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As homicides soar in Baltimore, police commissioner looks to reform department

As homicides soar in Baltimore, police commissioner looks to reform department
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is pictured at the National Press Club, the venue for the public launch of the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration at the National Press Club. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

As killings continue to soar in Baltimore and the trial begins for the first of six officers charged in Freddie Gray's arrest and death, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis knows a long-awaited report from the U.S. Department of Justice will again put the nation's eighth-largest police department under a microscope — and is likely to trigger reforms that would be extensive and costly.

Davis expects the findings to focus on discretionary arrests in poor neighborhoods, "stop and frisk" encounters, the discipline process and the quality of internal investigations. Other key areas could be deficiencies with training and discipline policies and the lack of technology, he said.

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Davis isn't waiting for the Justice Department's recommendations, which are expected to be issued in 2016. In recent months, the city agency has developed two training programs to improve community relations and hired a high-ranking official to oversee planning. He also created a team to work with federal investigators and to lead any compliance efforts.

"I don't fear it," Davis said of the report, which was set in motion by a Baltimore Sun investigation and Gray's death. "I welcome it. It puts us in the position to hit the ground running."

Longtime civil rights leader Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, who leads the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association in West Baltimore, said making changes within the department is crucial to improving relations with the community.

Police, he said, "have to understand the different cultures. We are in a critical time where people need to stop pointing fingers."

Since January, outside consultants and investigators from the Justice Department have reviewed policies and thousands of records to determine whether Baltimore officers have engaged in a pattern or practice of violating residents' constitutional rights or discriminatory policing. In other cities, such investigations have exposed problems such as brutality and outdated training, leading to federal oversight that can last for years and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The federal intervention started last fall, just days after a Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city had paid millions in recent years for court judgments and settlements in 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.

That collaborative review between city police and the Justice Department morphed into a full-scale civil rights investigation after the 25-year-old Gray died of a spine injury sustained in police custody. Rioting, looting and arson gripped the city on the day of his funeral in April, and days later the six officers were charged. The first of their trials, for Officer William G. Porter, began this week.

Since 2014, police officers nationwide have faced increasing public scrutiny over the way they treat minority residents. Cellphone video has captured embarrassing and sometimes criminal actions by officers, and police-involved deaths in Missouri, South Carolina, New York City and Cleveland have triggered outrage on the streets. Recently, allegations of police brutality have emerged in Minneapolis and Chicago.

Settlements related to police misconduct have continued in Baltimore as well. For example, in October the city paid $95,000 to a woman whose lawsuit included allegations that she was subjected to a "rough ride" in a police van in 2012; a $125,000 settlement went to a man shot in the arm and stomach by an officer in January 2013. The city agreed to pay Gray's family $6.4 million in a settlement announced in September.

Since 2011, the city has paid about $13 million in settlements and court judgments for alleged police misconduct. In such settlements — including the one with Gray's family — the city does not acknowledge wrongdoing by its officers.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis announces the arrest of Devante Brim in the murder of Kendal Fenwick in November. (Kevin Richardson, Baltimore Sun video)

Davis wants to make changes within the Police Department in an effort to improve the way officers are viewed by residents.

For example, Baltimore Police Department projects coming in January will include a training program on cultural sensitivity and another to teach community foot patrols in the 26-week academy — with the hope that the state will certify the course.

The cultural-sensitivity program will cover more than a dozen topics about the city, such as immigrant communities, churches, segregation, the port and the history of the Police Department.

Davis said large groups of officers might attend a lecture at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture to learn about African-American history. Local experts will teach the courses for free, not out-of-state consultants.

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"If we do that right, we will achieve cultural sensitivity, Davis said.

Law enforcement leaders in Baltimore and across the county have long focused on community policing. An initiative unveiled in March required the city's patrol officers to get out of their cars and mingle with residents for 30 minutes during each shift.

Ordering officers out of cars, Davis said, doesn't work if they aren't properly trained.

The new program will include lectures and mock scenarios at the academy. Recruits will then walk the streets with community leaders and be graded on how they interact with residents in casual encounters.

"We want them just to talk to people." Davis said. "Teaching cops to change their behaviors requires coaching and mentoring. I want to change mindsets."

Attending church could help.

The class that graduated in October from the police academy went to Zion Baptist Church in East Baltimore for a two-hour service. The Rev. Marshall Prentice sat the recruits in the front of the church and incorporated them into the sermon.

"He made them feel welcome," Davis said. "By the end of the service, recruits were hanging around talking to people. This is really important to cultural understanding."

Prentice agreed.

"That was a very powerful experience for all of us," Prentice said. The recruits "had a chance to experience our congregation in a personal way. They've seen people in a whole new light" rather than in a confrontation or an arrest.

  • 45 murders in 31 days
  • 45 murders in 31 days

Expanding the program to other churches will "open up relationships" with police across the city, Prentice added.

