On a warm summer evening three years ago, Elizabeth Fowlkes sat at her dining room table, chatting on the phone with her granddaughter and watching her dog Sophie in the backyard, when she heard a commotion in the alley behind her rowhome. What happened next prompted two neighbors to call 911 and Fowlkes to complain to the governor's office.
It also started the clock on the Baltimore Police Department's system for investigating its own.
Fowlkes and several bystanders told police at the scene that officers slammed a man from the neighborhood onto the ground for no reason after a traffic stop. Internal affairs investigators, however, didn't contact the witnesses for weeks. By that time, only Fowlkes would talk.
Investigators interviewed all of the officers who responded eight months later. By that time, the police wagon driver didn't remember taking the man to the Northeastern police station before he was taken to the hospital.
In all, it took more than a year and a half for internal affairs to arrive at a finding of "not sustained," meaning investigators didn't have enough evidence to prove or disprove excessive force. (It took three months for prosecutors to drop the charges against the man they arrested that night, including resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.)
Investigators would discredit the only civilian witness to cooperate with internal affairs — 77-year-old Fowlkes. They questioned her credibility because of inconsistencies in her statements, such as when she heard police sirens, and didn't challenge police accounts.
The outcome in Fowlkes' case is typical, a Baltimore Sun investigation has found. Internal affairs investigations often take longer than they should, mostly conclude without proving or disproving the officer's alleged misconduct, and rarely find that officers used excessive force, according to an analysis of data from January 2013 through March 2016.
Nearly eight of every 10 excessive-force complaints submitted to police over that period ended the same way — "not sustained" — and officers didn't face any discipline. That rate is more than twice as high as that found in a national study by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The data obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act and the handling of the Fowlkes' case — detailed in an investigative file that only became public because it was filed as evidence in a court case — provide a rare look into the Baltimore Police Department's internal affairs. The details of cases are typically kept secret by law.
The experience left Fowlkes and her neighbor skeptical of the system, and they are not alone in cities like Baltimore. In recent years, the American Civil Liberties Union, an outside auditor and department officials have flagged problems in internal affairs with training, staffing, oversight and length of investigations.
Community activists say a mistrust of police and the process has made residents reluctant to cooperate — even in cases against officers.
"Everyone knows the police can't police themselves," said Ray Kelly, president of the advocacy group No Boundaries Coalition, which has gathered stories from West Baltimore residents about alleged police misconduct.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who took the helm last year, said his administration has been overhauling internal affairs, adding more detectives and supervisors and improving the system for flagging officers who routinely draw misconduct complaints. He also said that more complaints against officers have been upheld than under the past two chiefs.
"I'm absolutely confident our Police Department will be a model for police accountability in short order," he said. "There is a lot to fix, but it's not a mystery how to fix it."
The nation's eighth-largest police department, with 2,300 officers, had been focused on the crime fight, Davis said, and he's taking a more holistic approach.
"Homicides and nonfatal shootings are important and deserve to be, but there are other parts of policing that are as important," he said. "You can argue they all work hand-in-hand. They are not mutually exclusive. We can be a crime-fighting police department and one that holds officers accountable."
The Justice Department has undertaken a wide-ranging civil rights investigation of the Police Department and is expected to release the results within days. Davis has said he's trying to implement changes now, to get ahead of being told to do so.
Federal officials are digging deep into Baltimore's internal affairs files — they have requested so many that they had to hire an outside contractor to make copies.
As part of reviews in other cities, the Justice Department has faulted police departments for a bias in favor of officers in internal affairs cases, a low rate of sustaining citizen complaints and a failure to conduct investigations in a timely fashion.
In Baltimore, The Sun's six-month investigation into more than 1,700 internal and external complaints found:
•Internal affairs cases took nearly eight months, on average, to complete. The Justice Department recommends that routine cases take 90 days to complete.
•In two-thirds of all cases, internal affairs investigators concluded they didn't have enough evidence to rule one way or another. For a smaller subset — more than 340 excessive-force complaints — that rate climbs to about three-fourths of cases.
