More is needed than a new commissioner.

The Baltimore City Police Department is in deep trouble, and the removal of Anthony Batts as Police Commissioner is not nearly enough to save it.  The Department of Justice cannot save it nor can the Police Executive Research Forum, whose assistance Mr. Batts sought before being fired.  The FOP wants to save the Baltimore City Police Department but only on its own terms, and is more a part of the problem than it is of the solution.  The Mayor and City Council want to save the department, but they have no idea how.

The challenges faced by the department are daunting.  There is a skyrocketing murder rate and the department is trying to solve and prevent crime in a city awash in handguns and drugs and beset by chronic unemployment, single parent families, grinding poverty, and violent gangs while lurching from one philosophy of policing to the next and finding itself increasingly alienated from the citizens that it is supposed to serve.  The broken relationship between the Police Department and the citizens never will be repaired until the Commissioner and his or her commanders have the power to get rid of officers who do not want it to be repaired.

Attempts by Mr. Batts to change the culture of the department and to get rid of bad officers were hindered by a trade union mentality among officers fostered by a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) that makes it more difficult to discipline a police officer in Maryland than almost anywhere else in the nation.  Any effort by the department to police itself confronts the only barrier that is more impenetrable than the stop snitchin’ mentality on the streets of Baltimore, which is the blue wall of silence within City police stations.

Just how far off the rails the department has gone was illustrated by the story reported in The Sun of the bicyclist who had been robbed of his bicycle and then was turned away at the door of a police station by an officer because the station was “closed” for the evening. Another officer later explained to him that stations closed at night for the safety of the officers inside.  The closure policy was immediately reversed by department leadership, perhaps concerned by the image of officers barricading themselves in their stations while crime victims quaked in fear outside.

The relationship with the community is not the only thing that has suffered.  It was reasonably clear in April that planning for the possibility of civil disorder in the City had taken a back seat to other priorities, but it was confirmed by an article that appeared in Bethesda Magazine on June 11th.   The Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County Police Department told the magazine that which Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Mr. Batts only later admitted:  The Baltimore City Police Department was unprepared for the April riots.  The lack of adequate equipment, including full-length shields and body armor, was so severe that properly-equipped Montgomery County officers who came to Baltimore to help had to take over the front lines from their Baltimore City counterparts.  Even then, Montgomery County officers could not use the tear gas that may have helped disperse the rioters because the Baltimore City officers alongside them did not have gas masks.

On June 30th Mr. Batts lamented to The Sun that he lacked sufficient officers to control the rioters, and that he got only 200 of the 1,000 additional police officers that he had requested from other Maryland jurisdictions before the protests turned violent.  Mayor Rawlings-Blake has never explained her delay in requesting that National Guard troops be called in to support her shorthanded police force other than to state that she did not wish to “over-militarize” the situation.  On July 1st she did acknowledge that City officers lacked adequate riot gear, including shields and body armor.

In other words, when the violence erupted on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral both the Mayor and the Commissioner knew or should have known that they were not prepared to stop the looting and burning of their city.  They knew they had too few police officers, and many of those that they did have lacked adequate riot gear.  The Mayor was unwilling to bolster that police presence with members of the Maryland National Guard.

By the time Freddie Gray died it was too late to begin preparing for civil disorder.   When was the last time that City and State officials participated in a tabletop exercise intended to evaluate the adequacy of policies, plans and procedures for quelling riots in the City of Baltimore?  And if one was not done after the Ferguson, Missouri riots in August of 2014, why not?  Was it because no one thought similar riots could occur in Baltimore?

This is no time for politics as usual.  City and State leaders, including the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Delegates, and the President of the Senate, need to work in concert to identify what is wrong with the Baltimore City Police Department and what is needed to fix it.  Small, incremental changes will not be sufficient; it is too late for that, and the reform needs to be led from Annapolis.

The General Assembly did not turn control of the Baltimore City Police Department over to the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore until 1978, and it may be necessary to take some of the control back, at least for now.  The Mayor and City Council have not exactly covered themselves in glory by their actions and, more importantly, many of the changes needed, including reform of the LEOBR, must come from the General Assembly.  It will only be when the Governor and General Assembly accept some ownership of the problems with the Baltimore City Police Department that they are likely to do what is necessary to fix them.

July 6, 2015

Police misconduct info should be public.

On July 1, 2015 the Capital Gazette published an editorial entitled “Police misconduct info should be public.”  The Letter to the Editor from me to which the editorial referred appears below:

Dear Mr. Hutzell:

It is not particularly unusual that I find myself in agreement with the dissenting opinion in a decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, and I again find myself in that position in the case of Maryland Department of State Police vs. Dashiell.  As reported by The Capital, the Court of Appeals held in that case that records of an internal investigation pertaining to the sustained violation of administrative rules by a police officer were “personnel records” protected from public disclosure under the Maryland Public Information Act.

I agree with the dissent that the majority took an unnecessarily expansive view of the definition of “personnel records” that must be kept secret from the public.  Accepting as we must that the majority’s view is the correct interpretation of the law, the law must be changed to allow the disclosure of sustained complaints of the use of excessive force by police officers.

The fact that citizens need to be vigilant about the manner in which the discipline and professional conduct of their police force is maintained no longer should be in dispute.  This is true even for the best of police departments, such as the Anne Arundel County Police Department.  It takes only a handful of rotten apples to spoil the barrel, and to do so very quickly.  It is difficult, however, for citizens to be vigilant about problems that are hidden from them.

On the same day that The Capital reported the Dashiell decision it reported that the Anne Arundel County Police Department disclosed that 25 of the 78 complaints investigated by the Internal Affairs Section in 2014 (32%) were sustained.  Of the 78 complaints investigated 31 involved allegations of excessive force.  The information published by the Police Department does not indicate how many of the 31 complaints of excessive force were sustained.

The Capital also reported that in 2014 force was used against 198 people arising from 141 separate incidents involving the Police Department.  In that context, 31 complaints that the force used was excessive is not an insignificant number.  The public deserves detailed information on how many of those complaints were sustained, and on the facts and outcomes of the sustained complaints.  Absent this information there is no way for the public to evaluate how effectively a Police Chief is maintaining the discipline of the department.

Because of the unique nature of their jobs police officers have been given protection from unfounded disciplinary action not enjoyed by any other governmental employees in the form of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights; it is not easy to discipline a police officer.  The other side of the same coin is that sustained complaints of excessive force by police officers should be disclosed to the public.  The consequences of a government clerk or laborer reporting late to work are one thing, the consequences of a police officer using excessive force are quite another.

Police officers in Maryland cannot have it both ways.  They cannot demand one of the most protective Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights in the nation and also expect to prevent the public from gaining knowledge of their use of excessive force if complaints are sustained.   Are officers who use excessive force going to be embarrassed by public disclosure?  Yes, although that is not the purpose of disclosure.  The purpose of disclosure lies in the greater good, which is the public accountability of police officers, and Police Chiefs, for the manner in which force is used against citizens.

Sincerely,

David A. Plymyer

July 1, 2015