Eliminating the BPD's bad apples

Op-ed: To change the BPD, give the commissioner the power to fire sergeants and lieutenants.

The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus promises that legislation will be introduced during the next session of the General Assembly to rectify the problems with the Baltimore Police Department reported by the Department of Justice. If they are looking for suggestions that do more than make cosmetic changes, here is mine: Amend Section 16-7 of the Code of Public Laws of Baltimore City to give Commissioner Kevin Davis the same power to fire sergeants and lieutenants that he now has for officers in the ranks of captain and above.

Nothing stands out in the DOJ report more than the deficiencies in the front line supervision of rank-and-file officers — the responsibility of sergeants and lieutenants, who train, supervise and evaluate rank-and-file officers. It is their job to make sure that the policies and procedures adopted by the commissioner are carried out on the street. They are the guardians and transmitters of the values and culture of the department.

Failure to do their jobs properly contributes to the staggering number of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests reported by the DOJ, which found that many sergeants and lieutenants don't even bother to supervise. "Indeed, our review did not identify a single stop, search, or arrest that a front line supervisor found to violate constitutional standards — even though numerous incident reports for these activities describe facially unlawful police action," the department's report said.

In one incident, a patrol officer protested to his sergeant that he had no valid reason to confront and disperse a group of black men on a street corner. The sergeant, with a DOJ investigator looking on, told the officer to "make something up." That was not ignorance of the law requiring retraining or clearer direction; that was the sergeant giving the proverbial middle finger not only to the DOJ, but also to his bosses. He knew what he was doing was wrong, and he didn't care.

Overly-aggressive police practices persist despite being disavowed by the last two commissioners because there are front line supervisors who do not want to change and no meaningful consequences for their refusal to do so.

The deficiencies in supervision within the BPD are the result of allowing decades worth of bad apples to accumulate in the barrel. BPD sergeants and lieutenants, like rank-and-file officers, currently are subject to the Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights (LEOBR), which gives the power to decide if an officer has done something wrong to a panel of his or her fellow officers rather than to the commissioner.

As reported by the DOJ, and documented in a separate investigation by The Sun, the disciplinary system of the BPD is an abject failure. In Baltimore, the challenges of policing are unlike anywhere else in the state, and strong police leadership is required. Once Section 16-7 is amended to provide that sergeants and lieutenants serve at the pleasure of the commissioner, they would face discipline — including termination — deemed appropriate by the commissioner, not by their colleagues.

Noted Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy has stated that the problems with the BPD run so deep that a "Camden-type" solution is needed. Camden, N.J., disbanded its police force and replaced it with one run by the surrounding county. That is not going to happen in Baltimore; there were about 400 sworn officers in Camden and about 2,600 in Baltimore. But Mr. Murphy is not wrong about the depth of the problems. Attrition alone is too slow to fix the personnel shortcomings within the supervisory ranks, and the current disciplinary process is not adequate to the task. Nibbling around the edges of the problems will accomplish nothing.

Amending Section 16-7 of the Code of Public Laws of Baltimore City as described above will give Commissioner Davis a reasonable chance of changing the culture of the BPD because it would give him an effective tool to deal directly with the sources of the problem. The legislation would apply only to Baltimore and does not involve touching the LEOBR. Consequently, with the support of the mayor and the senators and delegates from the city it should meet little opposition in the General Assembly.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net.

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