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Baltimore police commissioner: There is a cost to reform

BPD commissioner: Our reform efforts will very likely see more police officers arrested.

Last week I recognized 60 officers and professional staff at the 2015 Medal Day Ceremony. The valor and courage of these men and women, and a few citizen heroes, stands as a testament to the bravery and dedication of most members of the Baltimore Police Department. It reaffirmed my mission and the reason that I am here.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hired me for one simple purpose: reforming the Baltimore Police Department and rebuilding relationships with communities across the city. Year after year, the proud men and women of the BPD reduced violent crime. The number of homicides the city experienced declined to historic lows in 2011. The BPD's strained relationships with communities and scandal after scandal still rocked the organization, however, and served to reinforce a growing perception that the Baltimore Police Department was out of control and the city was no safer. We know this from our own citizen polling for the Baltimore Police Department's Strategic Plan for Improvement.

The series of scandals and perception of safety did a tremendous disservice to the proud and dedicated officers who were fighting every day to make the city safer. It tarnished the noble history of generations of Baltimoreans who dedicated their lives to the safety of their fellow citizens. In fact, 135 police heroes have given their lives for Baltimore. Their legacy and the legacy of many others working for the greater good should be enshrined in the public's memory as a representation of hope for the future, not abuse of the past.

The decade before I arrived saw more than 50 officers arrested, according to news reports. The public consciousness is filled with names like William King and Antonio Murray, who were sentenced to hundreds of years in federal prison for robbing drug suspects. One only has to say "towing scandal" for the average citizen to nod their head in memory of more than 40 officers arrested or suspended in connection to a wide-ranging extortion scheme. While many past officer arrests were the result of BPD initiated investigations, many were not. The cycle of scandal, corruption and malfeasance seemed to be continuing without abatement.

Previous police commissioners worked hard to eradicate corruption and restore trust in the department. My mission when I arrived was to continue that work with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. The Strategic Plan for Improvement clearly showed that the department was out of alignment with the community and that wholesale change was needed organization wide. We laid ourselves bare before the public and began the challenging work of rebuilding the reputation of a still proud department and giving a voice to the thousands of men and women engaged in the honorable work of protecting their fellow citizens.

I will defend the good officers and professional staff in this department with every ounce of my being. I fought to bring a historic pay raise; I have fought for new cars, better equipment and updated technology. We have brought in more new training in the last two years than the department had seen in a long time. Some of it is the first of its kind in Maryland, helping officers to have more tools at their disposal by focusing on best practices for officer safety techniques and constitutional policing. Shortly, we will make the details of that training available on our website (http://www.baltimorepolice.org).

We have also revamped our discipline system to make it fairer and faster and publicly announced the details. While we have forced out 72 officers during my tenure, the vast majority of police who make mistakes of the heart — meaning they have no malice and are not attempting to shirk responsibility — are now treated fairly and sent back to work. We have worked to have the lowest suspension numbers in a decade, ensuring that officers do not languish as their careers grind to a halt. We have seen the lowest police involved shootings since 2004, a 54 percent decrease in discourtesy complaints, a 45 percent decrease in excessive force complaints and lawsuits at the lowest levels in years.

Many of the reforms in ethics, training, discipline, equipment, efficiencies, policies and a host of other areas do not make sexy news stories and are difficult to conceptualize. The reforms do work to build the base for a police department that is professional, constitutionally based, in alignment with community expectations, better paid, better equipped and better trained than any other jurisdiction in the state. These are not lofty goals. We are moving toward this reality.

Many officers will be unhappy reading these words. Many want me to outright defend the department and say nothing is wrong with the way this organization engages in police work. For the overwhelming majority that is true. However, when people go on television wearing masks, allege themselves to be police officers and are cloaked in the shadows espousing their own indifference to violence as children are shot, I am troubled. This is not the Baltimore Police Department that I know.

I challenge the leadership of The Vanguard Justice Society, an African American advocacy group for police officers, to stand and project their voice in this African American city, where people who look like them feel treatment is unfair. Speak out against the beating of a resident at a bus stop or the selling of narcotics on the back porch of a police station. Where is the concern over scores of African Americans arrested and college scholarships lost? Don't allow yourself to be used as a tool of a bygone strategy from times long since past.

Our reform efforts will very likely see more police officers arrested. We will have more officers who are forced out because their outdated, outmoded views of policing do not match the standards the community expects and demands. I will not apologize for bringing professionalism and integrity to the forefront while eliminating greed, corruption and intolerance from the rank and file. Policing in any environment is difficult on a good day. That does not mean we have, or should ever have, a blank check to treat the public with callous disregard.

Continuing these reforms also means that organizations and individuals, who have profited, either materially or through position, will continue to fight against the reforms we are enacting. It means that people will throw mud, call into question my leadership, or lament days gone by. They will attack with innuendo, rumor and supposition. We will respond with fact, with evidence, with the things we have done.

Reform is not easy. It comes with a cost. It is a cost we should be willing to pay for the future of our city.

Anthony W. Batts is the police commissioner for Baltimore City. He can be reached at newsbpd@baltimorecity.gov.

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