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Baltimore announces ethical policing program as department continues disciplinary reform measures

The Baltimore Police Department announced the launch of its “Ethical Policing is Courageous” program Tuesday as the department seeks to institute better discipline and accountability among its ranks.

The department wrote in a news release that it is partnering with the National Police Foundation to implement the so-called EPIC program, a training program Police Commissioner Michael Harrison brought to Baltimore from his previous job as the head of the New Orleans Police Department.

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EPIC is meant to be a preventive measure, training officers about steps they can take to help other officers avoid making dangerous or ethically-compromising mistakes before they happen. The Georgetown University Law Center recently partnered with New Orleans police to offer online courses on the subject.

The training program has been a point of discussion among police officials and the consent decree monitoring team in recent months as the two sides discussed how the department could better hold officers accountable for alleged offenses. The department has been operating under a federal consent decree for several years after a Justice Department investigation found a pattern of unconstitutional policing.

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While the Baltimore police announced the program’s launch Tuesday, more than 100 officers already have completed the training course.

“We know that officers have intervened in the past to prevent problems, but we also know that officers don’t intervene every time they should—and the consequences can be profound and tragic,” Harrison wrote in a statement. “This training is about helping our officers ... to become better leaders within their departments and in their communities.”

In addition to the consent decree, the department is facing criticism for how its leadership failed to properly handle the investigation into the Gun Trace Task Force, the now infamous police unit that was found to have robbed citizens and planted drugs on suspects.

A 184-page report released earlier this month by The Commission To Restore Trust in Policing, established after the task force scandal, found that Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, who led the corrupt gun squad, was viewed as a top officer and was given autonomy, with a direct line to supervisors. Despite more than 100 internal affairs complaints logged against Jenkins and other officers who were later charged with federal crimes, the commission found that only one complaint was sustained against Jenkins — and he received a reduced punishment.

The commission also recommended that ethics training should be implemented department-wide by September 2021, writing that the department should partly “focus on educating officers to exercise their discretion in a manner driven by the principles of integrity, fairness, and decency.”

Maj. Martin Bartness, commander of the Baltimore City Police Academy, said the training will look to change the culture at the department to be one where officers look for changes in their colleague’s behavioral health and step in prior to them making a potentially unethical decision. The training is mandatory for all officers.

The training also will look to address any concerns that lower ranked officers could face repercussions if they addressed a supervisor’s behavior. At the end of the training, officers are asked to sign a pledge stating they will be “an active bystander and intervene when needed” as well as “accept peer intervention when needed.”

Bartness said that the program is part of a larger effort by Harrison to institute an overall culture of accountability in a department responding to “a social movement calling for reform in our professions.” The commissioner is also pushing for more autonomy in disciplining officers charged with misconduct, supporting changes to the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

“Nothing occurs in a vacuum in a healthy organization,” Bartness said. “This is one very important step and it’s an essential step, but it doesn’t get us to the finish line.”

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