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Baltimore mayor seeks more federal aid to combat police misconduct

Baltimore mayor seeks more federal aid to combat police misconduct
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addresses the President's Task Force on 21 Century Policing at the Newseum in Washington. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

As calls persist for greater police accountability in communities across the nation, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told a White House panel Tuesday that the city needs money for increased training and body cameras, and to add supervisors to the office that investigates misconduct.

"This creates a higher level of accountability in the investigations and ensures that officers are being held accountable for their actions," the mayor told President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. "Having grant funding to pay for those positions would expedite the process."

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Rawlings-Blake told the 12-member panel that she is committed to improving the relationship between police and Baltimore's residents. While crime has dropped in recent years, the problem of police misconduct continues to overshadow such improvements, she said.

Residents were "concerned about the tactics used by police officers in order to achieve the crime reductions we were experiencing," she added.

Her comments followed testimony from Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who also told the panel about problems plaguing their police forces.

Obama created the task force in December to explore ways to build public trust and promote reductions in crime. He also proposed using millions in federal funding to help pay for body cameras for 50,000 police officers across the country.

The president's announcement followed nationwide protests over the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Those incidents have stoked anger in many communities about the treatment of minorities by police.

More protests are planned in Baltimore and in Annapolis on Thursday, a day after the 2015 General Assembly session opens.

The task force, which met Tuesday at the Newseum, is headed by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who is a co-chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Research Advisory Committee. The group is scheduled to complete a report within 90 days.

Nutter and Johnson, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, told the panel that many U.S. cities face conflicts between police and residents.

"The issues that we're discussing today are primarily local issues," Johnson said. "We cannot pretend there is a one-size–fits-all-model" for solutions.

"Nothing can be achieved without mutual respect and the shared vision of destiny," Nutter said.

Nutter and Johnson — like Rawlings-Blake — are working to reform their police departments.

Johnson has ordered his police chief to provide a report with recommendations for overhauling the department. Johnson wants the chief to explore the use of body cameras, ways to diversify the force, improvements in training and opportunities to better relations with the community.

The police departments in Baltimore and Philadelphia also are undergoing comprehensive reviews by the U.S. Department of Justice.

A recent multi-part Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that the city's police officers have battered dozens of residents — resulting in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure, and even death — during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement. The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct since 2011. And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the people who were arrested — if charges were filed at all.

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The investigation also found that some Baltimore officers were involved in multiple lawsuits alleging brutality, and city officials were unaware of the scope of the problem because they lacked comprehensive tracking systems for police misconduct. Five days after the first part of The Sun investigation was published, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts announced that he had asked the Justice Department to help reform the agency. The collaborative review is in its early stages.

Federal officials intervened a year ago in Philadelphia to help curb outrage over years of officer-involved shootings.

Rawlings-Blake told the panel that "building trust and legitimacy are at the forefront of what we have been working to improve in Baltimore."

She pointed out that complaints and lawsuits against Baltimore officers have decreased, and that more residents are providing crime tips to police. "We have demonstrated that Baltimore can learn from its past."

Rawlings-Blake also told the panel she is committed to impartiality, legitimacy and procedural justice when it comes to police interactions with residents. The department is adding ethics and situational training to give officers hands-on experience when confronting problems on the streets.

"The goal is building a belief in every officer that a safe neighborhood can't be achieved without the trust and confidence that comes from community engagement," said Rawlings-Blake, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

While the city is working to create a program to equip officers with body cameras, Rawlings-Blake said, such cameras are a necessity to hold officers accountable and to defend them against false accusations. Federal funding could help Baltimore become one of the first major cities with a comprehensive program for its officers, she said.

The Justice Department's review will bring consultants to Baltimore this month to start examining the police force, and the mayor said an increased federal partnership is crucial to helping train officers on issues like diversity.

"They need to learn more than logistics of policing, but also the broader significance of their role in our society," she said.

After the three mayors had spoken, Rawlings-Blake said she is "optimistic" that Congress and Obama will act on the task force's findings. She also urged more cities to ask the Justice Department for help to improve training for police forces.

"This work is not going to happen on its own," she said.

twitter.com/MarkPuente

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