It’s too soon to declare victory for the Baltimore Police Department.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh described the day that United States District Court Judge James Bredar signed the order approving the consent decree between the city and the Department of Justice (DOJ) that requires changes to the policies and practices of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) as “a great day for Baltimore.”  She said that the approval was as “a great victory for the citizens of Baltimore as well as for our Police Department.”

It is too soon to declare victory.  The easy part is now behind the city; the hard work lies ahead.  The consent decree is no panacea.  Political courage will be required to assure its success and that tends to be in short supply.

Many factors contributed to the troubled record of the BPD but at heart of the problem was the failure of state and city officials to adhere to one simple rule:  The path to success for almost any governmental organization is placing a competent person in charge, giving that person the tools necessary to run the organization, and holding him or her accountable for the results.  The rule applies to schools and principals and it applies to police departments and police chiefs.

State and city officials defied this principle by a series of decisions that eroded the power of the police commissioner to control the conduct of officers and to ensure that only good officers were retained and promoted, taking away important tools from the commissioner.  If those decisions are not reversed there will be no sustainable reform of the BPD.

The failure was a collective effort.  The General Assembly did its part by enacting a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) that takes disciplinary decisions out of the hands of police chiefs, renders it extraordinarily difficult to discipline officers for misconduct, and is entirely unsuited to the demands of a large, urban police department.

The city allowed sergeants and lieutenants and the officers they supervise, all of whom are protected by the LEOBR, to be represented by the same union.  As if to emphasize the stranglehold that the union has over them city officials negotiated union contracts further diluting the commissioner’s authority over discipline by stripping the commissioner of the right to appoint the members of the hearing boards convened to determine if police officers should be disciplined.

In other words, the sole authority to administer discipline once exercised by the commissioner was transferred by the state to panels of the commissioner’s subordinates selected by the commissioner.  Next, the sole authority of the commissioner to select the members of the panels was taken away by the city.  The consequences were predictable.

The attenuation of management’s ability to shape the attitudes and behavior of officers created the opportunity for an insular, anti-management culture to flourish among the rank-and-file and their immediate supervisors.  Far too often this resulted in out-of-control officers supervised by sergeants and lieutenants who were indifferent, or worse. The culture will not change unless the authority of the commissioner is restored and the power of the police union diminished.  And, if the culture is not changed all of the additional training and other changes required by the consent decree will amount to castles built on sand.

Am I confident that state and city officials have the political courage to take on the police union and give back to the commissioner the tools necessary to run the BPD?  An old saw explains why I am not.

A stranger came across a man digging for buried treasure.  The man enlisted the stranger’s help and after an hour of fruitless digging the stranger asked the man if he was sure they were digging in the right spot.  The man admitted that they weren’t digging in the right spot, explaining “The treasure is buried over there, but the ground is softer over here.”  If history is any judge state and city elected officials will do enough to make it appear that they are trying to solve the problem without doing the tough work required to actually solve it.  Neither the General Assembly nor the City Council has shown much of an appetite for engaging in a battle with the police union.

Far be it from me to throw cold water on the mayor’s celebratory mood. Personally, however, I will wait to celebrate until I see evidence that state and city officials intend to dig in the right spot and make the changes to state and city law necessary to achieve sustainable reform of the BPD.

April 21, 2017

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