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2016 was year of reckoning — but little resolution — for Maryland law enforcement

Discussions raged in 2016 over the best path forward for American policing, how and whether police officers can be held accountable, and to what extent rifts between cops and their communities can be mended.

The intense scrutiny of police following the deaths of people like 25-year-old Freddie Gray and protests led in part by the Black Lives Matter movement continued this year, while law enforcement leaders and elected officials promised reform.

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High-profile killings of police officers and deputies in places like Dallas and Baton Rouge, La. — and Harford County — intensified the debate and spurred calls for greater respect for the men and women in blue.

Little was settled, as President-elect Donald Trump secured victory after a campaign advocating for policing practices such as "stop-and-frisk" street enforcement that the Obama administration had taken steps in recent years to cast off.

In many ways, Baltimore — and Maryland — served as a microcosm of these national trends.

The year in law enforcement here was defined by the decision among prosecutors to drop all remaining charges against the Baltimore police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death, the Department of Justice issuing a scathing report outlining discrimination and unconstitutional practices by the city's police force, and the introduction or expansion of body cameras for police officers in multiple jurisdictions.

The year also saw renewed questions about police surveillance programs, new technologies and their oversight, the resignation of the Howard County sheriff after a report alleged bullying and discrimination, and police killing a young black woman barricaded in her home in Baltimore County.

All the while, the intense level of violence that saturated Baltimore in homicides in 2015 continued, pushing 2016 again past 300 homicides in a single year — a grim mark not seen since the 1990s.

Police brass and elected leaders pledged changes, while the Justice Department worked to enshrine them for Baltimore police in a court-enforced consent decree.

Final charges dropped in Gray case

The criminal case that dominated 2015 and the first half of 2016 in Maryland came to a sudden end in July, when Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby sharply criticized the criminal justice system as stacked against her office — and in favor of the police — and announced she was dropping all remaining charges against the officers involved in Gray's arrest.

The decision meant there would be no convictions in one of the highest-profile criminal cases in the city's history.

During the trial in June of the highest-ranking police officer charged in the case, Lt. Brian Rice, who was ultimately acquitted, the presiding circuit judge suggested that one of the city's top prosecutors didn't understand the rules of evidence, and the prosecutor accused a police detective of sabotaging the case. The detective, Dawnyell Taylor, who led the Police Department's investigation into Gray's death, also gave sworn testimony that suggested an assistant state medical examiner had lied in court.

In dropping the remaining charges after Rice's acquittal, Mosby criticized the law allowing criminal defendants to choose bench trials rather than jury trials. She said the decision to drop the charges had been "agonizing," but that she had to "consider the dismal likelihood of conviction" under the same judge who had acquitted three other officers in the case.

In October, Mosby announced a slate of reforms for investigating and prosecuting police officers accused of misconduct, citing her failure to secure a conviction in the Gray case as her motivation. Those proposals, criticized by key state lawmakers, remain pending.

In the 2016 General Assembly session, lawmakers did pass the Justice Reinvestment Act, which will steer drug offenders toward treatment instead of prison, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes, increase the number of crimes that can be wiped from an offender's record and help the state go after criminal gangs. Gov. Larry Hogan signed the bill into law.

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Justice Department issues scathing report

After Gray's death, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department announced that it would undertake a sweeping investigation into the Baltimore Police Department. In August, it released a 163-page report outlining unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices that the department said had gone on for years.

The report found the department violated the rights of residents, particularly in predominantly black neighborhoods, in virtually all aspects of daily police work — including targeting, stopping and searching black pedestrians and motorists in disproportionate numbers, infringing on the rights of protesters and dismissing reports of sexual assault.

Federal officials also faulted city police for their use of Tasers. Earlier in the year, The Baltimore Sun published an investigation showing that police agencies across the state predominantly used the devices against suspects who posed no immediate threat, and didn't follow safety recommendations in hundreds of cases.

The Justice Department report also found that Baltimore police officers used racial slurs casually and excessive force against young people, people with disabilities and people who posed no threat. It also criticized policies that encouraged "clearing corners" and "stop and frisk" as contributing to a breakdown in relations between the police and community members.

The police union called the findings "a clear indictment of the failed leadership at all levels of city government." Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the report will help him improve the force.

"We have begun this journey to reform long-standing issues in many real, tangible ways," the commissioner said.

The report prompted city officials and attorneys to enter into negotiations with the Justice Department on reforms.

