The Baltimore Police Department is in serious trouble.

The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) is in serious trouble, but you would not know that from the attitude of state and city officials.  The General Assembly seemingly has taken a hands-off approach to the crisis and city officials understate the gravity of the situation.

The calm and methodical approach of Mayor Catherine Pugh and the “I’ve got this” demeanor of Police Commissioner Kevin Davis are understandable – neither gloom and doom nor panic are useful responses – but I fear that they are not conveying to the public the urgent need for more fundamental changes to the governance and operation of the BPD.  That may be about to change, at least on the part of the mayor.

This week Mayor Pugh tacitly acknowledged that the BPD is in over its head, requesting help from the FBI, an agency not routinely involved in street-level crime.  Commissioner Davis on the other hand responded angrily to the statement by FOP President Gene Ryan that BPD’s staffing shortages have reached “crisis” level, replying that both he and his commanders found Lt. Ryan’s statement “offensive.”  Davis’s testy response tells me that he realizes that Ryan is right but that he is loath to admit, as the mayor has, that his department may not be up to the tasks at hand.

If you had to describe the tasks at hand for the BPD in a nutshell, you might say that the BPD needs to prevent and solve crime and control the conduct of its officers and do so while keeping the costs of running the department within reasonable limits.  If you don’t believe that the BPD is struggling with those tasks let’s take a look at the facts, beginning with the evidence of the failure of the department to control the conduct of its officers.

In 2014 The Sun reported that Baltimore paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that BPD officers used excessive force or otherwise abused the rights of citizens.  If the BPD had a problem with the use of excessive force, however, it was not reflected in the outcomes of its disciplinary system.

An analysis of data from January 2013 through March 2016 by The Sun’s Catherine Rentz disclosed that eight out of every ten excessive-force complaints submitted to the internal affairs division of the BPD were found to be “not sustained,” a rate more than twice as high as that found in a national study by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  According to a separate report by WBAL’s Jayne Miller internal affairs cases languished an average of 183 days before investigations even were completed.

After a year-long investigation the DOJ issued a 163-page report in August 2016 detailing how Baltimore police routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force.  Among the many damning findings by the DOJ was its conclusion that many front-line supervisors within the BPD – sergeants and lieutenants – didn’t bother supervising.  The DOJ reported that its review did not identify a single stop, search, or arrest that a front line supervisor found to violate constitutional standards “even though numerous incident reports for these activities describe facially unlawful police action.”

In February of this year a federal grand jury indicted seven members of the BPD’s “elite” Gun Trace Task Force on charges that are especially troubling even by BPD standards, with the United States Attorney referring to the officers as nothing more than armed robbers with police badges – one more violent gang in a city saturated with violent gangs.  Much has been written, some by me, on the need to change the culture that exists among rank-and-file officers and their immediate supervisors within the BPD.  If you want an idea of how much work remains to be done to change that culture read the snippets of the conversations among the officers quoted in the indictment.

The indicted officers also were accused of conspiring to commit overtime fraud against the city by falsifying time and attendance reports; the supervisor of the task force, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, allegedly submitted claims for overtime for five days in July 2016 during which he was on vacation with his family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  Jenkins was paid a total of $83,345 in overtime in fiscal year 2016 in addition to his salary of $85,406.  The indictment does not indicate how much of that overtime was based on the alleged fraud, but we do know that the overtime budget is completely out of control, with rampant abuse undoubtedly one of the reasons.

This year the BPD is on pace to double what it spent on overtime in 2013 and to exceed the $17 million budgeted for overtime in fiscal year 2017 by nearly $30 million; in other words, the BPD is now spending approximately $1 million per week on overtime.  It is not as if the BPD was not costly enough already; Baltimore has the 8th largest municipal police department in the country even though it is only the 26th largest city by population.

Funding of the BPD has increased about 37% since 2011 to about $480 million this year and on a per capita basis is now one of the most expensive police departments in the country, if not the most expensive.  Even key city officials are now complaining that the costs of running the department are unreasonable and must be dramatically reduced because other priorities, especially education, are being compromised.

