xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Aspects of the national ‘defund the police’ movement can fit into Baltimore’s consent decree reforms, federal judge says

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said Friday he believes Baltimore’s police reforms do align with calls by some members of the public to defund police, or at least reallocate finite public resources to address issues such as mental health and substance abuse.

Still, he cautioned against reducing funding for the city’s police department — at least for now.

Advertisement

“Some of the debate around the ‘defund’ movement is in alignment with principles outlined in the Consent Decree — for decades, the public has unrealistically expected police departments to provide almost every essential social service that residents require,” including mental health services and substance abuse mitigation, Bredar said in prepared remarks at the start of the latest federal court hearing on the reforms.

“The Consent Decree recognizes that it is inappropriate for the Police Department to try to function as an uber-social services agency, and the City is required to reconsider how it meets critical needs, especially in the area of behavioral health,” he said.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Bredar made the comments Friday morning at the latest quarterly hearing when city leaders and lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice discussed progress and challenges for the department as it implements reforms.

The hearing comes four years after Baltimore entered into a consent decree following a Justice Department investigation that found city officers routinely violated residents’ constitutional rights. It also comes as cities across the country face a similar reckoning on whether to shift some resources away from police departments in order to provide more social services and preventive measures.

Mayor Brandon Scott pledged support for the reform efforts, saying that rebuilding public trust in the beleaguered department correlates directly with reducing crime.

“BPD cannot accomplish this task on its own,” he said during the hearing, adding that he is “committed to doing this right way, not the popular way.”

Advertisement

Scott noted successes, such as a new records management system that is expected to improve oversight and efficiency, which Scott said he “fought for” for when previously serving on the city council.

Scott said that under the decree, the city is looking for ways to lower the burden on officers who handle a variety of calls, allowing them “to directly impact crime and violence in our city.” He announced a pilot program in mid-April that would direct some 911 calls to behavioral health specialists instead of officers. It is expected to begin in limited areas in June.

Each year, Baltimore spends nearly $1.5 million for the consent decree monitoring team, a group of experts responsible for helping implement reforms as required by the agreement. That money, however, does not include a number of associated expenses, such as relocating the police academy and upgrades in technology. City officials have said they expect the total cost of implementing the reforms will reach tens of millions of dollars.

Bredar said it would be premature to reduce funding as the department is at a critical juncture for making changes. He noted it already has rewritten a range of policies, begun training on those policies, and will begin assessing whether officers are following those policies.

Bredar said reducing funding “might make sense at some point in the future,” but only after alternative services are up-and-running to take officers’ places, such as responding to individuals suffering from mental health crises.

“[I]t’s always going to be better to have mental health professionals deal with mental health issues, but it is fantasy to think that we would make progress on this issue by simply reducing the Police Department’s budget today, thereby reducing their current capacity to respond to behavioral health calls, when there is not yet another entity in place to pick up and handle those same calls,” Bredar said.

Bredar, as well as lawyers for the Justice Department, said they are pleased with the progress the city has made, but acknowledged there is a lot of work ahead.

“Much has been accomplished under the Baltimore Police Consent Decree,” Bredar said. “But much work remains. Four years in, we are still closer to the beginning of this process than to its end.”

Among the other challenges the department continues to face is conducting timely and thorough internal affairs investigations.

An attorney for the Justice Department said that for too long, the quality of internal affairs investigations was subpar, creating a culture where they were not taken seriously.

Lawyers with the Justice Department and the monitoring team noted progress in some areas, such as training.

Cynthia Coe, a Justice Department lawyer, said the police department has ”genuinely come a long way” on training. Coe later spoke about a recently completed training for a new peer-intervention program called Ethical Policing Is Courageous, intended to curb misconduct. While Coe expressed optimism for the program, she noted that it remains to be seen if it will make a difference on the street.

Seth Rosenthal, a deputy with the monitoring team, said that because of the consent decree Baltimore will largely be ahead of other departments around the state as they embark on reforms and laws recently mandated by the state legislature.

“BPD is well ahead of the curve where the reform legislation would have the rest of the state go,” Rosenthal said.

He noted that the department is working on a a set of standards for officer discipline that could help serve as a template for one that will be adopted by police departments statewide.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement