As violence mounts, trust in Baltimore police wavers

Staggered by a succession of crises — civil rights violations, corruption convictions and the unsolved killing of a homicide detective — the Baltimore Police Department is closing out its dismal year with a depleted force struggling to contain soaring violent crime while also trying to restore wavering public trust.

While the department flails, city, state and federal officials appear to be operating from competing playbooks — a lack of coordination that law enforcement professionals warn could deepen distrust.

When Gov. Larry Hogan came to Baltimore Tuesday to announce a crime-fighting plan for the city, Baltimore officials stayed away. Mayor Catherine Pugh thanked Hogan, but said the plan offered nothing new.

Also Wednesday, a fifth officer from the formerly elite gun trace task force pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges for his role in a scheme to shake down criminal suspects and innocent citizens. Homicide Det. Sean Suiter had been set to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the task force when he was shot in the head last month.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is still waiting to hear whether the FBI will take over the investigation into Suiter’s death. In a letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Davis said he was “growing increasingly uncomfortable that my homicide detectives do not know all of the facts known to the FBI or [U.S. Attorney’s Office] that could, if revealed to us, assist us in furthering this murder investigation.”

Edward Jackson is a former city police colonel who serves on the civilian advisory panel appointed by Pugh to assist with the federally mandated reform of the department.

“The community has zero faith in the police department today,” Jackson said. “The Baltimore Police Department is in crisis.”

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the nation’s second highest-ranking law enforcement official, and former Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld, who presided over a drop in crime in the city from 2007 to 2012, implored city, state and federal law enforcement agencies to return to the coordination that they say worked.

Both also said that political and community leaders must be more vocal in their support of the majority of police officers who risk their lives daily to protect the city without engaging in misconduct or corruption. They said such support needs to overtake the narrative of those police protesters who have sought to tarnish all officers as distrustful based on the criminal and unconstitutional activities of a few.

Rosenstein was U.S. Attorney for Maryland for 12 years before becoming deputy attorney general in April. While in Baltimore, he worked closely with Bealefeld, city prosecutors and state probation and parole officials.

He said criminals have been emboldened by a police department that has become more like an ambulance service than an investigative agency.

“Reactive policing is when the police are the ambulance,” Rosenstein said. “You don’t want them sitting in their cars waiting for 911 calls.

Bealefeld said the lack of coordination among agencies has led to a worst-case scenario for police: They feel as unsafe and distrustful as residents.

“It’s one thing to be politically vulnerable, but now they feel physically vulnerable,” he said. “When cops feel physically vulnerable, that’s really bad.”

Leonard Hamm, commissioner before Bealefeld, said the vulnerability runs even deeper.

“Someone said to me that the streets are much more dangerous than back in the day,” said Hamm, public safety director for the Coppin State University police. “No they’re not. The difference is I could trust my side partners. They can’t trust their side partners anymore.”

He said the criticism, corruption and Suiter’s homicide are all inflicting a heavy toll on police.

“Those guys in homicide are hurting,” Hamm said. “When I went to [Suiter’s] funeral, when I was looking at them — emotionally, physically they were useless. They look just terrible.”

A defeated mentality will only fuel brazen criminal conduct, he said, further eroding public trust.

“We cannot be afraid,” Hamm said. “We cannot allow the criminal element to tell us we’re not going to do our job. We have to create an atmosphere where [community members] feel comfortable enough to work with us again.”

Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said the relationship with the community is “strained” just as officers need its help the most.

“We need the support of the community, the elected officials, the clergy and the administration,” Ryan said. “Officers don’t feel like they're getting support from any of that.”

Davis said he is committed to restoring community trust, but added that most residents already support police. Enacting more effective strategies is difficult with a force that has endured mass resignations since the 2015 rioting.

He disagreed with Rosenstein’s assertion that officers are being purely reactive. Suiter was shot pursuing a suspect, he said. Hours after the detective’s funeral, another officer was shot in the hand chasing a suspect.

