Lip service to Blue Lives Matter.

Speaker after speaker at the Republican National Convention paid lip service to “blue lives matter” by expressing their abiding and unconditional support for law enforcement officers and their families.  None, however, expressed the slightest inclination to do anything about the primary threat to the lives of police officers, especially in our cities:  The widespread availability of firearms designed to kill people as efficiently as possible.  The bitter truth is that the culture warriors who dominate the Republican Party view dead cops as collateral damage in the battle to defeat gun control.

An incident occurred in North Miami, Florida, on the first day of the convention that illustrates how dangerous encounters with police officers can be not only for the police officers but also for innocent civilians.  An unarmed therapist was shot by a police officer while trying to help his autistic patient.  The officer’s union claims that the officer intended to shoot the autistic man, mistaking a toy truck held by the man for a gun, and shot the therapist by accident.  My guess is that regardless of whatever else we find out about the incident it will turn out to be another case in which the fear of the presence of a gun caused a tragedy or near-tragedy.

We have to feel for the injured therapist.  But we also have to be able to feel for the officer who fired the shots in order to understand the nature of what is happening in our cities and what needs to be done about it.  There is no doubt that there are racist police officers and there are police departments in which the systems intended to remove officers who pose a potential threat to the public do not work.  It also is true, however, that there are persons intent on harming police officers; there also are cities so awash in drugs, gangs, and guns that anyone who lives or works there, including police officers, is at risk of being shot.  At the end of the day it is the fact that every criminal, terrorist, gang banger, and troubled individual can get his or her hands on a gun that escalates bad situations into deadly ones.

This year the American Medical Association labeled gun violence a public health crisis.  The Republican platform labels pornography, but not gun violence, as a public health crisis despite the fact that approximately 30,000 men, women, and children die each year at the barrel of a gun.  The platform states that no additional gun controls are necessary and specifically opposes attempts to limit the size of magazines and restrict the ownership of assault rifles.

The Republican position stands in stark contrast to the views of the vast majority of the chiefs of police in our major metropolitan areas.  Police chiefs have a different perspective that comes from being responsible for the safety of the men and women under their command.  They also understand a few things that not everyone does.  They know, for example, that an officer must be taught that, if the officer waits to fire at a person until the person aims a gun directly at the officer, the officer is unlikely to be able to get a shot off before the person takes a shot at the officer.  In other words, if an officer does not recognize that an object in the hand of a suspect is a gun until it is aimed at the officer, the officer may wind up dead.  Is there any wonder that officers get nervous when they believe that a gun is present?

Police chiefs also realize that it is nonsense that only “skilled” shooters can do the type of damage done by the murderer who killed five police officers in Dallas.  A person with an assault rifle with a high-capacity magazine filled with armor-piercing bullets who finds a perch overlooking dozens of police officers standing together out in the open does not have to be a trained sniper to kill a lot of officers.  The chilling fact is that a more experienced gunman could have killed more officers.  It was the lethality of the weapon that mattered.

The group that represents the chiefs of the largest police departments in this country, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, has advocated for years for measures such as reinstating the assault weapon ban, banning high-capacity magazines, closing the gun show loophole in background checks, and banning internet ammunition sales.  Unless I missed it, no one from that organization was invited to speak at the RNC to discuss its recommendations.

The proposition by the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, that tougher enforcement of existing laws is the solution to the shooting of police officers is patently absurd.  Most people who decide to shoot it out with police officers expect to die.  How will the “law and order” approach deter them?  Does Mr. Trump believe that someone who shoots an assault weapon loaded with armor-piercing bullets at police officers from a parking garage is worried about going to prison?

As President Obama observed, many of our cities (including his own, Chicago) have become very dangerous places to police.  Here is the win-win scenario:  When police officers in those cities feel safer, the citizens with whom they come in contact, white and black, will be safer.  Here is my message to the Republican Party:  Spare us the blue lives matter rhetoric until the party demonstrates that it actually means it by taking concrete steps to protect the lives of police officers, including banning assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and armor-piercing ammunition, and closing loopholes in state and federal laws that make a semi-automatic handgun available to almost any criminal that wants one.

July 22, 2016

Side deals shouldn’t distract from Port Covington TIF review.

Sagamore Development Co. has requested $535 million in public financing for the redevelopment of Port Covington. Daily Record reporter Daniel Leaderman reported July 14 that Sagamore had reached a “community benefit agreement” with six neighborhoods in the vicinity of Port Covington that will provide almost $40 million over the next 30 years to fund various projects in the neighborhoods.  Neighborhood representatives stated that their plans include a swimming pool, community center, and library.

Not to be outdone, Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes announced this week that he will seek to delay council hearings on the proposed tax increment financing (TIF) until Sagamore agrees to additional housing, hiring and profit-sharing investments.

Years ago, private and public exactions such as these were considered to be little more than shakedowns paid by developers in order to gain the support of neighborhoods and elected officials, and they remain controversial.  On March 14, Daily Record reporter Adam Bednar quoted from a blog post by noted Baltimore architect Klaus Philipsen, in which Mr. Philipsen called for a “meticulous analysis of the proposed project, the estimated cost and the benefits that the project promises.”

These exactions are based on nothing more than old-fashioned horse-trading, not “meticulous analysis,” and the amounts of money involved are arbitrary numbers arrived at through negotiation. In an ideal regulatory world, the taxes, fees and other exactions paid by a developer are calculated in accordance with established rules.

There is a real danger that the focus on these side deals will distract attention from the merits of the TIF proposal itself. Could a few nice-to-have amenities like swimming pools be more politically attractive than a stronger financial deal for the city?

