Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants to make Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis the permanent Police Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). Davis has stated that he wants the position but wants to be appointed for the remainder of the six-year term of former Commissioner Anthony Batts. A shorter term would “stall” progress in the department, according to Davis. [The Baltimore Sun, September 17, 2015.]
Before Davis is confirmed as the permanent Police Commissioner, however, the City Council should seek a commitment from him that he will join Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in actively seeking reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) and to the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) during next year’s session of the Maryland General Assembly despite the strident opposition to such reforms by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). There is no basis for assuming that Davis will support efforts to secure the necessary changes to the law unless a commitment to do so is obtained from him prior to his appointment. Reform is less likely without the leadership and support of the incumbent commissioner.
In describing his plans for improving the department Davis mentioned foot patrol training, history courses on race relations and faith communities in the city for all new officers, better recruiting of city residents, and stronger incentives to get current officers to move into the city and veterans to remain on the force. He said nothing about strengthening the process by which police officers are disciplined or about making that process more transparent. [The Baltimore Sun, September 16, 2015.]
Lt. Gene Ryan, President of Lodge No. 3 of the FOP announced last week that the BPD is “headed in the right direction” under Davis. This tacit endorsement of Davis by the head of the labor union that represents police officers in the BPD up to the rank of lieutenant gives the City Council cause for concern. It would a stunning turnaround for the union to support a candidate for permanent commissioner who the union believed was intent upon reforming the police disciplinary process. Does Lt. Ryan know something that the public does not? That question must be answered.
It is naïve to believe that the FOP has anything other than the narrow interests of its members at heart when it speaks through its president, and Lodge No. 3 of the FOP in particular is not shy about throwing around its political weight in order to protect its members. Lt. Ryan publicly blasted the settlement with the family of Freddie Gray approved by the Baltimore City Board of Estimates on the basis that it reflected negatively on his membership without regard to whether the settlement reasonably protected the city from greater financial loss.
In May Lt. Ryan sent a letter to State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby demanding that she recuse herself from the decision whether to charge any of the officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray in order to avoid a violation of the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct. In the letter he gratuitously assured her that “none of the officers involved are responsible for the death of Mr. Gray.”
The FOP’s greatest disdain has been reserved for Mayor Rawlings-Blake and former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, outspoken advocates for reform within the department. A month before his termination Batts stated that “our reform efforts will very likely see more police officers arrested [and] we will have more officers who are forced out because their outdated, outmoded views of policing do not match the standards the community expects and demands.” That was not music to the FOP’s ears, and the union was elated to see Batts go.
The repeated assertion by the FOP that the disciplinary process is working well in the BPD almost defies belief, but is consistent with the general approach taken to issues by the FOP. The day after Mayor Rawlings-Blake announced plans to seek some minor reforms to the LEOBR Lt. Ryan released a defiant statement promising that Lodge No. 3 “stands ready to combat any attempt to disrupt the LEOBR.” In May Lt. Ryan released a statement blaming the surge in crime in the city on the fear of police officers that they would be arrested for doing their job like the officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death, and claiming that “criminals feel empowered now [and] there is no respect.” In other words, everything is someone else’s fault and everything would be fine if police officers were just given more respect.
It also is naïve to believe that a police chief or commissioner cannot be intimidated by the FOP. In over 31 years in the Anne Arundel County Office of Law I worked with many chiefs of police. Few were anxious to draw the ire of the FOP and some I would describe as so concerned with keeping the peace with organized labor that in my opinion it affected their judgment as leaders of the police department.
Even former commissioner Batts blinked in the face of a showdown with the FOP over the LEOBR. He declined to appear before the General Assembly last spring to testify in support of changes to the LEOBR requested by Mayor Rawlings-Blake. According to reports in The Baltimore Sun Batts’ reticence to support changes in the law surprised some legislators because Batts had made public comments about having his “hands tied” in the discipline of police officers. Indeed, on October 6, 2014 the BPD had released a report entitled “Preventing Harm” that called for strengthening the commissioner’s role in the disciplinary process.
As reported by Roberto Alejandro writing for the Afro, Batts’ change of heart came after a private hour-and-a-half meeting between Batts and FOP representatives. [Afro, March 15, 2015.] Instead of going to Annapolis to testify Batts sent an email to the members of the BPD assuring them that he would not support changes to the LEOBR. As I noted in a previous post it is not uncommon for police chiefs or commissioners to fear the collective disapproval of their officers through the FOP more than the officers fear the disapproval of their conduct by the police chiefs or commissioners. When management is afraid of organized labor it is organized labor that controls the culture of the workforce.
The next permanent police commissioner cannot blink. Changes to the LEOBR are vital to changing the culture in the BPD. The absence of a fully-functional disciplinary system emboldens officers who do not share the commissioner’s vision for how citizens should be treated because those officers know that it is extraordinarily hard to get rid of bad cops. Equally as importantly, the disciplinary process must be under the direct control of the commissioner so that the commissioner can be held accountable for the results.
Reforming the disciplinary process and making it transparent are more important than the changes proposed to date by Interim Commissioner Davis. They are more important than him having an extended term of office. Baltimore’s police department faces enough challenges without creating problems for itself through the behavior of its officers, and the focus on reducing the murder rate cannot serve as an excuse to ignore the need to restore the trust between the citizens and the police department that serves them.
September 18, 2015