The problem, Davis said, is staffing.

“I have 500 fewer police officers in 2017 then we had in Baltimore in 2012,” he said.

U.S. Justice Department investigators last year reported that widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in Baltimore had “exacerbated community distrust of the police, particularly in the African-American community.”

Davis said the police department is working through the reforms required under the court-enforced consent decree with the Justice Department.

“It takes time to build legitimacy,” he said. “Right now, it’s a tough time. We have cops sitting in prison waiting to be sentenced for committing crimes while on duty. It doesn’t get worse than that.”

Davis said the criminal prosecutions of officers, the civil rights reform and more civilian oversight should help to build trust.

“We are the good guys,” he said.

J. Howard Henderson, CEO of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, supports Davis’ efforts. He said the community must rally behind the police — as long as the department does not resort to the zero-tolerance era of mass arrests under former mayor Martin O’Malley.

“There is lack of cooperation,” Henderson said. “People want to have police in their neighborhoods. They’re not against community policing. But they want to be treated with respect, like they’re human.”

He called the failure of prosectors to win criminal convictions against any of the six officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray “a major letdown.”

Gray died in April 2015 after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in the back of a police van. On the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots, looting and arson.

Sadly, Henderson said, a cynical rhetorical question has been circulating in city neighborhoods: “Who killed Freddie Gray? He killed himself.”

Now the same refrain is being applied to Suiter’s death.

“Who killed Detective Suiter? He killed himself,” Henderson said.

Suiter, 43, was shot in the head with his own gun on Nov. 15 and died the next day. Davis has said investigators have not ruled out the possibility of suicide, but stressed that there was no evidence that led them to believe he took his own life.

Henderson said distrust in police must be high if people are connecting Suiter’s death to the gun trace task force corruption scandal.

“The trust is not where it should be,” he said.

Rosenstein said the city is at a point where the community has no choice but to trust that most police are not corrupt — something he reiterated every time he indicted Baltimore officers. For now, he said, city officers appear to have pulled back from actively pursuing suspects in a city where so many killings are retaliatory — and could be prevented through aggressive intervention between warring factions.

The nearly 990 homicides over the past three years are rivaled only by the 1,009 people killed during the height of the “crack-cocaine wars” of 1992 through 1994, he said. With 100,000 fewer residents, the current three-year crime rate is the worst in city history.

Police are less likely to be proactive in confronting repeat violent offenders if they fear that their actions will generate complaints that politicians will believe without investigating.

“You can’t do good policing in high-crime jurisdictions without generating complaints,” Rosenstein said. “The question is, are they legitimate complaints or not? If not, it’s important for police to know they have the support of the political leadership.”

Neighborhood leaders worry that tough talk on crime could signal a return to the zero-tolerance tactics that foster distrust.

Mass arrests “made it impossible for the people to trust the police,” said Lawrence Grandpre, research director for the activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. And an aggressive approach has led some officers into corrupt practices, he said.

Rosenstein said “proactive” policing is not “zero tolerance.” Instead, he said, he’s talking about the targeted crime-fighting policies in place under Bealefeld. Arrests and crime declined together thanks to local, state and federal agencies working closely with communities and each other to target the most violent, repeat offenders. Under Bealefeld, the city’s violent crime rate hit some of the lowest levels in decades.

“The first thing you need to do is to have everyone who is in a position to help be on the same page to reduce crime,” Rosenstein said. He declined to comment on whether the FBI would or should take over the Suiter investigation.

Matthew Gallagher was a top aide to O’Malley as both mayor and governor.

“There is so much interdependence in the work” of public safety agencies, he said. “This is particularly true in the effective management of the most high-risk cases — or, as former city police Commissioner Bealefeld would often say, ‘bad guys with guns.’”

Approximately one third of homicide and nonfatal shooting suspects and victims are under some form of state supervision such as parole or probation, he said.

“Intensively monitoring and proactively managing this population is absolutely critical to reducing violent crime,” Gallagher said. “This requires constant communication and information-sharing to coordinate and prioritize efforts.”

