Baltimore remains on track to implement one of the nation’s most complex policing consent decrees, but persistent struggles continue in several reform areas, including the department’s progress in improving technology and hiring more officers, according to the federal judge overseeing the process.
“While police consent decrees have been entered in other cities since the 1990s, no decree entered before this one has had the length, breadth and complexity of ours,” said U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar at Thursday’s quarterly public hearing about the Baltimore Police Department’s progress in implementing sweeping police reforms.
“While there are some key areas that lag behind, the parties, generally, are now transitioning into a phase where we are beginning to look for and evaluate the results of placing the BPD under a Consent Decree and under Court supervision,” he said.
The city and the U.S. Justice Department entered into the decree in April 2017 after a federal investigation found city officers routinely violated residents’ rights, especially those of Black residents. During Thursday’s hearing, city and police officials provided updates on the department’s progress in key areas including, technology, hiring and misconduct investigations.
Deputy City Solicitor Ebony Thompson also told the judge about progress in developing a “comprehensive plan” for handling squeegee workers, a culmination of the “Squeegee Collaborative,” which convened a group of squeegee workers, business owners and others to develop a strategy for addressing the issue.
Thompson said enforcement is key, and how the city enforces policies is important.
Bredar himself called police this month after squeegee workers gave him the middle finger, spat on his car and wrote “racist” in soap on the windows — the latest incident to raise questions on how the police and the city should address squeegee workers.
Longstanding debate about the issue was reignited in July after police charged a teenage squeegee worker with fatally shooting 48-year-old Timothy Reynolds after police said he confronted a group of the workers with a baseball bat downtown.
Bredar has said that the consent decree does not specify how the city should police the issue, but that it should be done in a constitutional manner that follows the consent decree and is permitted under its confines.
Bredar did not discuss his personal experience during Thursday’s hearing, but merely called the issue “fraught.” He added that the consent decree provides “guardrails” for policies that the city implements.
At the hearing, Bredar spoke of concerns about the department overcoming certain hurdles that will impede compliance. The judge questioned the department in several key areas of reforms, including staffing and technology, which have remained challenging.
“There are some issues that impair us,” Bredar said.
The department’s outdated technology that left many systems and processes on paper has improved but continues to slow progress. But Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison told the judge that department officials have met personally with the head of Axon technology company, a contractor, in order to shore up improvements to a records management system to move forward with reforms.
The department has made some progress in improving the department’s overall technological capabilities, and officials touted the use of a new app that officers download on their phone where they can begin filing incident reports from the street.
On staffing, the BPD, like other departments across the country, has struggled to hire enough officers to replace those who are leaving. Last month, the department hired five new officers but lost 22, though overall average trends were better the past five years compared with previous years.
The city has launched several initiatives to beef up its police ranks and better use resources. The city mapped out new police district boundaries for the first time in more than 50 years to better allocate officers, and earlier this year, announced the department would be one of the first to hire civilian investigators for certain types of investigations to augment sworn staff.