Officer Scott Steven led the Baltimore Police Department’s newest recruits through their first day of training with the intensity of a drill sergeant. In the parking lot of the city’s Police Academy, Steven ushered the group through a rapid sequence of push-ups, flutter kicks and sit-ups.
Then he paused.
“This is where integrity comes in,” Steven told the 29 men sweating on the concrete near Pimlico Race Course. If you cheated out of the required number of sit-ups, he said, now was the time to go back and finish them. A handful of men took deep breaths and laid back down to complete the workout.
“You will have integrity,” Steven shouted. It’s a message the department emphasizes must be applied beyond sit-up counts.
A series of scandals bruised the police department in recent years: Officers from an elite gun task force were convicted on numerous charges after investigators determined they had been robbing people and cheating on their overtime pay. Four commissioners have cycled through since 2015, including one who was fired amid a spike in crime and another who is in prison for tax fraud. After Freddie Gray died of injuries sustained in police custody, the Justice Department found officers routinely violated residents’ constitutional rights, particularly in predominantly poor, black neighborhoods.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison on Monday looked out at the new recruits and assured them they were part of “the new Baltimore Police Department.” He said the city is counting on them to help turn things around — and he thanked them for answering what he sees as a divine call.
“All of you have said, ‘Not only is this what I want to do at a time like this, but this is where I want to be at a time like this,’” said Harrison, who was hired from New Orleans earlier this year.
The troubled department struggles with recruitment, leading to a dearth of officers on the streets. Harrison has not said how many officers he thinks are necessary, but a previously released analysis found the patrol ranks have a 26 percent vacancy rate. There are now roughly 1,300 officers, sergeants and lieutenants assigned to patrol, according to a police spokeswoman.
The department last month announced a $200,000 marketing campaign it hopes will bolster the ranks by encouraging people to “be a part of the greatest comeback story in America.” They are especially targeting women and minorities.
“All of you have said, ‘Not only is this what I want to do at a time like this, but this is where I want to be at a time like this.’”— Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison
The academy class that began Monday was male-dominated. All 29 recruits addressed by Harrison are men, though the commissioner said one woman was hired Friday and will be joining the group soon.
Still, he pointed to the racial diversity of the group: There are nine African American men, nine Hispanic men and one Asian man in the class. The rest are white men.
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“We have a new campaign, but it’s too early to see the results of that campaign in the hiring process because of the time it takes to get a person from application to hire,” he told reporters after his address. “Going forward, you’ll see the fruits of that campaign.”
As part of Harrison’s recently released crime plan, the department expects to relocate and expand its academy facilities by the end of the year so it can accommodate more recruits. Harrison toured the University of Baltimore but no firm plans for a move have been announced.
Staff is “working out the logistics of what it means to transfer from one facility to another,” he said.
No matter the location, Harrison said, all recruits are being trained over the next 34 weeks within the requirements set out by the federal consent decree. The curriculum, he says, emphasizes community policing.
Despite the city’s troubles — the 200th homicide of the year was reported over the weekend — Harrison urged the recruits “not to listen to the naysayers and detractors.”
Harrison ended his address by putting a new spin on an old trope. He told the men to each look to their left and then look to their right.
“The old way of thinking is, we would tell you that one of you won’t be here. Away with that," he said. "Look to your left and look to your right. You have to ask yourself: Which one of you will become the police commissioner?”