•About 4 percent of the excessive-force complaints were upheld, or "sustained," resulting in one officer getting fired, two leaving in lieu of termination and the others getting lesser forms of punishment, including loss of accrued vacation leave and letters of reprimand.
•Investigators were far more likely to uphold complaints of any kind against police officers when they were made by another officer. In those cases, a majority of complaints were sustained, compared to 8 percent of citizen complaints.
•Another 2,500 lower-level complaints were forwarded to the police districts to be investigated by staff there, not internal affairs. Half were closed without any findings.
Internal affairs also continues to struggle with understaffing and community relations.
While a number of reforms have been implemented in recent months, police say they are still juggling workloads of 15 cases per detective, or more than twice as many as in Prince George's County, Maryland's third-largest police force behind Baltimore City's and Baltimore County's.
Moreover, Internal affairs investigators are sometimes diverted to help cover patrol duties and provide security at special events, as the Police Department grapples with vacancies and high rates of violent crime in the city. Policing experts say these diversions should never happen, because the investigators are supposed to be independent from the rest of the force.
Baltimore officials also say they are frustrated by a lack of citizen cooperation and a wariness that has deepened in recent months, as the nation is roiled by a number of civilian deaths at the hands of police and retaliatory killings of officers.
Over the past year in Baltimore, police have been working to repair community relations following Freddie Gray's death after suffering injuries in police custody. Six officers have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the case, and their internal affairs reviews are being handled by Montgomery and Howard county police departments. Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby has said the criminal case is an example of Baltimore police being unable to police themselves.
In the civil case brought by the man arrested in Fowlkes' neighborhood, Abdul Salaam, two witnesses in addition to Fowlkes stepped forward to testify. So did Salaam, who didn't talk to internal affairs. He says he tried to reach police to complain; internal affairs says he wouldn't cooperate.
After a three-day civil trial earlier this year, the jury found that police had violated Salaam's rights and awarded him $70,000, which the city paid. The jurors used the same legal standard as internal affairs when considering the case — they had to find a "preponderance of evidence" for the plaintiff.
As for her complaint, Fowlkes never heard back from internal affairs about the outcome. Two other residents would file complaints against the same officers for separate incidents within days of Fowlkes; they also said they never heard what happened in those internal affairs cases.
Jonathan Smith, former chief of special litigation at the Justice Department's civil rights division, where he oversaw more than 20 investigations of police departments, said citizens become frustrated when they complain, don't hear any response and then see the officers back on the street.
"Police don't trust communities, and communities don't trust police," he said, adding that residents need to believe their complaints are "investigated fairly" and that the outcome is "impartial."
That mistrust can become endemic and cripple policing efforts, said Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has written several books about police accountability. Police misconduct "alienates" citizens, and their "stories spread among families, friends, and neighbors," he said.
"People not only do not trust the police, but at its worst, police misconduct also generates fear of the police. Effective crime-fighting cannot work in such an environment," said Walker, who also has written several reports on police accountability for the Justice Department. "A police department can't function effectively if it does not know what its employees are doing and fails to correct inappropriate behavior."
State lawmakers have stepped in to try to make police more accountable, by giving residents more time to file complaints, reducing to five days the time officers can put off talking to internal affairs to find a lawyer, and allowing civilians to be on an internal disciplinary board. But critics say those efforts fell short of what's needed.
Baltimore police urge citizens to come forward and not to become discouraged by the process. Davis also points out that he's fired bad officers, including for excessive force as well as drunk driving, assault, theft and other misconduct. Last year 21 officers were terminated, or retired or resigned in lieu of termination, after internal discipline hearings, or double the number from the year before. So far this year, that number is 14.
"You'll have officers going, 'Man, internal affairs is going to do this to you,' and citizens saying, 'Man, internal affairs doesn't care about that,'" said Chief Rodney Hill, the head of the office of professional responsibility, which includes internal affairs. "It's just so not true. If people had any idea."