Body camera programs expand

Corporal J. A. Watson, Sr. wears an Axon Flex camera by Taser mounted on his eye glasses. A press briefing was held at the Baltimore County Public Safety Building announcing the body-worn camera (BWC) program which is set to begin next week. The Axon Flex by Taser was chosen with 5 different kinds of mounts.
Corporal J. A. Watson, Sr. wears an Axon Flex camera by Taser mounted on his eye glasses. A press briefing was held at the Baltimore County Public Safety Building announcing the body-worn camera (BWC) program which is set to begin next week. The Axon Flex by Taser was chosen with 5 different kinds of mounts. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Officials in Baltimore County announced in June that after more than a year of study and debate, its police would be the latest in the state to adopt body cameras, with the first to be distributed immediately. A second phase of distribution would begin in July 2017, with all cameras scheduled to be in use by December 2018, they said.

In October, county officials announced that the program would be accelerated with all uniformed officers — about 1,435 — equipped with the cameras by September 2017, or more than a year ahead of schedule.

"Government must do all that it can to minimize situations of conflict that put our citizens and our police officers in harm's way," County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said.

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The rollout followed a similar expansion of body camera technology in the Baltimore Police Department earlier in the year. Officials in the city department said in May that they planned to hold training sessions every two weeks until all 2,300 or so officers on the force are equipped. The program is behind schedule.

Davis has praised the camera program, saying the technology will provide increased accountability and help to ease tensions between police officers and residents. In November, the first body camera footage of a city police-involved shooting was released.

Surveillance programs raise questions

The secrecy surrounding the program — which was unknown to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the City Council, public defenders, prosecutors, elected officials, police union officials and the public — immediately raised concerns.

The nature of the program, which used a bank of cameras in a small Cessna airplane to record hundreds of hours of footage from 32 square miles of the city at a time, also raised concerns among civil liberties advocates.

Police officials defended the trial program but acknowledged that they could have disclosed more information. As of the beginning of December, they said they have not made a final decision on whether to continue it.

The aerial surveillance, conducted by a private company on behalf of the department, was one of several police surveillance programs that captured attention this year.

The others included the use of so-called stingray devices to collect cellphone information, facial recognition software to compare images of criminal suspects against a database of Maryland driver's licenses and mugshots, and a service called Geofeedia to track social media accounts.

Legislators in Annapolis have discussed whether to introduce an umbrella law to force more disclosure of police surveillance, or individual pieces of legislation to establish parameters for the use of individual technologies.

Howard County sheriff pushed out

Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald of the Howard County Sheriff's Office is in the hot seat after a county investigation found evidence he discriminated against a former staff member.
Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald of the Howard County Sheriff's Office is in the hot seat after a county investigation found evidence he discriminated against a former staff member. (2009 File Photo)

In October, Howard County Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald resigned amid a storm of criticism and calls for his ouster.

The month before, the county's Office of Human Rights issued a report that found "reasonable cause" to believe Fitzgerald had retaliated and discriminated against employees who did not support his 2014 re-election campaign. The investigation outlined accusations that Fitzgerald, a Democrat who is white, had berated employees using racist and vulgar language toward African- Americans and Jewish people.

Other elected officials, including Hogan and County Executive Allan Kittleman, both Republicans, called for Fitzgerald to resign. Others were pursuing avenues for his impeachment when he agreed to resign. In November, Hogan appointed William J. McMahon, who led the county police from 2006 to 2014, to Fitzgerald's position.

The standoff of Korryn Gaines

On Aug. 1, Korryn Gaines, 23, was in her apartment when Baltimore County police officers kicked in her door to serve warrants on her and her fiance, Kareem Courtney. They were met, they said, by Gaines holding a shotgun in their direction and ordering them to leave.

Thus began a six-hour standoff between the police and Gaines, which ultimately ended with Gaines shot and killed and her 5-year-old son, Kodi, shot and wounded by police.

The incident, portions of which were recorded by Gaines and shared on social media, raised questions about how police serve warrants and deal with individuals with mental illness, which Gaines' family said she suffered from. It also raised questions about police-community relations, as Gaines had previously outlined in detail on social media her distrust for police.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger cleared all of the officers involved of wrongdoing, including Officer Royce Ruby Jr., who fired. Gaines' family has sued the department.

In November, The Sun obtained the police case file, and published an investigation reviewing the evidence used to clear the officers — including contents of Gaines' mobile phone, hours of police radio chatter, hundreds of photos and documents, and statements from the officers involved.

Homicides continue to mount

After 2015 concluded with a per-capita record 344 homicides, Baltimore officials expressed hope that the city would fare better in 2016. It did — but barely.

By mid-December, the city had surpassed 300 homicides for the second year in a row and only the second time since the 1990s.

As in 2015, the vast majority of the killings were the result of gunfire, and the victims were mostly young black men. Also among the victims were older residents and children. Commissioner Davis expressed confidence in the Police Department's strategy of going after violent repeat offenders, but frustration mounted that the pace of violence hadn't slowed more significantly.

Meanwhile, The Sun published an investigation showing that Baltimore, where one of every three people struck by gunfire dies, ranked among the most lethal of America's largest cities. The odds for gunshot victims worsened in at least 10 of those cities last year.

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