An admission of defeat by the State’s Attorney and Police Commissioner?

I, along with many others, read Justin Fenton’s account of his interview with Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis with a sense of despair. I heard Ms. Mosby and Commissioner Davis say many things, but above all I heard them trying to tamp down expectations of reducing violent crime any time soon to try to save their reputations, and their jobs.

I must admit that I’ve long since written off State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, and have no expectations that she will say much of anything worthwhile, let alone admit any shortcomings in her approach to her job. The good thing about having low expectations is that you’re seldom disappointed, at least when it comes to public officials in Baltimore.

The claim by Commissioner Davis that the style of policing that resulted in a reduction to fewer than 200 homicides in 2011 also produced the civil unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray was, however, disappointing in its intellectual dishonesty. What Commissioner Davis left out is much more significant than the nugget of truth in his statement. It was not the tactics employed that produced the collateral damage to the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and city residents, it was that they too frequently were applied in an undisciplined and abusive manner. It is a difference with a critical distinction.

The distinction is that the answer lies in improving the discipline and quality of the department, not in abandoning the type of tactics necessary to gain some semblance of control over what has been happening on the streets of Baltimore for the better part of the past three years. Because Commissioner Davis has condemned the tactics of his predecessors he has wedded himself to his own version of history, a version that is not entirely accurate and that tends to absolve him of any responsibility for the continuing epidemic of murder and other violent crime in the city.

As Peter Moskos  pointed out this week in a post to his blog, the numbers certainly indicate that “discouraging proactive legal discretionary policing allowed violent criminals to be more violent” beginning in about 2015. Professor Moskos is one name on a fairly long list of critics of the abandonment of proactive policing in the city that includes former United States Attorney for the District of Maryland (and current U.S. Deputy Attorney General) Rod Rosenstein, former State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, and former Deputy Police Commissioner Anthony Barksdale.

I have been a vocal advocate for improving the discipline and quality of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), and the Baltimore Sun has published a number of my op-eds on the subject over the past several years. Re-reading the most recent, “Baltimore police officer is a tough job, treat it as such” (I don’t write the captions), I realize that it has a bit of a desperate, it’s-now-or-never feel to it. Well, it should, because that feeling reflects reality.

Professor Moskos expressed his concern that “Baltimore is transitioning from a city with failures to a failed city.” I agree with him. Baltimore is near a tipping point, and if passes that point years of decline will be inevitable. In fact, the BPD and the city may already have reached the tipping point; I wrote (another) pessimistic commentary four months ago in which I opined that the BPD was in more serious trouble than city and state elected officials seemed to realize.

I’ve always believed that improving the discipline of the BPD is a means to a specific end, in the sense that the nature of violent crime in Baltimore, particularly gun crime, requires an aggressive, proactive approach. It is axiomatic that the closer policing is pushed to its constitutional limits, the more well-trained and disciplined a force must be to avoid transgressing those limits. I believe that it also is true that, by 2014, there was an accumulation of evidence demonstrating that there needed to be a re-set in the culture of the BPD; there were too many rogue officers and the BPD was destroying its relationship with the community it is intended to serve.

The appropriate response, in my opinion, was to try to turn the disciplinary situation around as quickly as possible. That certainly required some re-training, but it also required some fundamental changes to the governance of the department restoring full power to run the department to the commissioner and his top commanders. Maybe it required a temporary stand down as applied to certain tactics, but it certainly did not include permanently hard-wiring the abandonment of lawful “stop and frisks” into the consent decree with the DOJ, as was done by Mayor Catherine Pugh and Commissioner Davis.

There is no doubt in my mind that, if done properly, a more proactive policing style would be welcomed by the vast majority of city residents. Citizens don’t need any explanation about the crisis at hand, but I believe that the city leadership would have to get behind the Police Commissioner and “sell” the program to the public – the public needs to understand the reason for the approach and be assured that, although innocent toes are going to get stepped on from time to time, the BPD command is committed to minimizing and controlling any abuses. Old school police officers didn’t believe in the need to explain anything to anyone (no one in authority did), but times have changed and so has policing.

Nothing is going as I had hoped; what little change there has been has come too slowly, and the Mayor and Police Commissioner now almost seem to accept the level of violent crime in the city as inevitable. One of the former public officials referenced above encouraged me earlier this year not to abandon the efforts to push the BPD to reinvigorate its style of policing; I must say, however, that I am becoming increasingly convinced that trying to persuade the group currently in power in the city to change their minds on anything is a monumental waste of time.

August 29, 2017

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