In the summer of 2013, over a span of 18 days, three traffic stops by a special operations team of Baltimore police officers in the Northeastern District would lead to civilian complaints, lawsuits and one death.
In the first incident, three officers pulled over Salaam's blue minivan in the alley behind Fowlkes' house, between Pentwood and Pentridge roads. It was a "pre-textual stop" for alleged seat belt and cellphone violations; the officers were part of an operations unit looking for guns and drugs.
Salaam's 3-year-old son, Amir, was in the back seat. They had just been grocery shopping.
More than a dozen residents gathered, and more officers were called. But they would tell different stories.
In court testimony and statements to internal affairs, the arresting officers said that Salaam, 37, sped down the alley after they turned on their lights and sirens. When he approached the car, Officer Nicholas Chapman said, Salaam made a "furtive" move.
Chapman said he pulled Salaam out, worried he was reaching for a gun. Chapman said the two fell to the ground as he yelled for Salaam to put his hands on his head. They struggled until officers were able to get Salaam in handcuffs. Chapman said he tried to grab Salaam's legs to roll him over, and that's when Salaam kicked him in the jaw.
The other officers with Chapman, Nathan Ulmer and Jorge Omar Bernardez-Ruiz, said Salaam was resisting arrest.
Brian Loiero, a supervisor dispatched to the scene, told internal affairs that one neighbor told him that Salaam was being "combative" and another called police because she worried about her neighbors becoming unruly.
But Salaam said he thought police were after someone else and pulled into a parking spot to get out of their way and not block the alley. He testified at the civil trial that he held his hands out of the window with his wallet.
A couple of neighbors told Loiero that officers "slammed" Salaam, according to the internal affairs file. And Fowlkes told investigators and the civil jury that Salaam never even tried to hit the officers. Two other witnesses backed her version in court.
Court records show that officers didn't find guns or drugs in Salaam's car.
While officers talked with bystanders at the scene that night, internal affairs didn't get involved until weeks later. By the time they reached out to civilian witnesses, most wouldn't talk or couldn't be found, and Salaam had secured a lawyer. Investigators interviewed the officers eight months after the incident and followed up more than a year afterward.
One witness told Loiero that she took a video with her cellphone of police slamming Salaam and showed it to him, according to another cellphone video of the scene that was referred to in the internal affairs file and shown to the jury in the civil case. Nearly three years later a witness told the civil jury that she had a video of the officers slamming her neighbor, but her phone broke and she lost her video.
Not enough evidence
Internal affairs concluded that "there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove that the officer's actions were excessive" and that "there is no independent account of the incident to support the allegations."
All they had was Fowlkes' word, and that wasn't enough.
Investigators determined Fowlkes wasn't independent because she told them that she didn't know her neighbor, even though she had named him in her letter to then-Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Internal affairs also noted in their file that Fowlkes said at one time that she didn't hear police sirens coming down the street but later said she heard a "whoop, whoop" sound behind her rowhome. And when investigators showed her a lineup with mugs of the officers involved in Salaam's arrest, she couldn't pick them out.
Fowlkes said she doesn't understand why investigators focused on those points.
She continues to insist that she didn't know Salaam at the time of his arrest. She told police that night that she didn't know him well enough to take care of his young son while they took Salaam to jail. And she didn't know him well enough to spell his name correctly in her letter to the governor.
As for the lineup two months after the incident, the officers looked different in the photos. For example, on the night he arrested Salaam, Chapman had a grown beard, but not in his picture. And police already knew which officers were there that night.
Internal affairs did not question the accounts from the police officers in the file. For instance, investigators noted that an officer smelled alcohol in a cup in the car, and that accusation was included in the statement of probable cause for arrest. The file and court documents indicate police never asked Salaam to take a Breathalyzer and never charged him with an alcohol offense.
Salaam said it was apple juice in his son's cup.
In addition, several officers who arrived after the altercation told internal affairs that they didn't see any visible injuries on Salaam. A mobile crime lab took nearly a dozen photos of abrasions and bruises on Salaam's arm, shoulder, knees and face while he was being treated at Good Samaritan Hospital.
