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Transparency, accountability key as Anne Arundel looks toward next police chief

Anne Arundel County Police Chief Timothy Altomare’s retirement shocked elected and community leaders across the board and left them wondering where the department will turn next at a time people are demanding police reform around the nation.

Many leaders told The Capital that whoever leads the police department next must be a champion for transparency, accountability and diversity among its ranks, all the while continuing to build upon what many consider to be Altomare’s strong legacy of advancing community policing and instituting some reform.

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Whoever takes over will have to be open to reform and be able to communicate the reason for it to the almost 800-strong force, criminal justice experts said. It’s a tough balance to strike at a time where voices demanding prompt change have perhaps never been louder and when police officers feel like they’re under fire for doing their jobs.

They’ll also have to navigate the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, which has slashed revenue projections at every level of government, and after the death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, a resemblance to a controversy that landed at the door of the Anne Arundel’s department. A lawsuit claims a white detective knelt on the neck of a handcuffed Black man last February.

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“I think it’s just the most challenging time that I’ve ever seen for a police executive,” said Jay Zumbrun, a retired Howard County police captain who teaches criminal justice at Baltimore County Community College and a number of local police academies.

County Executive Steuart Pittman will first have to name an acting chief, who he can appoint for 60 days without approval from the County Council. That term can be extended to four months by resolution of the council. Once Pittman settles on his permanent pick, he appoints them and the person is then up for confirmation by the council.

He has said it’s too early to determine whether he’ll conduct a nationwide search for Altomare’s replacement or promote from within the ranks — options that aren’t mutually exclusive.

“I know exactly what I want,” Pittman said in a phone interview. “I want a chief who, like Altomare, has that experience as a street cop so that he understands the work that his people do and who understands and believes in community policing and all the modern strategies to build trust. And somebody who’s a good manager and a leader.”

Transparency, accountability and diversity

Longtime Annapolis civil rights activist Carl Snowden described the appointment of a new police chief as “the most important decision (Pittman) will make.”

Advocates for greater transparency have raised questions about complaints against police officers being swept under the rug. They say the community doesn’t trust the police to investigate their own and, short of real accountability, allowing bad officers to stay on the force. Some believe that starts at the top.

“I think that transparency is going to be the key,” said John Robinson, a veteran defense attorney and former county prosecutor. “Someone in charge that’s willing to publicly acknowledge that this particular officer did something wrong. They acknowledge when they do something right; acknowledge when they do something wrong. And we’re talking about a tiny percent (of officers).”

Snowden, Convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders, credited Altomare with finding ways to navigate laws protecting police privacy to call out the bad apples. But he and others interviewed by The Capital urged his successor to go further.

Some have floated the ideas of instituting a civilian review board and creating a national registry for complaints against officers, so that they can’t wash their hands of misconduct and move on to another department, among other measures.

Pittman says he supports the concept of a civilian review board but wants to carefully consider how it should be implemented. It’s a topic that Altomare never fully supported because it causes concern among some officers, which Pittman says he understands.

“(Altomare’s) concern was a legitimate one that a police officer needs to know that on their worst day of their lives that their fate is going to be decided by people who understand their work,” Pittman said. “And so I think every police officer fears a civilian review board that has the authority to determine their fate without understanding their work.”

Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, is against rushing into creating a body with considerable civilian power. He pointed to body cameras, which will be purchased and instituted in the next year because of a last-minute budget amendment following Floyd’s death.

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“Body cameras are a real benefit to law enforcement and the community,” said Zumbrun, the professor and former officer. “It gives you a pretty good summary of what’s going on in that incident.”

He and Michael Berlin, a retired Baltimore City cop, lawyer and longtime criminal justice professor, cautioned against immediately implementing a civilian review board. If a jurisdiction was to put such a body in place, they suggested that its civilian members complete a civilian police academy to better understand an officer’s job.

Carrying on in the community

Many have credited Altomare with improving police-community relations across the board, and say that whoever takes his place should pick up where he left off.

Bishop Antonio Palmer, vice president of the county’s United Black Clergy, said under Altomare’s leadership he grew close with the commander of the department’s Western District Station in Odenton, Capt. Daniel Rodriguez. He said they came up with ideas for how to boost trust in the police where it lacked the most, underserved communities like Still Meadows, Pioneer City and Meade Village. Palmer said he was confident the strategies they discussed and realized will work with time.

Leaders from all walks said Altomare, who worked his way from beat cop to top cop, was in tune with the community at large and that he cared about it deeply. Under his leadership, he and his officers showed up to help at food drives, protect people at protests and march alongside community members at peace and prayer walks. They expect the same from his successor.

“I don’t care who it is, as long as they’re going to be fair, have equity, community involvement, they’re concerned about community,” said the Rev. Sheryl Menendez, who’s worked to combat issues of food insecurity and children’s mental health in the county for more than 30 years.

Community policing is paramount but some said that in order to further build back trust the next chief would have to boost the number of Black officers all the way up the chain of command. More Black officers were hired under Altomare, but advocates say the department doesn’t completely reflect the community it serves.

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That’s important when it comes to implicit bias, said Daryl Jones, a Black defense attorney and former county councilman. He said he still comes across cases where a client is arrested because they’re Black and going through a white neighborhood. Jones questioned whether inherit bias training is enough to weed out biases someone’s grown up with for 20 years.

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Berlin said that must be addressed with the hiring process and thorough training.

Leading a department under fire

Since scores of people across the nation have begun calling for police reform, officers have found it more and more difficult to do their jobs despite being “the gold standard for accredited police departments,” said O’Brien Atkinson, president of the county police union, the Fraternal Order of the Police Lodge 70.

It’s become too normal to be “militant or aggressive toward police officers and the officers don’t deserve that,” he said. “I think our officers have noticed a decrease in respect and civil behavior.”

Sheriff Jim Fredericks said officers and deputies can be wary of some change when they feel it might strip away their protections and make their jobs impossible. They worry it could result in people not wanting to go into law enforcement.

He and Annapolis Police Chief Ed Jackson are learning how to lead their forces as their line of work comes under more and more scrutiny. Whoever is to replace Altomare can expect the same.

Both said navigating reform is about being a good communicator. They said it’s important to explain why the change is happening and remind the officers they have support from the top as long as they act in good faith.

“Morale is not as hard to maintain as you think as long as your officers are well informed,” Fredericks said.

And while Zumbrun said he’s never seen a more negative outlook from the public on policing than in the wake of Floyd’s death, he believes it’s an opportunity to make progress in the profession.

“You really have to have an attitude that you want to make positive changes and that you want to make the department better and there are so many opportunities to do that,” Zumbrun said. “For the right individual, it’s a wonderful opportunity to move the department forward.”

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