspension of Habeas corpus under the Bush administration, indefinite detention, violent transgressions of civil rights and death in incarceration, systemic racism as a fixture of police culture; “—–improving relations between the community and the police department. Not
    only does this mean fewer instances of police brutality, it means a
    safer city as a whole.” Seriously? The police are the enemy and the enemy is us.

  2. The_Fixer says:

    I have my doubts about this community-oriented policing business being effective. Using Tampa, Florida as a benchmark is really resigning oneself to saying “Well, at least its better than it was.” While that may be true, it’s not the ultimate goal.

    They have embraced it here in the city in which I live, and the police are only nice to you when they think that doing so will help them. We still had a guy brutally beaten (caught on video) after he dared talk back to the police. Yeah, he was stupid for doing so, but rather than the cops calmly approaching him and defusing the situation, one of the cops (who had a history of such complaints) tackled him and beat him up anyway.

    I think it starts further back, in the hiring process. We have to filter these people out of the system. There’s a police culture at work and it’s a culture that I don’t want any part of. I’ve seen it develop steadily throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, and quite frankly, it makes me not want to call the cops when something bad happens to me.

    However, the point is well taken that the powers that be in Baltimore did not hold up their end of the bargain, so to speak. Big changes need to come to that city, and a lot of other cities in this country. Being kinder to people with few opportunities who wallow in poverty is great and all, but they really need education and jobs.

    I think we all know that the people with the power in this country really don’t care much about that, they really care about increasing the bottom line.

  3. goulo says:

    Wow. Those 2 contrasting films posted by deray are pretty telling…

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