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Federal judge calls Baltimore Police training facilities ‘completely inadequate,’ says they may hinder use-of-force instruction

A federal judge said at a hearing Tuesday that two facilities used to train Baltimore police on firearms and the department’s use-of-force policy are “completely inadequate” and could lead to more incidents of excessive force.

U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar, overseeing the policing consent decree reached between Baltimore officials and the U.S. Department of Justice, sharply criticized conditions at the department’s indoor firing range at its Northeast District station and at another training facility in Baltimore County.

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“Neglecting training and short-changing facilities in these areas will only lead to more bad incidents, more mistakes and more unjustified deployments of lethal force,” Bredar said.

Officers’ use of force on residents has long been a point of contention as the police department attempts to repair its relationship with the community. The consent decree itself was reached after a Justice Department investigation in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 from injuries sustained in police custody found a pattern of unconstitutional policing.

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Bredar said he’d visited the two training facilities earlier this year and shared photos of their deteriorating conditions at Tuesday’s hearing. Photos from the indoor range showed cardboard blocking the ventilation systems that Bredar said would produce “dirty air” if not addressed.

Bredar likened the facility’s ventilation system to a “Rube Goldberg” setup, where several doors needed to be strategically left open to insure adequate air circulation.

“By comparison to modern indoor firearms ranges where other Maryland and federal law enforcement officers are trained, the BPD indoor facility in completely inadequate to its mission,” he said. “It needs to be replaced.”

As for the second facility — an outdoor firing range and on-site “less than lethal” force training facility in Baltimore County that is owned by the Maryland National Guard and shared with the department for training purposes — Bredar said he doubted its ability to properly train Baltimore police officers.

He questioned whether the outdoor range, meant for long-range firearms training, was capable of training officers to “the standards appropriate for urban law enforcement in 2021.” He added that the indoor training facility there, designed to train officers in “less lethal force” usage, is cramped and overrun with mold and mildew. Even the floors are crumbling.

Bredar questioned whether the efforts police have made to de-emphasize the use of force in certain incidents, such as those involving people experiencing behavioral health crises, could be undermined by inadequate training facilities.

“It is also critical to the restoration of community trust that the department do a better job of training its officers on how, and when, to use their firearms, their tasers, their batons, and their chemical agents,” Bredar said. “Officers in the new, reformed Baltimore Police Department should and must be experts on when to shoot and when not to, when to deploy the taser and when not to, and how to use deadly force competently with the absolute minimum of bad collateral consequences.”

City Solicitor Jim Shea said the city is aware of the two facilities’ conditions and officials are discussing how to rectify the situation.

“We do recognize the shortfall, the inadequacy of the training facilities,” he said, adding that Mayor Brandon Scott has been informed and that the city “will promptly move to take care of that immediate problem.”

The solicitor said the two sites “probably need to be combined into one training facility.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison kept his remarks brief, only saying that he agrees with Bredar’s criticism.

City officials also addressed the department’s continuing staffing issues. A court filing connected to the hearing showed the department has lost 66 more officers to attrition than it has hired so far in 2021.

In the court filing, police statistics state that 206 officers were lost to attrition — meaning retirement, resignation, termination or death — between January and September this year. Meanwhile, only 140 officers were hired during that period, according to the department’s statistics.

In the three months from June to August, the department lost 28 officers more than it gained.

The department’s hiring struggles are nothing new. Bredar voiced concerns in early 2020 that the department’s shortage of officers was delaying many of the reforms required under the consent decree. Even when the trend improved slightly later in 2020, police officials said work remained to be done to maintain that progress.

A police department spokesperson did not respond to questions Tuesday about whether there was a particular trend during the summer that led to the loss of officers.

Shea said he and the mayor are set to discuss this issue in the coming weeks, calling the hiring problem “a very difficult one.”

He added that Scott is considering a variety of options, including changing officers’ compensation and offering additional aid if they choose to live in the city. Baltimore already offers an up to $2,500-a-year property tax reduction for sworn public safety officers who live in the city.

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