Are Baltimore's police doing their jobs?

Baltimore police have changed how they're doing their jobs, and the mayor and commissioner need to fix it now.

Editor's note: Subsequent to this editorial's publication, a spokeswoman for State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby contacted The Sun to contradict an assertion by Fraternal Order of Police President Gene Ryan, first made on June 10 and repeated here, that Ms. Mosby had instructed officers that they could not use handcuffs to detain suspects unless they had probable cause for an arrest. The spokeswoman said Ms. Mosby had not given that advice to police but declined to say what instructions she had given.

Is the drastic drop in the number of arrests in Baltimore responsible for the increase in violent crime in the weeks since the post-Freddie Gray riots? We can't know for sure, and indeed, the evidence of a direct correlation between the number of arrests and the number of shootings and murders in Baltimore is scant. During the last 15 years, we saw crime go down amid an increase in arrests — and then we saw crime go down even further at a time when the number of arrests dropped. But one thing should at this point be certain: Something has changed during the last six weeks in the way police are doing their jobs, and neither the leadership in the police department nor in City Hall seems willing to fully acknowledge it, much less address it.

The Sun's Doug Donovan and Colin Campbell reported Sunday that arrests dropped by 43 percent from April to May, and in some high-crime neighborhoods the decline was 90 percent or more. Community leaders, business owners and others interviewed by Messrs. Donovan and Campbell in areas that have been hard-hit by Baltimore's recent spike in violent crime say they see a much diminished police presence since six officers were indicted in Gray's death. Police union officials say officers are afraid that if they do their jobs properly, they will be prosecuted. Others say the issue is not fear but anger by the police over the indictments. Either way, the result is tantamount to a major policy shift in the way Baltimore fights crime, but a shift that neither the mayor nor police commissioner appears to have intended.

Yet if the mayor is concerned about the drop-off in arrests, she isn't showing it. Last week she pointed to indictments of gang members as proof that department is still aggressively fighting crime. She said officers were having trouble in trying to "jive their training with the charges that were brought" by State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby against the six officers in the Gray case and that Police Commissioner Anthony Batts was working on clarifying those issue with the rank and file, as if this was a mere matter of procedure. Mr. Batts, for his part, appears betwixt and between. On the one hand, he says the officers "have endured a lot of trauma," and on the other, he speaks of their "ethical responsibility" to protect the city.

What neither is clear about is whether they believe officers are doing their jobs properly or indeed whether they can based on the standard implied by the charges Ms. Mosby brought. Police union president Gene Ryan claims Ms. Mosby recently told officers that they "can no longer use handcuffs to detain a suspects without probable cause for arrest." Ms. Mosby's office has declined to comment on anything related to pending case against the officers, but if that's true, it could have profound impacts both on officers' relationships with the community and on their ability to keep themselves safe during difficult encounters. It's not just a minor detail to be worked out in training, and whatever clarification Commissioner Batts subsequently made has apparently not been sufficient to put officers' minds at ease. The city can't afford to wait, as the mayor suggested, for the case to be adjudicated before setting a clear strategy for keeping the public safe.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake recently reiterated her support for Commissioner Batts, and she pointed to successes he has had as a reform-oriented chief in reducing complaints against officers, police-involved shootings and wrongful death suits against the department. But that's not much comfort if he can't rally the police to aggressively fight the worst spate of violence Baltimore has seen in decades. We understand that the task is a difficult one. Officers' morale is low, community tensions with the department are high, and other factors related to the unrest — such as the flood into the market of prescription drugs looted from pharmacies — are exacerbating the violence. But pretending everything is fine isn't the answer. Six people were shot in Baltimore on Sunday alone, at least one of them fatally. We need someone to step up and lead the city through this crisis, and we need it now.

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