The increase in spending on the BPD has not been accompanied by a decrease in crime – to the contrary.  There were 197 murders in all of 2011 and less than four months into 2017 there already are 101.  Homicides are up more than 34% compared to the same time last year, non-fatal shootings are up 27%, and carjackings have increased by 61%.  Other crimes are on the uptick as well.

The BPD is not to blame for the epidemic of violent crime in the city now into its third year but neither is there any reason to believe that the BPD is up to the task of coping with it.  The BPD improved its dismal case closure rate of 38% in 2016 to a mediocre 49% so far this year but, as explained by Justin George of The Sun, the increase may not be as significant as it first appears.  In any event, there is no metric by which the efforts of the BPD to prevent and solve crime can be deemed to be a “success.”

Crime in general has rendered some of the poorer neighborhoods in the city almost uninhabitable but juvenile crime in particular has ruined the quality of life in more affluent communities such as Federal Hill.  Marauding bands of teenagers have caused trouble downtown and in the Inner Harbor off and on for years, capturing national attention in 2012 when State Senator Patrick McDonough stated that the Inner Harbor should be declared a “no travel zone” like certain areas in the Middle East.

The problem of groups of teenagers assaulting and harassing visitors to the Inner Harbor hit the headlines again in February of this year.  Tourism in the Inner Harbor depends on the perception that, although Baltimore has some very dangerous neighborhoods, the Inner Harbor is specially protected and therefore “safe.”  An incident that reprises the negative attention that the city got in 2012 could shatter that perception and put a dagger into the heart of the tourism industry in the city, something that the city can ill afford; tourism generates about $283 million per year in taxes and fees for the city and $396 for the state with direct spending by visitors in excess of $5 billion.

Can the BPD keep the Inner Harbor and other downtown tourist attractions safe for visitors?  Doing so requires saturating the area with police officers, and patrolling the Inner Harbor is now competing against other pressing needs throughout the city for the shrinking personnel resources of the BPD.  One instance of a teenage thug knocking a tourist to the ground caught on cell phone video and we again are going to hear calls for the National Guard to patrol the Inner Harbor with M-16’s because the BPD can’t protect visitors.

Without more officers the BPD is unable to staff the personnel deployment plan introduced in 2015 without relying heavily on overtime.  The plan, which replaced five eight-hour shifts per week with four ten-hour shifts, requires 1,250 officers to staff; the city currently has about 900.  In 2014 the department cut 200 positions and the following year froze 225 more.  The staffing “crisis” to which FOP head Ryan referred is compounded by the fact that the BPD no longer is able to recruit new officers fast enough to replace departing ones.

Mandatory overtime can be hard on morale and fatigue from extended shifts can reduce effectiveness and endanger both officers and citizens.  The use of ten-hour shifts currently is hardwired into the department because it is written into the police union contract.  There is no quick fix even if the union contract is renegotiated and it appears that the department will be struggling to meet the demands of its workload for years to come.

As if all of the above was not enough, the relationship between the BPD and the equally-troubled State’s Attorney’s Office is increasingly fraught; the SAO is having as much difficulty securing convictions as the BPD is having closing cases.  The stress on the BPD is coming from almost every direction, and it is reeling.

To some extent the investigation by the DOJ and the now-approved consent decree have caused state and city leaders to step back and wait, as if the solutions to the BPD’s problems lie in someone else’s hands.  That is a dangerous misperception; the consent decree between the city and the DOJ is not a panacea and in fact is likely to increase the strain on the BPD in the short term.  The consent decree is an imperfect remedy at best and implementing it will be extremely expensive and draw resources away from the fight against crime.  It also demands a less-aggressive style of policing at a time when some experts are saying that the BPD needs to embrace a more aggressive approach.

