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Baltimore County is taking steps to reform its police department, but some in community remain wary

Last month, after Baltimore County became the first government in the Baltimore region to enact a policing reform law, Chris S. Brown said she and many others have waited too long for this to happen.

Black residents still feel a disconnect from the police force, said Brown, whose 17-year-old son Christopher died after an off-duty county officer chased him in Randallstown and allegedly put him in a chokehold in 2012.

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Among other changes, Brown thinks officers need to do more community policing — to “get to know the culture in which you serve.”

The reform bill pushed by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and approved by the County Council does not require officers to spend more time walking a beat and meeting with residents. But, among other changes, it compels officers to intervene if they witness excessive use of force.

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And it is designed to curtail the use of chokeholds by county officers, allowing that use of force only in defense against death or serious bodily injury.

“It’s needed in order to restore what we’re losing as far as our community trust,” said Kelly Fenner, the police department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.

Chris S. Brown, whose son, Christopher, 17, died by asphyxiation after an off-duty Baltimore County police officer allegedly put him in a chokehold, sits next to an image of her son on a T-shirt.
Chris S. Brown, whose son, Christopher, 17, died by asphyxiation after an off-duty Baltimore County police officer allegedly put him in a chokehold, sits next to an image of her son on a T-shirt. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Critics such as Brown say that while the legislation and other recent changes have some merit, the county has much more to do.

“The proof is in the pudding," said Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP. “You’ve checked all the boxes. Now the work has to begin, and are you really in earnest going to do the work?"

Fugett said the NAACP has been “screaming at the top of our lungs” about the police department’s issues internally and with traffic stop disparities, but he’s glad the county is finally taking steps to address it.

The police department has always been central to Olszewski’s plans for the county.

When he ran for office in 2018, Olszewski walked west side communities and promised to improve what he called the “strained relationships” between police and the county’s neighborhoods. The Democrat said he would implement diverse hiring goals, encourage officers to live in the communities they patrol, reach out to youths, and allow citizen input in planning.

Policing nationwide came under new scrutiny after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May. Olszewski and County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt responded by initiating several measures, including requiring officers to report unnecessary use of force and promising faster access to body camera footage.

An image of Chris S. Brown and her son, Christopher, on a Justice4Christopher Brown T-shirt. Oct. 31, 2020.
An image of Chris S. Brown and her son, Christopher, on a Justice4Christopher Brown T-shirt. Oct. 31, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The county also is paying more than $220,000 to Fair and Impartial Policing, a Florida-based company, for training to help officers identify and eliminate bias that can shape enforcement decisions. The yearlong program began July 27, and it’s providing eight hours of training to 1,878 patrol officers, supervisors and middle managers.

New York City’s police department recently used the program. In Baltimore County, it will put 30 department staffers through two-day training to certify them to train new hires in recognizing bias and using techniques to reduce it. A total of 53 county commanders and “select community leaders” will also learn how to properly practice “anti-biased policing policy,” recruitment and hiring, training, supervision and outreach to diverse communities.

The police need to understand how bias affects their relationship with the community, said Col. Steven M. Hlavach, commander of the Criminal Investigations Bureau. He told the County Council the training would show officers how “to reduce and prevent” negative reactions from the public in response to policing.

The county police department has been criticized for several high-profile civilian deaths and, according to state data, had the most civilian deaths involving a law enforcement officer of any Maryland agency in 2015 and 2019.

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This year, Gamel Antonio Brown died in January after officers used a Taser on him. An officer also fatally shot Robert Johnson Jr. of Essex after he dropped his handgun outside an apartment complex in May.

Tre' Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland, speaks at a news conference calling for an independent investigation into the officer-involved fatal shooting of Eric Sopp last November.
Tre' Murphy, field organizer for the ACLU of Maryland, speaks at a news conference calling for an independent investigation into the officer-involved fatal shooting of Eric Sopp last November. (Phil Davis)

Last year, police shot Eric Sopp, a 48-year-old white man, during a traffic stop on Interstate 83 after his mom reported he made suicidal threats. And officers shot and killed 24-year-old Emanuel David Oates at a Randallstown grocery store after he pulled out a machete.

In 2016, Korryn Gaines, a Black woman from Randallstown, was fatally shot by an officer after a standoff at her home where she pointed a shotgun at an officer. And 21-year-old Tawon Boyd, a Middle River man, died days after an encounter with county police officers and emergency medical workers.

In all cases, prosecutors decided officers had not committed a crime. But the county has settled, or lost, civil cases in several of those incidents resulting in payments to families totaling millions of dollars.

That includes a $1.5 million settlement paid to Chris S. Brown after her son’s death. Christopher was strangled by an off-duty officer, and although it was ruled a homicide, officer James D. Laboard, who is Black, was acquitted of criminal charges after his attorneys argued it was accidental. Laboard is still on the force.

Last year, Olszewski hired the county’s first chief diversity officer, who leads a new work group to promote more equitable policing. Olszewski worked with the council to pass the reform legislation with bipartisan support.

The law discourages the police department from hiring officers from another jurisdiction if those officers have been fired or have resigned due to disciplinary concerns, though the police chief can approve such a hire. The ordinance also provides whistleblower protection to officers who report excessive use of force.

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“The proof is in the pudding. You’ve checked all the boxes. Now the work has to begin, and are you really in earnest going to do the work?"


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Meanwhile, Fenner, the department’s diversity officer, says she is working with officers to try to ensure they aren’t offending residents when policing.

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Among other steps, she’s employing a strategy called “candid conversations” in which commanders and officers discuss race and bias within the agency. The conversations address issues around snide remarks and ways to remove the tension and anxiety that can come with being in situations or communities that officers either can’t relate to or are unfamiliar with.

The department has also set a 30-day goal for releasing body-worn camera footage from “critical incidents" and released an online dashboard of information about arrests and use of force incidents involving county police.

But activists say the county needs to do more.

Olivia Daniels, a Catonsville High School senior with Baltimore County Youth Speaks, was disappointed the council did not approve more expansive whistleblower protections nor give civilians a vote on a disciplinary hearing board.

Daniels, whose family experienced a traumatic encounter with county police, said it’s a problem that those “really important” amendments were withdrawn.

Molly Amster, Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice, also criticized the legislation. “The way it was passed, it does almost nothing to increase transparency and accountability,” she said.

Amster said the county should require newly hired officers to serve a two-year probationary period, even if the officer had previous experience. She believes the 12-member work group Olszewski formed is skewed toward law enforcement because only two members “are representing community interests."

“Accountability will only come when the police are no longer policing themselves,” Amster said, not from more training or restrictions on use of force.

A panel of state lawmakers has recommended repealing Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, and Amster said that would go a long way in fostering more accountability.

Olszewski formed the work group, in part, to analyze racial disparities in traffic stops. Most of those stops occurred in the predominantly Black Woodlawn police precinct.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the county for allegedly engaging in hiring discrimination against Black applicants who wanted to become officers. Fewer than 15% of the department’s officers are Black, but the county in a court filing denied DOJ’s allegations.

The county reached a settlement with the federal agency by agreeing to make 20 “priority hires” of Black applicants who previously took the test and failed the written examination. The county will also provide $2 million in back pay to eligible claimants. The old test has been discontinued and the county is hiring a new test developer to create an exam that won’t have the same impact on Black applicants, according to the county.

The county is working with the National Police Foundation to have a third-party analysis of the department’s hiring practices. Hyatt said the county also is “in the midst of a [separate] staffing study that hasn’t been done here in 10 years.”

“Nothing moves very quickly in government, but I’m really proud that we’ve made such progress in such a short period of time,” she said.

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