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New Baltimore County database details complaints against police officers, use of force incidents

Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa R. Hyatt stands next to Baltimore County Exceutive John Olszewski Jr. during the posting of colors Patriot Plaza in Towson before she is sworn in. Friday, the county released a database of police use of force since 2017.
Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa R. Hyatt stands next to Baltimore County Exceutive John Olszewski Jr. during the posting of colors Patriot Plaza in Towson before she is sworn in. Friday, the county released a database of police use of force since 2017. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County police found a violation of the law or department rules and regulations in about half of the 438 complaints filed against officers since 2017, according to a new database released Friday designed to track police conduct.

The public database contains information about more than 74,100 arrests and 853 use of force incidents involving the county’s 1,870 officers. It includes 2.6 million calls for service since 2017.

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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. released the database as part of his efforts to reform and hold the police department accountable and make county data more accessible to residents. The data stops at May 31, 2020, but Sean Naron, a county spokesman, said the dashboard will be updated on a regular basis.

Olszewski, a Democrat whose youngest brother serves in the county police department, has tried to address the “strained relationships” between police and the county’s neighborhoods since he was inaugurated in December 2018.

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While the dashboard lacks some specifics, it allows residents to see trends over time, the demographics of officers or individuals involved in incidents, the type of force used, the reason force was required, and the reason for the police call.

For instance, Baltimore County reported 754 instances of use of force between 2017 to 2019. Use of force rose each of the three full years in the database — a 21% increase between 2017 and 2019 — but was on pace to decline through the first five months of 2020. Ninety-nine instances of use of force have been reported in 2020 through May. It’s unclear if that decline is caused by department changes or circumstances surrounding the pandemic.

About 58% of all use of force incidents in the database involved officers using their hands, and nearly 37% of all incidents stemmed from responses to second-degree assault cases.

Overall, white officers were involved in 73% of use of force incidents since 2017, data shows. Most of the officers in those cases have served for anywhere between one to 13 years. Black individuals made up 68% of those incidents, and most of them were in their late teens to early thirties.

Total reported complaints against police declined by 17% from 2017 to 2019, data show. Only 27 complaints have been filed this year through May.

About two-thirds of all the complaints filed since 2017 stem from internal investigations, data show. White officers, who made up 79% of the county force in 2020, were the subject of 68% of all complaints. Black officers, who comprised 16% of the force in 2020, were the subject of 28% of all complaints.

Most of the complaints stemmed from allegations of failure to file or write required reports, or unnecessary — “but not brutal or excessive” — force, data show. According to the database, 49% of the actions alleged in complaint cases since 2017 occurred “in violation of the law.”

Arrests have decreased by 8% from 2017 to 2019, data shows. Up to 7,300 arrests have been reported this year as of May. There’s been an average of 700,000 calls for service per year since 2017.

The database was developed by Baltimore County’s BCSTAT management program, which operates within the county’s new Office of Government Reform and Strategic Initiatives, in collaboration with the police.

Policing nationwide has come under scrutiny this year following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in May in Minneapolis. Olszewski and County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt responded to the outcry by launching measures requiring officers to report unnecessary use of force.

Olszewski’s reforms also established a permanent advisory group to make recommendations on addressing racial disparities within county policing. The county also hired diversity officers for the police department and Olszewski’s administration, and there will be a third-party analysis of hiring practices.

The Baltimore County Council also will be considering bills to ban chokeholds and neck restraints, among other reforms, in October.

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David Rocah, a senior attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, lauded the database for its transparency, but he said the data remains “way too limited to really say anything meaningful about anything.” He praised the database for separating civilian complaints from internal complaints, but the vast disparity in the sustained rates between the two — nearly 66% of internal complaints were sustained compared with about 10% of civilian complaints — shows “it would be a significant mistake to aggregate the two,” he said.

“Ninety percent of the complaints made by civilians are not sustained and I think that fact is one reason among others as to why you also see a small number of complaints by civilians,” Rocah said.

Many county residents who interact with the ACLU “have little to no faith in how police police themselves,” Rocah said, and many are “afraid to complain because they fear retaliation.”

The police still need to improve transparency in internal affairs investigations, Rocah said. The database also has gaps in places where it can separate data by race to see, for instance, whether there are disparities in who files complaints or receives a particular type of force from police, he said.

Rocah pointed out that "of the people on whom force is used, 68% of those folks are Black and 29% are white, and that obviously doesn’t reflect the demographics of Baltimore County.”

Rocah reiterated the ACLU’s demands for state lawmakers to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, and to amend Public Records law for transparency in internal police investigations, which are treated as confidential personnel records.

David Rose, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #4, said in a statement that the FOP has been communicating the overview of these statistics for the last seven years in Annapolis, so they are glad to see the county finally making the information available “so the citizens can see the professional job our members do everyday.”

“This information brings facts to the unsupported rhetoric about our officers use of force,” Rose said in a statement.

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Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, said the complaints shown in the dashboard are based on the department’s Internal Affairs Division, but he stressed the police precincts also have complaints that should be included.

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Fugett also questioned why the county released the dashboard without giving the NAACP an opportunity to see it beforehand to understand what’s happening in the county.

“It’s almost like an okey-doke kind of move,” Fugett said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good first step, but all it says to me is you’ve got some systemic issues going on that you should’ve known about. What have you done to address them?” Fugett said.

In a statement, Olszewski thanked Hyatt, her department and the BCSTAT team for developing the dashboard, which he called “another important step forward in creating a culture of transparency in Baltimore County.”

Hyatt said in a statement that the department will continue to expand the resources and data available to residents.

“The expansion of this data dashboard will provide greater transparency and serve as another building block towards the advancement of public trust,” Hyatt said in a statement.

Olszewski’s administration will also release a public dashboard with traffic stop data in the coming days.

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