The crime lab technician also took five photos of one of the officers with bruises on his face and neck.
Underscoring societal tensions between those who reflexively trust authority and those who question it, David Rocah, a lawyer with the ACLU, said the internal affairs file shows how officers presume that police tell the truth and that witnesses or those who complain aren't necessarily truthful. The Salaam file is the first he's ever seen released in Maryland.
"We are seeing the actual biases," he said. "How do they ever sustain any cases?"
After a Justice Department investigation in Newark, N.J., police agreed this year to "not discount witnesses' statements solely due to minor inconsistencies" and to "not give greater weight or credibility to officers' statements merely because they are officers."
Dwight Pettit, who handled Salaam's civil case and frequently represents plaintiffs suing police, discourages his clients from talking to police. He called filing a citizen complaint with the department "an attempt at futility."
"I tell them they can do it but in my legal background, it's a waste of time," he said.
Hill, who oversees Baltimore's internal affairs, said his investigators were frustrated that Salaam and witnesses testified in the civil case nearly three years after the incident but rebuffed his team.
"At the civil trial they had all these witnesses and his version, but us, we didn't have any of that. [Salaam] refused to give it to us," he said.
Hill also said that his investigators were overworked at the time of the investigation into Fowlkes' complaint, when 16 detectives were handling as many as 40 cases each.
And they doubted Fowlkes' credibility.
Michael Marshall, the attorney for Chapman, Ulmer and Bernardez-Ruiz, said the split verdict between a civil jury and internal affairs is "not unusual." Marshall, who has defended Baltimore police for the past three decades, attributes the different outcomes to sympathetic city juries "who don't understand police work."
Marshall also said that that type of police work leads to more confrontational encounters. "An officer who is doing drug enforcement work is going to have more contact with the community, making arrests, than someone doing patrol," he said.
The jury found that Chapman and Ulmer violated Salaam's rights and that all of them wrongfully detained him.
The officers, who are still on the force, declined through a police spokesman to be interviewed.
Fowlkes said she believes that if she hadn't written the governor, her complaint wouldn't have been investigated. "It would have been swept under the carpet," she said. "Which it was anyway."
Fowlkes' complaint was one of more than 340 excessive-force complaints filed from January 2013 to March 2016. Three-fourths of the cases were "not sustained," when police investigators concluded they didn't have enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegations.
Fourteen cases, or 4 percent, would be "sustained," meaning officers could be disciplined. Officers can be disciplined in a number of ways, from letters of reprimand and mandatory training to suspension or termination.
In the rest, officers were exonerated or the cases dismissed. Sometimes, excessive-force cases are elevated to criminal assaults.
Little is known across the country about how police investigate themselves. There's no central collection of misconduct complaint data, and departments collect and classify complaints differently.
But the Justice Department has collected some data on citizen complaints of excessive force. In 2006, the agency found that police couldn't gather enough evidence to move forward in 34 percent of cases at nearly 800 departments nationwide. The departments sustained 8 percent of cases, twice the rate in Baltimore in recent years.
Jason Johnson, deputy police commissioner for the Baltimore Police Department, suggested that internal affairs might have been misclassifying some cases as "not sustained." In many cases, he said, investigators could have exonerated the officers. The outcome is the same: no discipline.
Police Commissioner Davis pointed to the overall rate at which allegations against officers are sustained. He said that has risen to about 17 percent during his tenure, compared to 11 percent under his predecessor, Anthony Batts, and 7 percent under Batts' predecessor, Frederick H. Bealefeld III.
"That number over time will only grow," he said. "I know that for an absolute fact; it will only grow."
Bealefeld declined to comment. Batts said Davis is building on his efforts to reform "a dysfunctional police department," just as Batts built on changes made by Bealefeld.
Davis acknowledged that internal affairs is less likely to sustain civilian complaints than those brought by other police officers. But he said that's because many internal complaints aren't in dispute, whereas civilian complaints are more complicated.
