A conversation with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis
By Maggie Ybarra
Apr 27, 2016 at 3:00 AM
On the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray's death, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis sat in his southeast corner office at Baltimore Police Department headquarters and reflected on the journey that the department has been on for the last year.
He said his mission, after taking the reins from Commissioner Anthony Batts who was fired by the mayor in July, was to "transition from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality" and to strategically fight crime by going after repeat offenders.
He has also scrapped some of his predecessor's major initiatives. Back in the day, Baltimore police worked eight-hour shifts, and three shifts made up a 24-hour cycle. Under Batts in 2015, the department changed to four overlapping 10-hour shifts. The idea was that the police department could save money on overtime by giving cops an extra two hours to wrap things up, and that they'd overlap with the incoming team by two hours so they could pass the baton. Batts also used the shift change to move cops around based on need and crime trends.
Batts touted the change as a progressive way to put more officers on the street during periods of high-crime and a way of trimming overtime.
But the plan didn't work because the Baltimore Police Department did not have enough police officers, Davis said. So Davis decided to go back to the old system of three shifts. The fourth shift was "dissolved" in early 2016.
How the "chronic staffing shortages" will impact police efficacy is still a question.
Some city residents question whether the department is committed to genuine reform.
Activists say that Davis' efforts to improve the police-community relationship are troubling. Those efforts clearly show that Davis is seeking a "community rubber stamp" to normalize "problematic policing practices" that are the foundation of the prison-industrial complex, said Lawrence Grandpre, Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Civil Rights advocacy organization.
"He's basically saying, 'We need the community to buy in to the policing that we're doing,' and what we're saying, what they don't understand, what they're not willing to hear, is 'You have it backwards,'" Grandpre said. "'You need to be doing the form of policing that the community can hop on board with, and then they'll hop on board with it."
The community needs a seat at the table, Grandpre said. For example, a community member should be appointed to the department's trial board, which is an internal appeals board set up to oversee police discipline. The Maryland police accountability bill approved by the Maryland General Assembly in early April contains language that could make that seat at the table a reality.
City Paper sat down with Commissioner Davis to ask him about this—and a range of other issues.
City Paper: What I hear from advocates is that they need more of a seat at the table with the police trial board. The new police accountability bill passed in Annapolis this month leaves a lot up to the city or county when it comes to deciding whether a civilian sits on the board. Are you going to put civilians on the board?
Commissioner Kevin Davis: It's actually more specific than that. It leaves it up to collective bargaining. So it leaves it up to the negotiation that exists between a union, which is the Fraternal Order of Police in most Maryland jurisdictions and in Baltimore, and the police department. I've been publicly outspoken about my support for civilians on administrative hearing boards. I've issued a public statement that's been covered on the news. I'm unaware of any other police chief that has been as outspoken as I've been about the necessity to reform some aspects of the Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights. Again, that's a law that has been around since 1975. I think most things that have been around since 1975 probably need some tinkering here and there. So I've been an advocate. And the reason why I've been such a strong advocate is that I firmly believe that most police officers come to work every day and do the right thing. So if we have a discipline and accountability process in place that identifies people who don't deserve to wear the patch or the badge, then I think that serves the vast, vast majority of cops who come to work and consistently do the right thing.
CP:So how would that work?
KD: Now, a little bit of the details on the civilian additions—potential civilian additions—to the administrative hearing board; it would be two. If we get to this point, I support it. I've been outspoken about the necessity for me to solely be the person who chooses those two people. Some people hear that and they kind of, you know, are taken aback a little bit, but I need to ensure that the accountability will begin and end with me. So right now, police chiefs in Maryland don't have total control or let me speak about Baltimore specifically—I don't have total control of the make up of the administrative hearing board right now in Baltimore. So it's hard to completely and wholly hold me responsible for all disciplinary matters when I'm not in control of the make-up of the hearing board.
CP:It's Fraternal Order of Police that's in control?
KD: Well no, they're not in control but it's subject to collective bargaining and the respondent officer gets several strikes and can agree or disagree to who's on the board. And the way it needs to work, in my opinion, in order for me to be held responsible—because the community wants me to be held responsible for discipline, and they should—so in order to hold me responsible for the discipline in my organization, give me the authority to appoint the administrative hearing board. Now as far as civilian appointees would go, when and if we get to that point, I would seek community input, community recommendations. I would sit down and meet with people to hear some names and people who they would recommend. Ultimately, it's got to be about my decision or else you can't hold me responsible for it. And if this whole bill says anything about the necessity for change, it screams accountability and that accountability should be right on my shoulders. And if the civilians are chosen by any other people or in any other way that's not exclusively in my control, then you water down my authority. And then when you water down my authority, you can't hold me responsible—or as responsible. But I'm for the civilians.
