Baltimore's next police commissioner should be a civilian

The Baltimore Police Department was "manned, equipped and financed heavily enough for modern warfare on crime, yet it is waging a primitive kind of guerrilla action marked by inefficient administrative procedures, haphazard planning and lax discipline," Richard H. Levine wrote in the mid-1960s, after having conducted a seven-month investigation into the department while working as an investigative reporter for The Baltimore Sun. The coverage prompted Gov. J. Millard Tawes to appoint a special state commission to study the police department. The Finan commission, as it would become known as, was led by Attorney General Thomas B. Finan.

Fifty years later, history has repeated itself: Gov. Larry Hogan signed legislation at the end of the 2018 General Assembly Session to launch an investigation into the department; and recently he, along with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, appointed seven members to the investigation commission.

“The charge to the commission is to review internal policing practices, the consent decree and the department’s interface with the community to make recommendations on the best structure and oversight of the department moving forward,” said Alexandra Hughes, the chief of staff for Mr. Busch.

Throughout history many of the recommendations that have come from commissions such as these have resulted in the creation of permanent civilian oversight or review boards with varying levels of authority over police operations. But nationally the vast majority of the boards and commissions that have been created out of these investigations have failed to permanently change the culture of the troubled police departments that they were established to oversee, due in large part to a lack of authority over day-to-day police operations or of a mandate for police forces to implement their recommendations. One particular reform, however, holds the promise of institutionalizing change throughout a police organization: civilian leadership at the top.

While only a few jurisdictions outside of New York City and Boston have adopted the civilian-commissioner model, it's one that previously proved to be reasonably effective here in Baltimore. Under former commissioner Donald Pomerleau, who served in that role from 1966 to 1981, the Baltimore police force underwent numerous managerial and personnel reforms, most notably: increasing opportunities for blacks and women, reducing the number of vacancies, improving technology and creating mobile patrols.

Commissioners working in a civilian capacity, and informed by their years as sworn officers, are able to take a high-level perspective, maintain a level of objectivity and avoid much of the conflict that uniformed police chiefs often face in having to balance their allegiance between the elected officials who appointed them and the personnel who share the uniform that they wear. Civilian leaders can focus more on strategic decision-making to address the concerns of the community and implement recommended reforms and programs that will improve services and help to reduce the fear of crime. And having the ultimate power over administration and discipline gives them the tools they need to deal with problems in the ranks in a systemic way.

The organization of policing in Los Angeles illustrates the difficulty of achieving deep reforms in a fragmented power structure. A five-member Board of Police Commissioners sets the policy agenda and oversees strategic decisions, while a uniformed police chief manages the Los Angeles Police Department's daily operations. The board doesn't possess the authority to impose discipline on LAPD personnel, yet it is responsible for oversight of the disciplinary process through a civilian-led inspector general's office. By contrast, individuals who hold the title of police commissioner in Boston, New York City and smaller jurisdictions such as Nassau County, N.Y., are responsible for both administration and discipline, while a uniformed chief handles day-to-day operations and tactical deployments.

The policing crisis that Baltimore is facing calls for a resurgence of a true reformer in the Pomerleau mold, civilian leadership that is empowered to act and ready to go against institutional norms. In recent years, and particularly since the death in 2014 of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., ignited nationwide protest, many have campaigned for office across the country on the promise of reforming police departments and instituting some form of civilian oversight. While the needle hasn't moved as fast as many communities would like for it to, progress has been made through legislation and programs that work to bring more oversight to policing. As the journey continues, community leaders and elected officials should take a look at the benefits of institutionalizing civilian police commissioners as a way to move the needle farther.

Sam Johnson (samuel.johnson1220@gmail.com) is a former Baltimore police officer and Maryland Courts judicial officer.

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