Hill said some people file complaints with internal affairs to retaliate against officers, and some are false allegations. Others have attempted to "make a deal" to get criminal charges dropped.
Davis also said that people often allege excessive force after getting arrested but fail to cooperate when contacted by internal affairs investigators. In some cases, they may have been satisfied with being able to air their grievances. In other cases, he acknowledged that they may have a "lack of faith in the system."
"That's what we're trying change in Baltimore," he said.
Hill said investigators are accelerating cases and aim to close them within 90 days. They currently take nearly eight months, on average, and some stretch longer than a year.
Cases might take longer because internal affairs must wait until criminal court proceedings conclude or because officers might appeal, though police acknowledge that investigations still take longer than they should.
A new-use-of-force policy implemented in July requires supervisors to gather evidence at the scene for internal affairs, which Hill thinks will help speed investigations. The updated policy stresses de-escalation and requires officers to intervene if they see a fellow cop crossing the line.
The Justice Department has urged quicker investigations in other cities, including Cleveland.
"We saw many complaints that took more than a year to resolve — a delay that is unreasonable both to the civilian looking for resolution and the officers who bear the burden of recalling the details of the incident," the agency wrote on that city's police department.
Policing experts say delays can hamper an investigation. "Memories fade, become less clear," said Lou Reiter, a former Los Angeles police officer who now consults with departments on internal affairs.
Less than two weeks after police stopped Salaam in July 2013, United States Postal Service clerk Darrell P. Harris was driving his green Mercury Grand Marquis down Loch Raven Boulevard in the same neighborhood when he saw a white jeep take a U-turn to follow him.
"Here comes the B.S," Harris, 33, recalled saying to his friend, Richard Donaldson, as he turned onto Argonne Drive to park. Harris said he's been stopped "driving while black" several times over the years in Baltimore, so he took out his cellphone and recorded the interaction.
The same officers who arrested Salaam stopped Harris and surrounded his car. Officer Bernardez-Ruiz bent down to talk to Harris and told him he was being pulled over for "improper wearing of a seat belt," according to the video.
"There's no such thing as improper wearing of a seat belt," Harris shot back in the video.
"You gonna tell me my job, bro?" Bernardez-Ruiz asked.
Harris was wearing his seat belt, but with his left arm over the top strap.
Officer Ulmer then asked Harris to take the keys out of the ignition.
"For what?" Harris asked. "I'm getting out my license and registration."
Ulmer told him he was calling K9 drug-sniffing dogs.
"Do you smell any drugs?" Harris asked, agitated.
Ulmer asked him to roll his window all the day down, and at first Harris resisted. Then, when Harris complied, Ulmer reached in and took the keys out of the ignition. That's when Harris began yelling: "I don't feel safe."
His friend, Donaldson, called 911 on the police.
"I'm trying to get a supervisor at Argonne and Loch Raven. It's an harassment situation going on here. We are two law-abiding citizens getting targeted. I don't know why."
The officers found no drugs or guns in the car, and all traffic charges were dropped two months later. But the incident drove Harris to his "breaking point."
"You don't have to be brutalized to take away liberty," he said in an interview. "This is a fact of life living in Baltimore."
Harris typed a civilian complaint alleging an unlawful and illegal search, had it notarized and dropped it off with internal affairs.
On Oct. 18, 2013, he received a letter from Chief Rodney Hill stating that his complaint had been forwarded to the Northeast Command Investigations Unit. Harris didn't know it, but someone had decided that his complaint was less serious than those investigated by internal affairs detectives.
Harris was not surprised when he learned what had happened.
"It figures," he said.
For years, some lower-level allegations, including complaints about discourtesy or neglect of duty, were farmed out to so-called Command Investigations Units in the police districts.
Data obtained by The Sun shows nearly 2,500 complaints were handled that way from January 2013 through July 2015, when Davis came on board and stopped the practice. Half of those cases were closed with no explanation; a quarter were closed after detectives found insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegations.
Hill said detectives in these Command Investigations Units had massive caseloads and weren't attending to the investigations "for one reason or another."
