For years, the Baltimore Police Department focused resources on reducing violence but failed to face the corruption within its ranks, an outside consultant wrote in a scathing report released earlier this month.
But now, a federal judge overseeing a lengthy, costly and court-ordered reform of the police department, said he is seeing positive changes in oversight and internal investigations.
“It’s no longer 2017,” said U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar at the quarterly consent decree hearing Thursday, referring to when a group of officers from the now defunct Gun Trace Task Force were indicted on sweeping corruption charges. “Significant progress has been demonstrated. There is still a long road ahead, but the court is convinced that the Department is now headed in the right direction.”
The judge’s remarks came in response to a more than a 600-page report by former U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich and his team from the law firm Steptoe & Johnson. It detailed how a group of officers were able to terrorize a community, often using excessive force while stealing from residents, lying on court documents and committing other crimes for years, without any oversight or meaningful discipline.
Now five years into the consent decree, Bredar said “it is clear to me that city leaders and police commissioners have known for years about a serious integrity problem in the Baltimore Police Department.”
Bredar said the city’s focus has too often been reducing crime at the expense of rooting out corruption.
“This imperative, to slow the shootings and the murders, has repeatedly displaced any priority otherwise given to stopping overly aggressive and dishonest police work, particularly if the misbehaving officers were seizing guns and drugs in significant numbers and quantity,” he said.
Bredar has made similar comments in the past in defense on the consent decree process, saying the two objectives “of constitutional policing and effective policing are intrinsically interwoven.”
Some critics have questioned the expense and the time taken by the consent decree process and raised concerns that the new emphasis on constitutional policing has handcuffed officers. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Police union leadership also have questioned whether Baltimore’s approach has been too lenient on violent criminals.
The $4.47 million report by Bromwich was required as part of the reform process. The city entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice following a patterns and practice investigation in 2016 that found officers throughout the department routinely violated residents’ constitutional rights. Seven officers from the Gun Trace Task Force were first indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in March 2017, and in April of the same year, the city entered into the decree.
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During the hearing, Bromwich cited past efforts by commissioners to initiate “integrity stings” that did not lead to the removal of any officers who were accused of misconduct.
Bredar interrupted, emphasizing that “it’s not enough” just to have stings, saying that the department must have follow through, including collaboration with the state’s attorney’s office.
The charges against the GTTF officers “really understated the egregious nature of the crimes,” Bromwich said. “There were home invasions, false affidavits and police reports, over and over again.”
The report sought to answer “what motivated these officers to engage in these staggering acts of corruption over time?” he said, and “what weaknesses within the police department let them get away with it?”
In his report, Bromwich made 25 recommendations to improve oversight, which Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison agreed with, such as improving screening and background checks for new recruits and better training. It called for stronger oversight of internal affairs and the handing of complaints against officers. The report also calls for increased oversight of specialized units.
Deputy Commissioner Brian Nadeau, who heads the Public Integrity Bureau, has moved to an electronic case management system instead of a paper one, which will help oversight. He also has pushed for better training for all investigators and a reduction in the length of investigations from 300 days to 200, while streamlining the investigatory process. He said the unit has doubled the number of investigators to 35, though that remains short of a target of 56.
Seth Rosenthal, a deputy monitor on the consent decree monitoring team, said the department is starting to see improvements as a result of better training, and more oversight from audits and from review of body worn camera footage. He said there will be additional measures, including improved reviews of stops, searches and arrests once the department implements an electronic field-based reporting system that will allow officers to provide immediate information about arrests.