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Councilman says Baltimore police officers 'afraid,' don't feel empowered to initiate arrests

Most Baltimore Police officers who participated in a recent informal survey feel restricted by the department’s federal consent decree, inadequately trained and unsupported by city leadership.

Some of the officers surveyed said they don’t even feel comfortable intervening in incidents and making arrests without having been called to the scene.

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“They’re afraid,” said City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who conducted the unscientific survey. “In this political environment, you have to justify every move you make.”

About 362 of the department’s nearly 2,300 officers responded to Schleifer’s voluntary survey, which was sent at the end of 2018 via department email to police department leadership, officers and civilian members who responded anonymously. The short questionnaire asked basic biographical information, including respondents’ ages and how long they had served on the force, and questions about overall morale.

The results showed 43 percent said they do not feel “comfortable making self-initiated arrests,” which Schleifer said refers to proactive calls when officers are on patrol and they witness an incident and intervene, as opposed to calls they respond to through 911.

The survey also found that 74 percent said they “feel restricted by the consent decree,” while 44 percent said they don’t “fully understand the consent decree.” Only 60 percent said they feel “adequately trained” while 78 percent said they feel the department has “lowered our hiring standards.”

Two of every three officers who took the survey — 68 percent — also said they do not feel city leadership supports law enforcement.

Schleifer, whose district overlays the Northern and Northwest police districts, said he was not surprised by the responses but hopes they will be used to address some of the department’s systemic issues.

He shared the survey results with Acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison on Thursday afternoon. Though the survey showed significant concerns among officers, Schleifer said Harrison did not seem surprised by the officers’ responses, and responded with specific ideas on how to address tactical departmental issues.

“It’s refreshing. He’s seen challenges similar to ours,” Schleifer said.

He said Harrison is taking action by evaluating the command staff and determining what, if any, changes need to be made, which Schleifer said any successful leader would make a priority.

Attorney Ken Thompson, who heads the independent monitoring team that is helping the department implement the consent decree, said he hadn’t reviewed the survey, but the responses show the team must work on its outreach efforts.

“We want to intensify our efforts to reach out to the rank-and-file,” he said.

Officers should not feel that the consent decree restricts them, he said.

“The consent decree gives them the tools and resources to do their job but in a constitutional way,” Thompson said.

Sgt. Mike Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents the rank-and-file officers, said in a statement on Twitter Friday that he hopes city leadership takes notes of the responses.

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“The results are no surprise to our members & it points out the shortcomings of the City & how the BPD is (was?) run including the theft of our pension benefits. It should be included in any discussion of recruitment, retention, & morale,” Mancuso said.

When Former Mayor Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake overhauled the city’s police and fire pension system, officers were required to increase contributions to the pension fund and had to stay on the force for 25 years instead of 20 to receive their pensions.

Most who took the survey — 83 percent — were sworn officers and the rest were administrative personnel. Of the officers who responded, the majority were experienced officers. Only 8 percent had served up to five years; 19 percent had served five to 10 years; 19 percent had served 10 to 15; 21 percent had served 15 to 20 years; and 33 percent had served 20 or more years.

The respondents ages were evenly distributed: 28 percent were ages 25 to 34; 32 percent were 35 to 44; 32 percent were 45 to 54; and 7 percent were 55 or older.

The survey also allowed officers to write in responses to detail their concerns and also ways they thought crime could be lowered.

One officer wrote: “Morale won’t rise until the Department and its officers receive consistent public support from the Mayor, City Council and State’s Attorney. No one is asking that corruption be tolerated. What we are asking is that when we investigate crimes and make arrests or issue citations that our elected leaders support us when we encounter resistance.”

One section allowed the officers to say what they would want to tell the next police commissioner.

“Invest more in the men and women who do the job. … If police officers are detailed to patrol for a period of time, have a strategy for them, and don’t just use them as a scarecrows on street corners.”

Others asked for more interaction with the commissioner, including attending roll calls or taking ride-alongs with officers. Some simply asked for more officers.

A detective said: “We don’t have enough people in my unit. The volume of cases we have is absurd given our manpower. It leads to mistakes, and inadequate follow up investigations which lead to sloppy prosecutions. None of which is for lack of trying.”

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