The Baltimore Police Department has made sweeping changes in policy and practices, but it’s essential the department “stop the bleeding” in terms of its recruitment and retention, a federal judge warned Thursday.
Insufficient staffing is the agency’s biggest obstacle to achieving compliance with the policing consent decree between the city and the U.S. Justice Department, according to Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the process. The decree, reached in 2017, lays out a series of reforms to address a federal investigation’s finding that city police routinely violated residents’ rights.
Bredar on Thursday praised steps taken to craft new policies and redesign training, calling the department a “flagship” agency in defining the proper approach of police in cities. He raised concerns, however, about capacity issues around technology, first-line supervisors and the “most daunting” challenge, staffing.
And he questioned to what extent it was apparent in the city of Baltimore that this was a “changed” department.
The consent decree monitoring team has released or is working to complete a series of assessments to gauge the effectiveness of the changes. One recently released report on the department’s use of force, for instance, found a decline in force incidents from 2018 to 2020 as new policies and training were implemented. It stopped short of declaring the agency in “initial compliance” in all relevant parts of the decree, however, and pointed to lingering issues with problematic force incidents, including serious cases, and departmental oversight.
Bredar, at a quarterly public hearing on the department’s efforts at complying with the decree, urged all parties to have a “laser focus” on assessment, to measure successes and gauge where there’s more work to be done. Officials said other reviews already underway will look at the department’s performance around investigating sex offenses, initiating lawful arrests and its performance review board, among others.
Timothy Mygatt, with the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section, Civil Rights Division, offered that the department’s progress was less apparent on the street than “we’d like to see.” Community groups have expressed they “don’t feel it yet,” he said, but behavior changes are gradual and still could yield results.
[ Five years into Baltimore Police consent decree, officials cite ‘significant progress’ but lament hiring struggles ]
At one point, while discussing the monitoring team’s assessment of the department’s uses of force, Bredar asked what he called an “ugly” question: whether instances where officers should have used force, but didn’t, were being tracked.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said that’s a question police leaders ask, and suggested tracking the number of complaints from residents and injuries to officers or people they interact with could offer a window.
The judge also mused on the intersection of police reform and crime statistics, wondering whether Baltimore’s track record under the consent decree might challenge the theory that constitutional policing leads to more collaboration, increased police effectiveness and lower crime rates.
Years in, Baltimore’s homicides and shootings “refuse to abate,” he said.
“Real police reform that rebuilds a department from the ground up takes a long time,” Bredar said
The public’s trust, he said, will be won only slowly. And drivers of crime — guns, drugs, flaws in the educational system and other “tears in our social fabric” — might be beyond the capacity of police alone to fix.
Success, therefore, cannot be measured by crime data alone, and a crime reduction strategy might require more than repairing a “broken police department,” Bredar said.
Harrison echoed Bredar’s concerns about staffing, telling the judge he pounds the table about the challenge. Both agreed it was a nationwide issue for police forces.
Heather Warnken, executive director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, pushed back against Bredar’s contention that the staffing shortage is hindering reforms, saying on Twitter “that narrative gets in the way of the real work.”
“Judge Bredar and others continue to claim that staffing levels (at a department that spends more per resident on policing than any major US city) is the biggest barrier to the change sought under the decree ... rather than taking on the essential Qs of HOW personnel are allocated (and) how to reduce the footprint of policing in areas where there’s widespread agreement it is not the most effective response and/or it’s actively causing harm,” Warnken said on Twitter.
Officials said the agency saw a net loss of 176 officers in 2022, with 279 sworn members leaving the agency and just 103 new hires. There are currently 2,150 officers, police leaders said.
Of last year’s 279 departures, 131 were retirements and 33 were resignations or terminations of trainees, Deputy Chief Sheree Briscoe said. Others were resignations, with officers providing explanations such as personal or family reasons, career opportunities or leaving for other agencies, Briscoe said.
Harrison told reporters outside the federal courthouse that the department already boosted pay and incentives, now offering the state’s highest salary. Leaders are now focusing efforts on improving work conditions, such as upward mobility and training opportunities.
“We run toward danger to serve and protect people we don’t know,” Harrison said. “That’s a very noble cause. We want to restore that nobility back to the profession.”
The police commissioner also praised the city’s new state’s attorney, Ivan Bates, for attending the hearing. He said it was the first time in his tenure that the city’s top prosecutor joined a public consent decree hearing.
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Bates, after the hearing, said it was important to sit in because “we’re in this together.”
Bredar returned to his staffing concerns repeatedly during Thursday’s hearing, at one point saying the department lost “substantial” ground last year.
Without better results, he said, progress could be hindered and positive initiatives such as the Group Violence Reduction Strategy could “die on the vine.”
[ Has group violence pilot pushed crime to other parts of Baltimore? Leaders say no; research finds no evidence of displacement. ]
That program, a collaboration between police and other service providers, targets those most at-risk of killing or being killed with social supports and connection with community organizations. City leaders have highlighted early successes of a pilot program in Baltimore’s Western District; it is due to expand to additional police districts this year.
Bredar also pointed to openings in the agency’s Public Integrity Bureau, where there are 31 detectives and one civilian, despite positions for 40 sworn personnel and 10 civilians. He said he would hate to see areas where the department has made strides, such as internal investigations, be set back by the “larger conundrum” of staffing.
Harrison, too, said it affects “every part” of the department, calling it a “zero-sum game.”
Both suggested this was not a challenge for the department alone, with Bredar urging the acting city solicitor to bring these concerns to the mayor.