Can Baltimore police go back to the future?

Acting Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa’s decision to fill his command staff with long-time department veterans and retirees gives us great pause. The department faces its greatest challenges in recent times — a combination of runaway violence, a legal imperative to reform because of a legacy of unconstitutional practices and a corruption scandal that is shocking in its scope. The situation calls for a new paradigm of policing in Baltimore, and putting the department entirely in the hands of people, like Mr. De Sousa, who have known little else in their careers than the way it has been done here before is not the most obvious way to get there.

Our confidence was certainly not helped by Mr. De Sousa’s announcement a day after he rolled out his new team that he was putting one of the appointments on hold after an internal police memo listing a history of complaints against his pick for deputy commissioner for operations, Tom Cassella, was leaked to the media. Nor was it helped by the department spokesman’s subsequent announcement that no decision had in fact been made regarding Mr. Cassella. Or by the fact that the department’s leaders seemed as concerned with finding out who the leaker was as with figuring out why no one considered the memo — dated Jan. 26 and addressed to Mr. De Sousa — worth looking into before the fact. Or by the announcement that one of the officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death would not, in fact, be working in internal affairs, contrary to another memo the department released the day before. Just how well are they thinking things through over at police headquarters?

Mr. De Sousa’s operating theory appears to be that there was a time in the past when the department was on the right path in terms of community-centered policing but that it lost its way. There’s something to that. The Department of Justice report on the widespread civil rights violations committed by Baltimore police attributes much of the problem to the zero-tolerance policing days during former Mayor Martin O’Malley’s administration in the early 2000s. Those tactics, which were in large degree imported from New York and represented a conscious shift away from the way the department operated during the 1990s, led to overly aggressive and indiscriminate policing, and the DOJ found that the attitudes they fostered lingered long after Baltimore officially turned away from them. Mr. De Sousa says the people he’s bringing on board know what worked in the past and what didn’t and that the trust and respect they engender among Baltimore police make them the right leaders to set the department right. We certainly hope so.

But it’s worth remembering that the pre-O’Malley era wasn’t exactly a golden age of Baltimore policing, either. The reason he upended the department’s culture after he was elected was that the city had just experienced a decade of 300-plus homicides a year. Mr. O’Malley’s promise to fix the police department was was the whole reason he was elected. And while the zero tolerance years may have intensified complaints about abuses by the police and the distrust of the department, those problems existed before, too.

The situation the police department finds itself in is simply different from any it has faced before. It needs leaders who can not only devise a strategy for effective policing in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore but also get the thousands of men and women of the department to embrace that change. Yes, the monitoring team hired by the federal judge overseeing the consent decree will hold the department accountable for reforms, but making them successful will require management skills completely apart from knowing the history of the department’s good and bad and being able to tell the difference.

We understand that morale among rank and file officers is terrible and that many feel unsupported by the city and its leaders. Mr. De Sousa’s appointment and his staffing decisions no doubt provide reassurance and comfort to them. But is now the time for comfort? City residents’ trust in the force’s effectiveness and honesty is perilously low. We need a fresh start, not a restoration of the past. Mr. De Sousa and his team need to demonstrate that they can give us one.

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