One thing that you never hear mentioned by those who praise the consent decree is that the city is in uncharted territory – no police department has had to spend time and money on compliance with a consent decree while also trying to combat an historic increase in crime comparable to Baltimore’s.  In an interview with WBAL-TV’s Adam May outgoing United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod Rosenstein cautioned that the focus of the consent decree is on policing the police, not on fighting crime.  He stated that the city needs to return to the aggressive, proactive policing that drove down violent crime from 2007 to 2014 because the mission of keeping the streets safe is not being accomplished.  “We need to be more aggressive, more pro-active with law enforcement, because our responsibility is to protect the law abiding citizens.”

The problem is that under the consent decree policing is likely to be less aggressive and pro-active, partly by design.  For example, the consent decree prohibits BPD officers from stopping and frisking a person in a high crime neighborhood based only on the person’s sudden and unprovoked flight from the officers, even though the practice is constitutionally sound and results in taking handguns and other contraband off of the streets.  In asking the FBI for help Mayor Pugh complained that “There are too many guns on the streets.”  Assuming she is correct it was not the ideal time to agree to end a practice that actually took some of those guns off of the streets.

Under pressure from members of the city council to downsize and under compulsion by the consent decree to adopt a less-aggressive style of policing the BPD is being asked to make two major transitions – downsize and change its style of policing – at a time when it can barely do its job.  I do not doubt that over time the city will be better served by a smaller and higher-quality department or that the consent decree ultimately will result in the improvement of the quality of the department; I just wonder how well these transitions can be managed while the department is struggling to accomplish its basic mission of keeping the streets safe.

_______

How did things get this bad for the BPD?  In my opinion, the BPD has become ungovernable.  By “ungovernable” I mean that the department’s leadership is precluded by the structural limitations on its authority from making the changes and asserting the influence necessary to control the conduct of police officers, rein in costs, and shape the department into a police force capable of coping with a crime rate of historic proportions.

Don’t expect sustained improvement in the performance of the BPD until there is a change in its governance.  Specifically, the state and the city must restore to the Police Commissioner the authority to run the department that was gradually ceded to the police union and collective bargaining.  The recipe for the success of any governmental agency is to appoint a competent leader, give that leader the tools necessary to do the job, and then hold the leader accountable for the agency’s performance.  Conversely, take the tools necessary to do the job away from the leader and watch the performance of the agency gradually deteriorate – which is exactly what has happened to the BPD.

I described in a post last week how the authority of the Police Commissioner to control the conduct of officers has been eroded over time by the state and city.  The problem also extends to control over the allocation of personnel and other resources; the commissioner should not have to go hat in hand to the union to be able to change shift and staffing patterns to respond to changing circumstances.

In January of last year the Daily Record published an editorial in which it observed that the BPD would never be reformed unless someone managed to “dismantle the police union’s grip on city government.”  That observation can be extended to the FOP’s grip on state government and it is as true now as it was true then.  It will continue to be true until state and city officials muster the political will to do something about it.

I have made other suggestions in the past about things that needed to be done to restore a sensible “balance of power” between labor and management in the BPD.  None of my proposals were particularly earth-shattering, but at least they reflected the reality that nibbling around the edges of the problems with the BPD is not going to be sufficient.  State and city officials have yet to grasp that reality.  The commissioner has initiated some reforms but they don’t come close to solving the problems.  More than rearranging the deck chairs will be required.

And yes, I do see the BPD as a giant ocean liner headed toward an iceberg.  At some point it becomes too late to change course to avoid a collision.  I hope I am wrong, but I believe that the BPD may be past the point where anything can be done to avoid some very rough times in the next few years.  If violent crime continues unabated as the costs of complying with the consent decree climb we are going to see extraordinary levels of political turmoil in Baltimore and Annapolis.

Crime rates generally are cyclical and maybe the best that can be done now is pray for a fortuitous downturn in the violence gripping Baltimore.  At the same time we might also pray for forgiveness for the state and city officials who have done almost nothing to fix the BPD and protect the city.

April 27, 2017

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