A number of officers weren't disciplined because time ran out in about 100 cases. Under state law, in most cases apart from excessive force and criminal allegations, police have a one-year statute of limitations to impose discipline.
"There were a number of investigations not getting done before the statutory deadline," Hill said. "It was a big problem."
The Justice Department has criticized these separate investigative tracks in other cities. After a civil rights investigation of Seattle police, federal officials said in 2011 that they found internal affairs disposed of nearly two-thirds of citizens' complaints by sending them to the precincts where the quality of investigations was, according to one internal affairs supervisor, "appalling."
A year after Harris' complaint, an outside auditor flagged several structural and procedural problems with Baltimore's internal affairs, including the separate investigations done in the precincts.
The auditor, Karen Kruger, a Baltimore lawyer and national expert on police discipline, noted the potential for conflicts of interest, saying it would be difficult for detectives to remain "truly objective" when they work so closely with the accused officers and report to the same district commanders.
Kruger recommended that police move those investigations to internal affairs. A year later, Davis did just that.
The auditor also recommended that police conduct an in-depth audit to determine whether any of the complaints were "swept under the rug."
Hill said they haven't undertaken the follow-up audit recommended by Kruger, but Davis said he is seeking funding to hire auditors, which he believes would be a first in the agency. Their duties would include looking into internal affairs records.
Obtaining records of police misconduct complaints is a challenge in Baltimore. Police took several months to compile data for release under a public records request, removing officers' names and summaries of the allegations. Some broad categories of allegations, such as "misconduct general," shed little light on the kinds of complaints received. Police said state privacy laws prohibit the release of more detail.
Other jurisdictions, including Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, posts redacted complaint information online.
Harris' complaint was "administratively closed," according to the data obtained by The Sun. Harris said he was never informed of that outcome.
Unable to find a lawyer to take his case, Harris typed up a civil lawsuit and filed it in federal court, where his case file is more than 100 pages long. "I've spent at least as many hours on this," he said.
The court sided in May with the officers, saying they had probable cause to stop Harris. Lawyers for the officers used Harris' video to show he was wearing his seat belt improperly.
Harris has appealed the judge's dismissal.
'Take too long'
The night after police stopped Harris, Officers Chapman and Bernardez-Ruiz were patrolling the Northeastern district in an unmarked police vehicle when they pulled over 44-year-old Tyrone West because he had reversed his vehicle into an intersection. Fifteen minutes later, West would stop breathing.
The officers said West had behaved suspiciously, and when they searched him they found a bag with a small amount of cocaine in his sock. Police said he initially complied but then fought two officers as he tried to escape. Soon, six backup officers arrived and joined the struggle. West passed out and died at a local hospital.
Internal affairs investigated and officially exonerated the police officers of any wrongdoing 606 days later. The Baltimore state's attorney at the time, Gregg Bernstein, declined to pursue criminal charges. An autopsy found that a heart condition, dehydration and exertion were factors in West's death but couldn't determine the degree to which the officers' actions contributed.
The case inflamed police-community tensions, and West's family, who have filed a federal civil lawsuit, continues to hold weekly demonstrations calling for a renewed investigation into his death.
"My situation and that of Tyrone West is a microcosm of what's going on in the Police Department," Salaam said at one of those rallies. "When it's not taken seriously, that's when it becomes normal for rogue officers to do this repeatedly."
Batts ordered an independent review by outside experts. They found appropriate force but said officers broke police policy and made several tactical errors that exacerbated the situation. They also concluded the officers were too inexperienced for their jobs on the special operations unit.
They leveled one of their harshest criticisms at internal affairs.
"The Internal Affairs investigations take too long to be closed and to be of real service to the police department, its personnel, or the community," the report said.
The independent panel asked for the history of complaints against the officers, but Hill denied the request because Maryland law bars the release of police disciplinary records.
Lawyers for the Police Department did file the Salaam investigative file in federal court, to show that internal affairs does investigate citizen complaints and that his case wasn't sustained.