CP:So what obstacles stand in your way?
KD: Well, I think a lot of police departments were hopeful that Annapolis would have been more decisive and definitive in the amendments of this legislation. So you know the Baltimore delegation was really supportive of the changes that needed to be made. I think that wasn't consistent across the board in other jurisdictions in Maryland. So it's almost like we got this compromise coming out of Annapolis and the compromise is OK, let's add civilians to the administrative hearing board so long as that's agreed upon in collective bargaining, right? So if it's not agreed upon in collective bargaining then there are no civilians to the board.
CP:When Anthony Batts was Commissioner, he spent about a half a million dollars on outside consultants who studied Baltimore's police department and recommended some changes like the move from three shifts to four shifts. But you've gone back to three shifts. Why?
KD: Well, the department did not nearly possess the manpower that we needed to execute those studies, particularly those studies that created the [fourth] shift. Those studies that created this philosophical deployment strategy that went away from post and went toward sectors could only work if you had the people to make it happen. We entered into that [fourth] shift environment, we didn't have the people to make it happen. So it was a failure before it even began. And not because the idea didn't have merit. I want to be clear about that. The idea probably, academically, had merit. But just because an idea has academic or philosophical merit attached to it if you don't possess the number of police officers needed to pull it off, then you're ultimately going to fail….If the three of us [references himself, CP and a departmental official who is also sitting at the table] are assigned to a sector, we normally just chase calls for service. And when we're not chasing calls for service, the three of us would be in the highest crime area most of the time. But it took us away from other neighborhoods who weren't experiencing a high crime volume and now those neighborhoods never saw us. The three of us are now together over here at the Shot Tower….People throughout the city want to see the police.
CP:So do you think it's working better?
KD: Yeah, at district commands, yeah. Now, we're still short in patrol. The attrition is slightly higher than it normally is in Baltimore and we're working very hard to put together some larger police academy classes. I think for a couple of years the police academy classes that we were putting together were actually too small for the size of our agency. ...So we retire about 21 police officers a month in Baltimore and the average for the last 10 years has been right about 19. So, it's right around normal, but it's something we've got to keep up with.
CP:Obviously tensions between the community and police are pretty high these days. Do you see that changing?
KD: Well, you know, like anything, the progress of the agency is a journey and it's not something that you can set a date and time certain and get to where you want to be in a finite amount of time. The journey that we're on is a transition from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality in American policing….So the thing that I'm most proud of is the agency's commitment to be effective crime fighters and to simultaneously be better community ambassadors…So I think one thing is that 2015 has served as an awakening to get other aspects of government and society to include non-profit organizations, and to include the faith community, that everybody has a responsibility in public safety. I'm hopeful that several years from now when the words "public safety" are used people won't immediately think about law enforcement. They'll think about good government. So it's that journey that I'm most proud of and that transition from warrior to guardian.
KD: I wanted to hit on it a bit earlier but the Outward Bound Experience, that's something that's been going on since 2008 within the BPD but it's typically been with police officers who work in some type of full-time community capacity, community collaboration officers or neighborhood service officers, but what we've done differently in 2016 is every Baltimore police officer will spend an entire day with a young person in Baltimore at Leakin Park, and if the weather is nasty, they go to the YMCA up by the old Memorial Stadium. And we're going to put 6,000 young kids, young people, chosen by their schools to have a one-on-one relationship with a police officer for an entire day. We got some coverage out of this recently and they do a confidence-building, team-building exercise that's outdoors with the cops.…The kids, before they have their day with the cop, you know, feel like police officers have bad attitudes and are racists and don't care about them, and some of the cops have misperceptions as well. You know, "All kids are up to no good and they don't like the police." By the end of that day they have an entirely different outlook on one another. So that's a huge thing we're doing in the city.
CP:I just went to a West Baltimore community meeting where attorneys were brought in to train residents; "Here's what you need to do to protect yourself." Basically, the message that I got out of that meeting was, "The cops aren't your friends. Here's the language you need to use to protect yourself when a cop approaches you."