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, applauded Davis for working to create the programs. She hopes the initiatives improve relations between young children and officers.

"It's a start," she said. "It will really make a difference. I am glad [officers] will be graded on their interactions. It will create respect on both sides."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Davis "has done an outstanding job of building trust with both our rank-and-file police officers and residents in communities across the city."

Asked about the Justice Department's involvement, she added, "The reason why I invited the Department of Justice in to Baltimore was because I wanted their outside expertise to help show us how we can improve. The last thing that I would want is for them to be anything less than honest and complete in their evaluation and recommendations. We know that we have areas to improve, and we will welcome their report and findings."

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Kevin Davis is sworn-in as the Batimore Police Commissioner by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. (Colin Campbell, Baltimore Sun video)

Although some police departments across the country have resisted federal reforms, Davis said Baltimore will not be one of them.

Years ago, Davis was the second-ranking officer in the Prince George's County Police Department, where he helped enact reforms required by a similar federal civil rights investigation.

Based on that experience, he created the Department of Justice Compliance and Accountability Division in Baltimore. The five-member team, which reports to Davis and is led by a lawyer, facilitates requests from federal officials.

"It's one-stop shopping for the [Justice Department]," Davis said. "It eases their way into the organization."

The team, Davis said, will eventually ensure there is no delay in getting community input when the Justice Department's findings become public.

Davis would not speculate about when the report would be released, and the federal agency declined to comment on the Baltimore investigation.

In other cities, including Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans, the federal reports have hammered police for inadequate training, discipline and internal policies.

To prepare for that possibility, Davis hired an attorney and retired police major from Prince George's County to serve as the director of strategic development. Jason Johnson, who started in October, reports to Davis.

Other large departments, such as Philadelphia's, assign a deputy commissioner to carry out those duties. In Baltimore, a midlevel manager had been doing the work but was bogged down in dealing with the bureaucracy, Davis said.

"You need someone to come in here and say, 'Here is what other departments are doing. We need to do this now,'" Davis said.

Johnson, who headed the internal affairs unit in Prince George's County, will coordinate efforts involving discipline, training and policies — a key to reform in the aftermath of the federal investigation.

His initial tasks include looking for ways to improve the use-of-force policy and the early-intervention system to detect problem officers. Current efforts are "anemic at best," according to Davis.

That system is supposed to track matters such as injuries during arrests, citizen complaints and use-of-force reports. It is designed to allow police leaders to intervene with counseling, better supervision, training and, if appropriate, disciplinary action.

The Sun's investigation last year found the system was nonexistent.

The Sun revealed, for example, that top city and police leaders didn't know that a longtime officer had been named in two brutality lawsuits at the same time. The city paid more than $624,000 to settle lawsuits against that officer, who has since retired.

Davis predicts that federal investigators will closely scrutinize discretionary arrests for disorderly conduct, assault on a law enforcement officer and resisting. He described them as the "Big Three"; defense lawyers describe them as "trip tickets" that are misused by police to take suspects to jail.

Those charges are among the reasons encounters between residents and officers often escalate, according to department critics. The Sun investigation found that judges and prosecutors often dismissed such charges, and many cases later sparked lawsuits and costly settlements for the city.

Johnson said the agency needs to improve record-keeping and the analysis of what leads to those arrests, adding: "That's a major problem."

Many of the arrests come from hard-charging, aggressive officers looking to clean up the streets, officials have said.

Baltimore is no different from other cities where police leaders identify "super cops" based on monthly arrests, Davis said. It's important to examine the outcomes of those arrests with prosecutors and public defenders, he added.

"If I'm a superstar cop in the Western District making 40 arrests a month, where did [the arrests] end up in court?" Davis said. "Did those arrests make society better, or did you just leave the community pissed off in the wake of your apprehension?"

Cheatham said he has been interviewed by federal investigators. He told them some of the community's biggest concerns are inadequate investigations into complaints about officer misconduct and frequent arrests for low-level offenses.

Cheatham said it's crucial for Davis to pick the right people to oversee the departmental reforms, and community leaders are willing to help.

"The people put in place often determine the successes and failures of the programs," Cheatham said.

Meanwhile, Baltimore is decades behind similar-sized agencies in technology.

Most patrol cars don't have computers, radar equipment or license-plate readers. Officers must wait to communicate with dispatchers for the information and complete nearly all paperwork by hand.

"The inside of Baltimore police car looks like mine from 1992," Davis said, noting that expected federal reforms will be costly — but mandatory.

In Cleveland, where federal officials negotiated the most recent consent decree, the monitoring team expects the agreement to be in place for five years. The city estimates that the agreement could cost more than $13 million the first year and $8 million in each of the following years — a total of about $45 million.

The coming reforms, Davis said, will start to heal community wounds.

"Whatever the remedy is, it will compel us to get better," Davis said. "It will put the community at ease knowing that somebody else is looking at things."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

Twitter.com/MarkPuente

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