It appears to Bealefeld, Rosenstein and others that the coordination is not where it needs to be.

It’s not all woven together like it was,” Bealefeld said. “They need to focus on how, as a collective, they can move forward.

“I fear that politics gets in the way of that and personalities get in the way of that.”

Hogan, in Baltimore on Tuesday, spoke of reinstating policies and practices that were once standard procedure. He would once again get parole and probation officers involved in tracking down offenders, three years after police removed the state officials from working out of city precincts. He would also deploy state police in the city, among other initiatives.

“It’s a problem that has to be solved by city leadership with support from the state and federal government,” Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. “And that’s what we’re trying to maximize.”

Pugh said Davis has built strong ties with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other federal agencies.

She said she is grateful Hogan publicly supported better coordination between the state and city. The Democratic mayor said she hopes the Republican governor’s commitment and her efforts will streamline communication.

“When you hear it from the governor, that steps up the pace a little bit more,” Pugh said.

O’Malley on Friday criticized Hogan’s plan. In a tweet, he repeated Pugh’s assertion that the governor offered nothing new.

“Hogan — totally inept,” the Democratic former governor tweeted. “And people are dying.”

Mayer said O’Malley’s “policy of mass incarceration ruined countless lives and directly led to the mistrust between the community and law enforcement.”

Donald C. Fry, CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the business community “wants city and state politicians to remain hyper-focused” on fighting crime and avoid political bickering.

“Providing for the safety of its citizens transcends political parties or philosophies,” Fry said. “Teamwork is the key.”

Real estate agents who live in the city and sell properties across Baltimore are “absolutely concerned,” said Ross Mackesey, former president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

“Probably most concerning is that the crime has infiltrated the gentrified communities more so than in the past,” Mackesey said.

Bealefeld said all officials need to be selfless in working toward the shared goal of reducing crime.

“In light of the current crisis people are watching Commissioner Davis and the police department squirm,” Bealefeld said. “They need help. As the police department goes, so goes the crime fight. They’re it. And they can’t just be it by themselves.”

Davis agreed.

“Coordination certainly exists,” he said. “But it can always get better.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said “there is always room for more collaboration.”

“We are committed to working with all stakeholders to increase public safety,” she said in a statement.

When Pugh took office in December 2016, Davis said, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice was “dysfunctional, at best.” He praised Pugh’s appointment of former police department chief of staff Drew Vetter to coordinate crime-fighting efforts among city agencies.

Grandpre, of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said “we have to fundamentally rethink how we handle crime,” regardless of how many homicides occur.

“The question is, even in Baltimore’s best year, are you happy with your half a billion dollar investment in the police department?” he said. “If not, let’s take 10 percent of that budget and put it into preventative programs.

“We don’t know what the crime looks like” when such programming gets that level of investment, he said. “And that should haunt everyone who is making policy on policing in this state.”

Raymond Kelly, leader of the No Boundaries Coalition of neighborhood groups, said he witnessed the citizen cooperation with city police that led to record low crime prior to 2015.

“There was a lot of collaboration with the police,” he said. “All of that stopped after the riots.

“There is no trust with the department now.”

Kelly said crime has spiked because hundreds of officers have retired and not been replaced just as the opioid crisis has hit.

The city needs more officers engaging with neighborhoods to identify repeat offenders, he said, not simply arresting more people.

“It’s not one or the other,” he added. “You can’t arrest your way out of this.”

The department has a challenging task of rebuilding what union leader Ryan said is “all-time low morale” among officers and restoring community trust while fighting violent criminals.

“I don’t ever remember during my lifetime the Baltimore Police Department being this dysfunctional,” said Jackson, the former officer. “That all leads to the belief that the corruption and misconduct is widespread.”

Police officers should be commended for continuing to show up under such conditions, he said.

“We’ve had horrible periods,” Jackson said. “But not like this. It’s as a low as it’s ever been.”

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
68°