Review of Baltimore police won't change culture overnight, official says

Federal and local officials discuss a review of the city police department. Left to right: U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, Ronald L. Davis of the Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts.
Federal and local officials discuss a review of the city police department. Left to right: U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, Ronald L. Davis of the Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The Department of Justice official in charge of the coming review of the Baltimore Police Department cautioned that the examination is not an "overnight venture," and it will take time to change a culture that has sparked distrust among residents.

Ronald L. Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, said in an interview that he expected some officers to resist proposals to make the department more transparent and accountable. But some policy changes will be made as soon as problems are identified, rather than at the end of the review, he said.


"This process exposes an organization and its culture to more relevant practices," said Davis. "There are a lot of officers in any department that want to do things better, but maybe they haven't had a voice."

Davis reiterated the federal government's pledge to help transform Baltimore's police force, which has confronted allegations of brutality and other misconduct. And though the longtime lawman acknowledged that few people outside law enforcement know the benefits of the federal initiative — known as a collaborative review — he said the community will see new policies emerge once consultants immerse themselves in the review.


"You will not wait until the end" of the review to make changes, said Davis, noting that it's better to fix deficiencies quickly so problems don't linger. "You work with the department to get better."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts sought federal help this month, shortly after The Baltimore Sun reported that since 2011 the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police misconduct. Judges or prosecutors cleared nearly all of the people of criminal charges in the incidents that led to the lawsuits with the highest payouts. Some officers were named in more than one lawsuit.

Such incidents, in which the victims are most often African-Americans, carry a hefty financial and social cost. They have damaged the relationship between Baltimore police and the community, according to city officials and neighborhood leaders.

David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor and an expert on police misconduct, believes the federal review can restore trust in the Baltimore Police Department.


"You have promising conditions, in the sense that both the mayor and the chief of police want this and see it as helpful," he said. "It gives the Police Department a chance to right itself, under the watch and with the help, of people in the COPS office."

But leaders of the city's police union have criticized Rawlings-Blake and Batts for seeking the federal review. Two weeks ago, Fraternal Order of Police officials said the streets would be less safe as officers become fearful of being second-guessed by outside consultants.

Union officials also said the department has already shown it is serious about improving the relationship with residents by instituting reforms in the last two years. The union commissioned a report in 2012 and called on city leaders to make "education level a priority" in hiring, mirroring cities such as New York, where new officers need either military experience or two years of college.

FOP President Bob Cherry did not return multiple calls for comment.

Earlier this week, Davis detailed plans to work with Baltimore leaders and outside consultants to curb abuses by officers. Policing consultants, working with federal officials, plan to start interviewing community members, elected leaders, officers and union officials within weeks. They will also ride with officers and examine practices, policies, supervision and oversight in the nation's eighth-largest police force.

In the coming months, the Justice Department will hold community meetings so residents can discuss problems they have with police.

Officials plan to issue an assessment and recommendations, and provide two updates in the 18 months after the review is finished.

The Justice Department completed a similar review this year in Las Vegas. Other reviews are continuing in Philadelphia and Spokane, Wash. On Tuesday, Davis and police officials announced that a review would also start in Fayetteville, N.C. As in Baltimore, complaints of excessive force triggered reviews in those cities.

In 2012, the ACLU and NAACP in Nevada wanted the Justice Department to conduct a civil rights investigation because Las Vegas officers had fatally shot more than 140 people in the preceding decade. The ACLU feared the collaborative review would be a "whitewash" and not solve any deep-seated problems, said executive director Tod Story.

His belief changed once the review started. During the process, police consultants and federal officials sought input from both organizations, Story said.

With nearly all of the 75 policy recommendations implemented, police leaders have made "significant progress" in reforming the agency and are "making overtures" to heal community wounds, Story said. Still, the changes have to stand up over time, he added.

"We have to wait and see," he said. "We hope it succeeds. We want the Police Department to reflect the values of the community."

Baltimore's police force has repeatedly confronted examples of misconduct.

For example, a detective who resigned recently said the department had not protected him after he came forward about an officer beating a handcuffed suspect. That officer was convicted of assault and obstruction of justice. But the detective found a rat on the hood of his car, which he believed was a message from officers who saw him as a snitch.

In recent weeks, police leaders quickly condemned an officer who was captured on a surveillance video beating a man at a bus stop. Top officials also faulted other officers at the scene for not reporting the misconduct.

Besides the mayor and Batts, other elected leaders and activists have repeatedly stated that a small number of officers have tarnished the department's image, even though a majority work hard to protect the city. That issue resonates in most police departments, said Davis, who rose to captain in Oakland before serving as chief in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Although he could not speak about specific misconduct in Baltimore, Davis said that problem will subside once officers learn the benefits of improved policies. One key to ending a culture of misconduct is gathering input from all officers during the review, he said.

"You change policies, then change practices and people see the benefits of those practices … and it starts establishing a culture," said Davis, who joined the Justice Department in 2013.

Federal officials believe working with the department is the best way to improve its interactions with the community. One of the most pressing challenges facing law enforcement across the country is the perception of the legitimate use of force — whether deadly or nonlethal.

Davis stressed that the federal government is not coming into Baltimore with answers to every problem or to force unnecessary changes.


"If they're confident that the reforms are working, this process will not interrupt it," Davis said about union concerns. "Then all this process can do is to validate the great work you're doing. What do you have to lose?"


People want accountability mechanisms in place when deadly force is used, and the federal review will bring confidence to the community, he added.

The Justice Department developed the collaborative-reform program in 2011.

Davis said he is working to making law enforcement one of the most "examined professions" in the county. All police departments need to be open, transparent, accountable and engaging, he added.

Davis has been on the frontline of police tensions in recent months.

In August, the shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparked weeks of protests and a national outcry. President Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder to ease concerns about heavy-handed policing. Obama also dispatched Davis to the area to foster conversations and reduce tensions within the community.

So far, Davis said, the lack of community trust is the biggest problem facing the Baltimore Police Department.

"Public safety is not something measured by the absence of crime," he said. "It includes the presence of justice."


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