The expectations for Kevin Davis, recently confirmed as Baltimore’s permanent police commissioner, must be tempered by the recognition that he faces two separate problems, one over which he has more control than the other. One problem is the rate of murder and other violent crime in the city. The other problem is what Davis’s predecessor referred to as “the cycle of scandal, corruption and malfeasance” in the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). The problems do not have the same causes, nor can they be fixed in the same manner. Unless Davis succeeds in changing the culture of his department, however, the BPD will be unable to do its part to help turn back the tide of violence sweeping the city.
Nothing Davis does will produce immediate or dramatic reductions in the rate of murder and other violent crime. Baltimore is plagued by chronic unemployment, grinding poverty, and an underperforming education system. It is awash in drugs, guns, and gangs. Too many boys are raised without fathers and, before they are teenagers, are lost to life on the streets where recourse to violence becomes second nature. The social ills that are to blame for the spike in violent crime are not the fault of nor can they be fixed by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). It is pointless to hold Davis responsible for something over which he has little control.
On the other hand Davis can, if given the proper tools, shape the conduct of his police officers, require officers to treat the citizens that they are sworn to serve with dignity and respect, and restore the trust and confidence of the citizens in the department. Improvements to the relationships between officers of the BPD and members of the public ultimately will make the department more effective at solving crime. If the department becomes more effective at solving crime it can begin to chip away at the rate of violent crime.
The challenges of policing Baltimore should not be understated. It is because of those challenges, however, that the need for effective discipline is greater. Any army can maintain its discipline on the parade ground, with each soldier staying in step within evenly spaced ranks and files. It is harder but more important for an army to maintain its discipline when under fire. Although the military analogy may raise some hackles it is important for those of us who are not police officers to acknowledge that police work, particularly in a city like Baltimore, is on occasion dangerous and requires courage. It also requires self-restraint. No matter how fast the adrenaline is pumping, the impulse to use excessive force (or spit on a hand-cuffed suspect) must be controlled. That requires discipline.
When discipline breaks down the consequences must be, in Davis’s own words, “swift and certain.” Disciplinary action in the BPD has been anything but swift and certain. Davis needs to explain in detail what must be done to repair the process and, if necessary, and he needs to lobby legislators to make changes to the law governing the process.
October 27, 2015