Baltimore is not Cleveland

Baltimore may have different and potentially more difficult problems to address than Cleveland

If there was one incident that was the catalyst for the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of Cleveland police's practices and the consent decree officials announced there, it was a massive display of police force. A car backfired while driving past a police station, and officers, thinking it was a gunshot, gave chase. When they eventually forced the car to a stop, officers fired nearly 140 shots, killing the unarmed driver and passenger.

The incident that prompted Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to request a similar review in Baltimore, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to agree to conduct one, was very different. According to police and prosecutors, officers chased 25-year-old Freddie Gray on foot after he made eye contact with a policeman and ran. No shots were fired. Rather, according to prosecutors, officers handcuffed and eventually shackled Gray and placed him unrestrained in a police van. By the time he arrived at the Western District police station 45 minutes later, he had suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury.

If there is an image that defines the problem in Cleveland, it is officer Michael Brelo, who is white, leaping onto the hood of the car and firing 15 shots at the two African-Americans inside. If there is an image that defines the problem in Baltimore, it is a racially mixed group of officers ignoring Freddie Gray's cries for help from the back of a van.

Officials here say they are closely watching what happens in Cleveland to get a preview of the path ahead for Baltimore, and we are certain there are lessons to be learned. But the contrast between the two incidents, or between the Gray case and the more recent shooting in Cleveland of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, suggests that Baltimore may have different and potentially more difficult problems to address.

Cleveland officials have agreed to what may be the most extensive reporting requirements in the nation when it comes to officers' use of force — police will have to go so far as to document each time they unholster their weapons. Force will no longer be tolerated for suspects who talk back or run away, and multiple layers of accountability will ensure that use-of-force incidents are investigated as thoroughly as crimes.

But it's not clear that any of those measures would have had any direct bearing on the Gray case. For that matter, some of the reforms Cleveland is now adopting — such as hiring a civilian director to oversee Internal Affairs, incorporating role playing into training on proper arrests, and conducting "fair and impartial policing" training — are already underway in Baltimore. A new departmental directive that suspects should be seat-belted in the back of police vans didn't help Freddie Gray either. It went unfollowed.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has focused on seeking changes to Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to make it easier to discipline bad cops, and a criminologist recently issued a report finding that provisions in Baltimore's police union contract inhibit accountability. We certainly hope the Justice Department will analyze the impact of both.

But we suspect that it will take more than policy changes to repair the relations between the police department and the community. It will take a shift in culture. Adam Braskich, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an attorney, wrote this month that police use of aggressive and alienating tactics is the product of expectations from the public and elected officials that police not only investigate crime but prevent it. The result, he argues, has been a perversion of the incentives for police commanders (and by extension, street officers) that leads them away from good policework toward producing statistics that please their bosses. Former Sun reporter and "The Wire" creator David Simon recently made much the same point in an interview with The Marshall Project, saying that the city's aggressive waging of the drug war meant "the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized," making "everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers" while simultaneously degrading officers' ability to do their jobs well.

Can the Justice Department prescribe a set of reforms that will change that? Doing so will require more than new rules for the use of force; it will take an overhaul in how the department measures itself and how officers decide when to detain, question and search people on the street, among other things. But it is also going to take a realization by police commanders of just how much needs to be done here, and despite the events of the last six weeks, that still appears to be lacking. Last week, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' communications office posted online a five-page essay arguing that the department's reform efforts are producing "empirical results." It says, "Real change is taking place. Real reform is underway." It characterizes the Justice Department as a praise-worthy attempt by the department to foster the change already taking place.

Cleveland's mayor says he sees the city's consent decree with the justice department as a tool to engage in a broad swath of reforms that would otherwise have been difficult to undertake. The question Baltimoreans should be asking is what happens when a city thinks it's already on the right path.

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