There is general agreement that the proposed redevelopment is an excellent opportunity for the city; as Philipsen pointed out, that does not mean that city does not need to carefully scrutinize the proposal in order to assure that the city is fully protected from unnecessary financial risk.  Approval by the city should be based on that scrutiny and not on side deals having nothing to do with the refinancing.

David A. Plymyer

[Published as a Letter to the Editor by The Daily Record on July 21, 2016.  I did not post the letter until October 2, 2016; the date of posting listed above was backdated to place the letter in chronological order on the blog.]

The Baltimore City Council should oversee police disciplinary board composition.

During this past legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly made changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights that will allow civilians to sit on police department hearing boards starting Oct. 1st. What lawmakers didn’t do, however, was remove the composition of trial boards from the collective bargaining process.

So now, the Baltimore Police Department union is reportedly refusing to sign new collective bargaining agreements with the city to replace those that expired June 30th at least in part because members of the union don’t want civilians involved, despite the fact that citizen participation could improve transparency and community relations with officers — something the BPD sorely needs.

And so, negotiations continue, along with a lot of hand wringing. But there may be another option no one is talking about: It appears the City Council has the power to end the practice of submitting the composition of hearing boards to collective bargaining and therefore free officials from having to go hat in hand to Lodge No. 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police.

State law does not require the composition to be submitted to collective bargaining, providing only that it “may” be negotiated. The use of the word “may” rather than “shall” makes clear that the decision to negotiate the method of forming a board rests with the city. And the council has the power under the city charter to place reasonable limits on the scope of collective bargaining.

There already is an ordinance enacted pursuant to that power reserving to the city the “exclusive right” to “suspend, demote, discharge, or take any other appropriate disciplinary action against its employees for just cause and in accordance with the provisions relating to Civil Service of [the city] Charter and other applicable laws.” The “exclusive rights” of management should be expanded to include the right to decide upon the method of forming a hearing board under the LEOBR.

When the LEOBR was enacted in 1972 it revolutionized police discipline by taking away the authority of police chiefs to initiate disciplinary action against their officers and turning it over to hearing boards consisting of other officers appointed by the police chief. The FOP eventually persuaded the General Assembly to allow cities and counties to negotiate “alternative” methods of selection intended to dilute the authority of chiefs over the selection of members. Alternative methods were negotiated by the city and Lodge No. 3 that did as intended, and the quality of the boards and their decisions deteriorated accordingly.

In the “Strategic Plan for Improvement” issued by the BPD in November 2013 the department observed that, although recent improvements had been made, BPD hearing boards had “a bias toward inappropriately lenient verdicts and inappropriate ‘not guilty’ rulings. These biases occurred largely because officers of similar rank to the accused worried that they would endanger themselves if they were to render a strong verdict should they themselves be accused of similar offenses.” Civilian members would not have the same concerns and therefore may not have the same biases.

Civilian membership on hearing boards is not a panacea but is something that a great number of citizens believe is necessary to restore trust in the police disciplinary process. Those citizens have the right to have the issue of citizen membership decided in the legislative arena where they can be heard rather than through a collective bargaining process from which they are excluded.

The city council is going to have to step to the plate and take back decision-making authority that it never should have surrendered.

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on July 17, 2016 but not posted to my blog until September 26, 2016.  The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place posts in the order in which they were written.]

A different kind of war.

Every student of military history has heard the old saw that generals always fight the last war.  It means that generals apply lessons learned from the last war in order to prepare for the next, and is intended to be a word of caution:  The next war may be nothing like the last.

Donald Trump’s statement in the aftermath of carnage in Nice that he would seek a declaration of war against ISIS raises the question of what he believes a war on ISIS would look like.  If he views it solely in the conventional sense of engaging and destroying an enemy on a physical battlefield then he misunderstands the nature of the war that already is underway.

Unlike past wars this war is being fought in part in cyberspace, with the battles fought to recruit “home-grown” terrorists and to inspire attacks in Europe and the United States as important as the battles for territory in the Middle East; they are two fronts of the same war.  In the minds of the terrorists there is no bright line separating the virtual caliphate from the one on the ground.  The terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States will not end simply because ISIS is defeated on the battlefields of the Middle East.  ISIS also will have to be defeated on its second front in Europe and the United States, and doing so will require different strategies and tactics from those employed to defeat ISIS on a conventional battlefield.

The measures necessary to defeat ISIS on its second front may come as a shock to our sensibilities.  Battles will have to be fought in cyberspace to counter ISIS recruiting and to identify potential terrorists.  Internet and other communications will have to be monitored to an extent that we never would tolerate for ordinary law enforcement.  We will have to give intelligence agencies powers that we really do not like to give them.  To reduce potential enemies inside our borders to a manageable size for surveillance there will have to be profiling of individuals by religion, ethnicity, and national origin, with access to the United States controlled in the same manner.  It will be uncomfortable and it will place a strain on our democracy.

Conventional warfare is far more brutal and dehumanizing, but most Americans manage to avoid the experience by delegating the ugliness to the relative handful of volunteers in the military.  Sooner or later a president is going to have to sit us down and explain that all of us are going to have to tolerate some intrusions and indignities if ISIS is to be defeated.  This war is not like previous wars, and is not confined to distant battlefields.  It cannot be fought in the manner that we fought past wars and this time the “home front” must be actively engaged in the war-fighting effort if only by accepting some of the unpleasant consequences of this new kind of war.

July 15, 2016