BALTIMORE -The past week was notable in Baltimore’s history for the attention given to police practices in the city by print, TV, radio and social media and for official announcements regarding those practices that came from City Hall.
Baltimore is among the many cities in the country examining its police performance in the wake of the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The current national focus on Ferguson dovetails in Baltimore with a six month study by the Baltimore Sun newspaper of police brutality within the BCPD.
The Sun series of front- page headline articles opened last week by highlighting the payout of $5.7 million in settlements to 102 Baltimore citizens, mostly African American, for police wrongdoing since 2011. Some trial lawyers point out that the $200,000 cap on these civil lawsuits is too low to force the department to make needed systemic change.
On the heels of the Sun study, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts released a 41-page report, “Preventing Harm,” which revealed, among other things, that the city did not track the brutality records of officers until this year. Some of those officers had as many as five cases against them. The report calls for such changes in the BCPD as: better training in de-escalation techniques, the timely punishment of rogue officers and the possibility of equipping all police with body cameras.
Regarding the national discussion on the use of body cameras, Baltimore Civil Rights lawyer, William Murphy, stated this week: “It’s the most effective tool we have to reduce police brutality. It will change what is going on for both sides. It will be all, ‘sir’ and ‘madam.’ Both sides will be on their best behavior.”
At the same time as the “Preventing Harm” report was unveiled, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that, at the request of Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Batts, it will conduct a 6-8 month investigation or “collaborative review” of police brutality in Baltimore. This announcement was immediately followed by heated discussion on talk radio and by community leaders on the need to broaden the Department of Justice investigation to include a full-scale civil rights review of the police department by the civil rights division of the department.
Community trust in the police department took a dive, many feel, when “zero tolerance” police practices were instituted in the early 2000s when Martin O’Malley, now governor, was mayor of Baltimore City. That was also a time of heightened racial profiling, showing that as many as one in six Baltimoreans was arrested in a given year, as reported by the Sun.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (District 7) and the Congressional Black Caucus addressed this issue of racism in policing by recently recommending to President Obama a “reform agenda” which includes a recommendation that all police departments in the country undergo racial bias training and use diversity best practices from other sectors to determine their practices. In his Oct. 11 commentary in the Baltimore African- American newspaper, Cummings pointed out that any such meaningful reforms will depend on who is in elected office, and urged his readers not to underestimate the power of their vote in the critical Nov. 4 elections.
A long-standing and on-going concern related to accountability within the police department is the Baltimore City Civilian Review Board. In June of this year a Baltimore City Council hearing was held to discuss the lack of authority of the city’s board, created over a decade ago. Currently, concerned citizens are holding meetings to demand a civilian review board with teeth. Some of the changes being called for are: a budget for the board and its now-volunteer members; the power to recommend disciplinary action of officers; the ability to investigate cases before they are closed and the requirement that newly-hired officers be Baltimore City residents. A ballot initiative on an elected community control board is also being discussed.
One of the recent cases of wrongful death in Baltimore is that of Tyrone West who, stopped for a traffic violation in a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood in July, 2013, was beaten to death by the police. West’s family has held weekly demonstrations ever since his death to demand answers and justice for their loved one. In recent weeks the protests have included as well the demand for justice for Michael Brown.
Many in Baltimore feel that the West family’s dogged persistence for accountability has helped drive the news media and City Hall to pursue the issue of police brutality which has led to this week’s flurry of announcements.