KD: That's a shame that that type of training has to take place in Baltimore or elsewhere. That's really heartbreaking to hear. But what we're simultaneously doing within the organization is we have a 40-hour academic curriculum in our police academy called Community Foot Patrol, and really all it does is teach police officers how to interact with people, and not just victims and suspects and witnesses and reporting people and informants. It teaches people how to interact with normal, everyday people who they come in contact with. So we know that we have to improve the way we interact and it all boils down to civility a lot of times.
And I can tell you that our police officers can't wait to be issued the body cameras. And we piloted them for a couple of months and the first batch of 500 will get distributed in May and the police officers can't wait to get them, and the community can't wait for the police officers to have them, and they're for different reasons. The community, particularly the parts of the community that feel disconnected with the police, they say, "Finally, perhaps people will be able to see how the cops treat us." And then the cops say, "I want a camera because people will finally be able to see how hard our job is and how, you know, our interactions aren't always as pleasant as people think they are."
CP:But the camera doesn't work unless you turn it on. And doesn't leaving it up to the officer's discretion defeat the purpose?
KD: You'll be required to turn it on under most scenarios. The camera is always on. But you have to press a button for it to record. The camera that I'm wearing right here, it's on and it will start recording, then I press a button and then it backs up in time 30 seconds so it captures 30 seconds....
I've spoken to a couple of police officers who piloted the body-worn camera and they told me that they just keep it on unless they know that they're in one of those prohibited scenarios because if we're talking to a sex-crime victim, if we're talking to a confidential informant, if we're talking to a young child.... All of our body-worn camera policies are consistent with the best practices that the Police Executive Research Forum recommended.
CP:So did you keep any of the initiatives implemented under your predecessor?
KD: Well, you know I really don't like speaking about former commissioners….So the focus going forward and, again, American policing changed in 2015, so even a year like 2014, that may as well have been 50 years ago. So our focus, in terms of the crime fighting, is violent repeat offenders and people who are most prone to carrying a gun and using a gun and firing that gun and or be shot by a gun. So we put together things like BFED [where federal agents are embedded in the homicide unit] and The War Room and the trigger puller's list, those are all strategies that sharpen the focus of who we need to be concerned about in our city of 623,000, so who really deserves our undivided attention. The old way of policing—and this is not the Batts way because Batts was not a zero-tolerance guy— but going back in Baltimore's history and in other department's histories of just occupying the geography with a bunch of cops and engaging in excessive stop-and-frisk encounters and vehicle stops and all those things in hopes of finding something. But it might take you 300 stops to find 30 bad guys, so you really can potentially alienate the 270 people you stopped...if you interact with them disrespectfully.
So, you know, what else are we doing that's different? We're doing a cultural sensitivity speaker series called The History Of Baltimore....I would venture to say that I have made myself available to the media more so than any police commissioner in Baltimore's recent history. There's a vulnerability associated with that, too. I may misspeak. I may stick my foot in my mouth. I might say something that's factually inaccurate, unintentionally of course. So there are risks with being transparent but the benefits far, far outweigh the risks. I think it humanizes the police department. I think it allows people to look at us in a different way and they're not just seeing a uniform and they're not hearing like robotic cop talk every time they see a police officer on television. They're hearing a real person speaking plain English and talking about often times very bad things that happen in our community.
CP:What other things are youreforms or programs are underway?
KD: Every Thursday we bring in a district commander and the district commander has to invite a member of their faith community and their business community and their police chaplain and one of their community collaboration officers and they sit down with me and we take the pulse of the relationship between the district commander and his or her stake holders in the community. We don't talk statistics. We don't talk about productivity. We don't talk about crime. We talk about the feel of the relationship between that district commander and his or her community leaders and it's really eye-opening to me and a pleasant process to realize that, in fact, our district commanders have those real relationships with people because that's really what they do. A district commander who just sees his or her responsibility as a crime fighter is one-dimensional. So I need the crime fighter in a district commander but I also need him or her to be a community ambassador. …[I say to them], tell me what your police officer did outside of the traditional metric measurements for cops that made your community a better place. So, for instance, the last one we recognized, I think, drove a couple people to dialysis appointments during the snow…So if we measure [that] and we reward it like we measure and reward the more traditional aspects of our job, if we measure and reward people helping people, I think it gets repeated and it becomes a habit….So really recognizing acts of kindness in this profession is something we need to do and something we are doing. Our police officers, they're young...They're like 25, 26. They're young. They're millennials. And they need…that type of reinforced recognition from their leadership and the more often we give it, it will just serve as behaviors to be repeated.