The tail wags the dog at BPD.

While many, including The Sun‘s editorial board, have called for a change in “police culture” in the Baltimore Police Department there will be no change unless there is shift in power within the department. The power to control the culture in the BPD now lies with Lodge No. 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents not only the rank-and-file officers but also the sergeants and lieutenants who supervise them. When it comes to discipline and qualitative personnel management, the tail clearly wags the dog in the BPD. Until the grip of the union on the department is loosened and the police commissioner is given the power to impose discipline and shape the performance of the department, the culture of the department will remain the same.

Sergeants and lieutenants are the frontline supervisors and primarily responsible for ensuring that police work is carried out in a lawful and professional manner. They are the guardians of the department’s “culture” and they determine whether the disciplinary system is successful. Discipline will break down if they perceive their jobs as protecting their subordinates from accountability for misconduct and poor performance rather than as enforcing the standards of conduct and performance established by management. Discipline obviously has broken down at the BPD, and there is ample reason to conclude that sergeants and lieutenants are part of the problem because they frequently align themselves with their union brothers and sisters in opposition to management. The saga of former BPD detective Joseph Crystal serves as an example.

Mr. Crystal, by all accounts a superb detective, reported the beating by officers of a handcuffed suspect in 2011. According to Mr. Crystal, the sergeant to whom he initially reported the assault told him not to “snitch.” Mr. Crystal then reported the matter to an assistant state’s attorney and testified against the officers despite, he said, being threatened with perjury charges by a lieutenant. Although the officers were convicted for their roles in the assault, Mr. Crystal says he was harassed and run out of the department for being a “rat.”

Mr. Crystal claims that much of the verbal abuse came from the sergeants for whom he worked. The culture promoted by a lieutenant and these sergeants was the “us vs. them” culture that includes the so-called blue wall of silence, and this now appears to be the rule rather than the exception. The us vs. them mentality not only divides the department from the citizens of the city, it divides labor (police officers, sergeants and lieutenants) from management.

There must be legislation at the city or state level prohibiting sergeants and lieutenants from being represented by the same union that represents the officers they supervise. There is some question as to whether sergeants and lieutenants should be allowed to unionize at all. Salaries for sergeants range from $69,915 to $98,569 depending on years of service, and salaries for lieutenants range from $79,471 to $111,880; a good argument can be made that the benefits to sergeants and lieutenants of unionizing are outweighed by the harm to the proper administration of the department. In any case, something has to be done to restore the balance of power of power in the BPD between labor and management and to induce front-line supervisors to do their jobs.

If disciplinary action is initiated despite the blue wall of silence, there is another barrier protecting officers from accountability erected by the Maryland General Assembly at the behest of police unions, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. Maryland’s LEOBR is a union-crafted statute that makes it more difficult to get rid of a bad cop in Maryland than almost anywhere else in the nation. The Sun has published a number of opinion pieces calling for its modification, including my own (“Officers Bill of Rights is an Obstacle to Reform,” Feb. 9). The hard truth is that many bad cops are protected by their supervisors as well as by the LEOBR.

Absent legislative changes diluting the power of Lodge No. 3 of the FOP and reforming the LEOBR there is little a police commissioner can do to change the culture of the BPD. Positive leadership will only go so far. The commissioner must have the power to enforce discipline and to remove bad cops. Misconduct will continue as long as officers believe that they will be punished only if their actions are captured on cell phone video.

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on August 18, 2015.  I did not post the piece until May 31, 2016; the date of posting listed above was backdated to place the piece on the blog in the order it was written.]

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