The West family argued that he might not have died if internal affairs had investigated the Salaam case earlier and more thoroughly.
However, a judge reviewing the West civil lawsuit found that implausible.
US. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander noted that police had to abide by Maryland law governing the rights of officers accused of misconduct, which affords them due process before they are disciplined.
Even if Salaam had died because of "unconstitutional conduct" by Baltimore police officers, she wrote in an opinion, "it is implausible that a thorough investigation and appropriate discipline of those involved could have occurred within seventeen days of when the incident at issue took place."
The lawsuit is still pending.
Marshall, the attorney for Chapman, Bernardez-Ruiz and Ulmer, said that getting two or three separate complaints over 18 days doesn't mean these were bad officers.
"It's the luck of the draw," he said. "Some officers go years without complaints and then get two to three in a row. ... These were good police officers. The vast majority of them are out there because they want to do right for the community."
One morning this spring at the red-brick Police Academy in Northwest Baltimore, retired Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. stood before a classroom of 50 detectives and supervisors to lead a training session.
As an opener, Plitt, a retired Harford County Circuit Court judge, held up a number of books on police accountability dating to the 1990s, waving the covers to the room.
"This is just to show you the idea that the erosion of public confidence in your ability to police your own — there is no better way of saying it — is not a new idea," Plitt said.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has opened 23 investigations into police departments, including Baltimore's, during the Obama administration. They often reach agreements with the local police departments to adopt reforms.
Among the changes sought: requiring that police give equal weight to officer and civilian testimony, that internal affairs thoroughly investigate both major and minor complaints, and that departments set up effective early-warning systems to alert supervisors when anyone on the force draws repeated misconduct complaints.
Commissioner Davis said the probe in Baltimore is likely to look at police practices going back several years but emphasized that he has already implemented a number of reforms, including monthly training sessions.
Davis also brought on more experienced managers, and in recent weeks more detectives, for a total of 19 who work the bulk of alleged misconduct cases. Officials hope this allows supervisors to assign several detectives at a time to more quickly complete cases.
In addition, the department has adopted a process for "accelerated disposition," in which officers agree to accept punishment when the facts are not in dispute and it's clear what discipline is warranted.
Internal affairs has also improved its system for flagging potentially problematic patterns in an officer's behavior — a system Davis said had been "anemic." Before the most recent change, a letter would be sent to an officer's supervisor after six complaints. Now, the number of events that would trigger a supervisor's intervention has been cut to three.
And Vernon Herron, a director within the office of professional responsibility, who now oversees the program, said there would be more oversight and follow-up.
When a case has been completed, Hill said, internal affairs is doing a better job of communicating with those who brought them. A new law requires police to inform them of the case's disposition and any discipline.
The department has been grappling with some of these issues for years.
The need for more training had been flagged by Kruger, the external auditor, in her 2014 audit. She said some investigators weren't familiar with "basic investigative techniques" and needed training on locating witnesses, obtaining documents and conducting interrogations.
Another internal police study, ordered up by former commissioner Batts in 2014, found that internal affairs was understaffed and should discontinue the practice of detailing its detectives on a weekly basis to patrol, crowd control and enforcement details — a practice that also was criticized in the audit.
And years before that, the ACLU had complained that the department failed to track officers with a history of problems. As part of a lawsuit settlement in 2010, police agreed to create an electronic database that could track civilian complaints and when force is used. Still, department officials said it wasn't effective.
Davis said his tenure marks a new era for the department.
"We've giving the disciplinary arm of the Police Department, finally, the attention that it deserves," he said. "The fundamental changes we've made to this division are unprecedented in the history of this police department, and I don't say that lightly."
But he said some changes would come gradually — there is no "BC or AD" when it comes to reform.
Rocah, with the ACLU, has been working to reform police for more than a decade. He said even if Baltimore police reach an agreement with the Justice Department, it would not be a "magic bullet to solve all problems."
"At its best, it will highlight problems and create opportunities for solutions," he said. "Lasting change will require sustained pressure from citizens."
Interactive designer Jin Kim and Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.