Complaints against police down sharply, Baltimore leaders say

Excessive force complaints down 45 percent since 2012, Baltimore police commissioner says.

Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner say that one year after undertaking a broad reform plan for the Police Department, complaints against officers have fallen sharply along with a drop in crime.

The officials said the Police Department is a little more than halfway through implementing about 150 suggestions compiled in a report by outside consultants last year — a plan that called for changes in nearly every area of the agency.

With national protests over the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the reform work that he began two years ago has taken on even greater urgency.

"What I told my command staff today is the ground beneath our feet [is] changing. We're having a social shift taking place," Batts said. "I think the message is clear. There's 100 different cities that are having protests."

The officials said challenges remain, and hours after the news conference, the agency found itself issuing a statement denouncing an officer's actions and use of profanity, depicted in a video as he arrested a woman who was filming the arrest of someone else.

"The video does not capture enough information to draw definitive conclusions about what transpired before and during the arrest," police said in a statement. "What is clear is that the language used is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

In the video, posted on YouTube, a male voice can be heard saying, "You're a dumb bitch, you know that?"

The agency said they have been aware of the incident since April. They said an investigation of the officer was turned over to city prosecutors, who in September dropped charges of assaulting a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest that had been filed against the woman.

Her attorney, Joshua Insley, said the language used was the least of his client's frustrations over the incident. He says police deleted the video from her phone, but it was preserved on a backup server, and filed "bogus" charges against her. He said he filed a lawsuit on her behalf last week in Baltimore Circuit Court.

At the earlier news conference, Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pointed to increased citizen cooperation, with department statistics that show a tripling of tips to police from the community, and a reduction in complaints.

The department has received 66 excessive force complaints this year, compared with 122 in all of 2012, they said. Discourtesy complaints have fallen from 184 two years ago to 86 so far this year. The city has also received 55 notices from lawyers planning to sue police, about one-third the number in 2012.

A report from 2003, not presented at Monday's news conference, showed that police received 285 excessive force complaints and 208 discourtesy complaints in 2002.

"That's not just happenstance. That didn't just happen by itself," Batts said of the three-year decline.

Batts and the mayor also said they are making progress in implementing plans in the consultant's report, which called for body cameras well before the national push currently under way, as well as major changes to how cases where police use force are investigated.

A body camera task force recently began studying the issue, and the agency's Force Investigation Team is looking into more than 30 cases.

The agency could record its lowest number of officer-involved shootings in a decade — there hasn't been a police shooting of a citizen since June.

Still, earlier this year, the agency invited a U.S. Justice Department review amid a report in The Baltimore Sun detailing how the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality since 2011.

The Sun found that some Baltimore officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and there were significant gaps in the system used to monitor misconduct in the Police Department.

A spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he hadn't been clued in to the statistics presented at Monday's news conference.

"He's certainly hopeful the city is headed in the right direction, but it's difficult to make that assessment when you don't have any data," said Young's spokesman, Lester Davis. "If true, they sound great and would represent welcome news. But he really wants to get some details on the news behind the numbers."

The news conference took place the day after the city recorded its 200th homicide of the year with the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Tymaine Sellman in Southwest Baltimore. The city recorded fewer than 200 homicides in 2011 but hasn't been below the mark since.

While homicides and nonfatal shootings rose last year, they are both down this year. Preliminary statistics show a total violent crime drop of about 9 percent.

Rawlings-Blake said improving relationships with the community goes hand in hand with reducing crime. When Baltimore recorded 197 homicides in 2011, Rawlings-Blake said "many people wanted to take a victory lap, because it was a number we didn't think we'd ever get below," she said.

"At the same time, there were a lot of complaints about discourtesy, excessive force, and the relationship between the community and police was not where we wanted it to be," she said. "We're doing work with community engagement that will allow us to continue the reduction in violence but make it sustainable because we'll be doing it with the community."

Batts was named commissioner in September 2012 following a 30-year career in California police agencies and the next year hired outside consultants at a cost of $285,000 to help assemble a strategic plan to overhaul the agency.

Their work "showed how we are out of alignment with our community," Batts said Monday. "We were missing the target, and to a certain extent today we are still missing the target."

The plan was formally presented in late November 2013 and included a wide range of suggested reforms. Changes that officials say have already been implemented include increasing foot patrols, creating a board to review officers' uses of force, improving training, and using a policing model for "taking back" public spaces such as Lexington Market.

With his command staff standing behind him, Batts said assembling his own leadership team had also been a major step.

Batts expects a new work schedule for patrol officers — hashed out with the city police union this year and scheduled to go into effect next month — to have a dramatic effect. He said the new plan unties the hands of commanders, who will now be able to deploy officers as needed as opposed to fixed work shifts.

The Police Department's technology remains outdated, Batts said, though the changes he envisions carry a high price tag.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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