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After Justice Department report, police department now faces challenge of wholesale culture change

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis respond to the Department of Justice report. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore police officer said he had no valid reason to stop, question and break up a group of black men. But his supervisor urged him on.

"Make something up," the sergeant said.

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Investigators from the Justice Department, who were riding along with the officers, included the exchange in their scathing report this week on the Police Department — one example among many of the way officers routinely violate the rights of residents, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, in virtually all aspects of daily police work.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says the exchange shows the scope of the challenge now confronting his department. Many officers and supervisors came up in a culture that emphasized arrest numbers over community policing.

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"If you're raised in that culture, you probably don't think there is anything wrong with it," Davis said. "But there is something wrong with it."

Now, under a consent decree to be negotiated by city and federal officials, a court will demand that the culture change.

The Justice Department has painted a portrait of a department that has not shaken off the hangover of the zero-tolerance approach to policing that drove arrests in Baltimore to a peak of 100,000 in 2005.

The federal investigators concluded that the department has paid lip service to community policing ideas, but its training and policies do not make them a priority.

One training session on whether police should be "warriors" or "guardians" focused on the disadvantages of being a guardian, the investigators wrote disapprovingly.

Supervisors who were trained in the old methods haven't given them up, the investigators wrote, and continue to push short-term crime suppression based on stopping large numbers of people on the street. Arrest rates have fallen in recent years, but the investigators estimated that hundreds of thousands of people still are stopped by city police each year.

The Justice Department's findings ultimately will be formalized into a consent decree with a detailed list of targets for Baltimore police to hit. But getting reforms to stick will likely require deep change.

Neill Franklin, a former state trooper and city police officer, said much of the work will fall on the sergeants, the department's frontline supervisors. They are the ones who can first step in when things are going astray and mentor promising young officers, Franklin said.

Sergeants who embrace new policies should be supported and nurtured, Franklin said, while those who resist should be held accountable.

The Justice Department investigators faulted the department for lax internal accountability systems. Franklin said the approach needs to be strict: "You step outside of the policy, I'll whack you on the fingers; you step outside the policy again I'll whack you on the head."

The federal report contains examples of sergeants coming under pressure from their superiors. In one instance, a sergeant who refused to follow out an order to "lock up all the black hoodies" was given a poor performance review and transferred to a different unit.

"They're catching it from up above," Franklin said.

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Sgt. Robert F. Cherry Jr., a former police union president, said the effects of zero-tolerance policing linger, and change needs to be spelled out in a clearly defined strategy.

"The city leadership needs to figure out what kind of police department they want," Cherry said.

The arrival of a new generation of officers could help bring about cultural change. But Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University who studies police accountability, said the consent decrees that are imposed after Justice Department investigations often fail to mandate changes in hiring standards.

"That's more important than training and all the other pro forma pieces of these consent decrees," Fagan said. "We really do need a new generation of police officers, in Baltimore and elsewhere."

In a 2012 report, the police union laid out recommendations to improve the quality of cadets who enter the police academy. The union said requiring some college education and screening candidates more effectively would cut down on corruption and the use of force.

Cherry, one of the authors of the report, said the recommendations were ignored by the city. He hopes they will now be revisited.

"A lot of officers will look at an opportunity to get written into that consent decree the resources they've been asking for for years," he said.

Lisa Daugaard, a former public defender who sits on a police accountability commission in Seattle, said activists there discovered how important it was to involve rank-and-file police officers in the reform process.

"That can be the difference between real change and nominal compliance," she said.

Seattle entered into a settlement with the Justice Department in 2012. But Daugaard said some of the most promising change has come from outside that process.

A project called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which is also being tested in Baltimore, helped officers develop long-term relationships with low-level criminals on their beat and find ways to help them rather than simply ship them off to jail.

"It radically changed their job," she said. "There is a level of trust that is unimaginable from the perspective of those of us who used to cross-examine these same officers."

Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and John Fritze contributed to this article.

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