Baltimore Police say the man suspected of trying to run over an officer and shooting at another this week is dead after he was shot by police.
On the streets, assailants have shot, robbed, beaten and tried to run over officers and civilian members of the Baltimore police department. Elsewhere, politicians and citizens scrutinize officers for how and when they confront suspects and question their use of force. And looming on the horizon is the rollout of federally mandated reforms to the police force — like it or not, and some decidedly do not.
On social media and elsewhere, the police union has defended the city’s officers, lobbing verbal bombs at the commissioner and the mayor, both new to the job.
This week’s events provided Exhibit A for those who say too much focus is directed at police rather than criminal behavior. A man who police say attacked two officers on Tuesday and got away after commanders called off the chase, led them on a second chase Wednesday that ended with the suspect dead in a hail of gunfire.
“Let’s allow our police officers citywide to do their jobs,” said Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the city schools police union and vice president of the state Fraternal Order of Police. “Let’s stop handcuffing the police. Let’s not look at how we can limit their effectiveness.
"Let’s promote that same kind of energy to stopping violent criminals,” he said.
Boatwright is among those who believe the current climate puts too much pressure and scrutiny on all law enforcement officers, hampering their ability to do their jobs safely and serve their communities. Much of the dismay centers on the consent decree the city signed with the Department of Justice in April 2017. The agreement resolved a federal investigation that found Baltimore police routinely violated the civil rights of residents, particularly African Americans, and placed the city under court order to enact sweeping reforms in the coming years.
The decree has become both shorthand and scapegoat for police frustration with the task at hand — combatting overwhelming levels of violent crime at a time when the force is woefully understaffed, departmental and City Hall leadership has been in continual flux and changes to training and policing are implemented.
“It’s like you’re flying a plane and you’re trying to fix it and fly it at the same time,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum think tank.
Wexler, who was instrumental in bringing Commissioner Michael Harrison to Baltimore from New Orleans earlier this year, said officers are fighting crime even as their equipment, technology, training and policies all need to be updated.
“You’re in the middle of rebuilding a department that has been broken,” he said. “The frustration officers might have is a reflection of years and years of outdated and ineffective infrastructure.”
The recent spate of attacks on officers has unnerved many and heightened already simmering tensions between the police union and Harrison. The FOP declared in a tweet Thursday evening that because its members were “losing faith in our elected and appointed leaders" it would take the “unprecedented step of preparing a comprehensive strategy to make Baltimore a much safer place to live, work, and visit.”
Harrison said Friday that he had invited the union to a briefing on his own crime plan before he released it in July, but they didn’t show up. While expressing a desire to take the “high road” in the face of the FOP’s combative words, Harrison rejected the prospect of two separate plans.
“There cannot be two," Harrison said. “There absolutely has to be one."
The commissioner has the support of Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who himself has called the FOP’s combative tweets “a distraction." Young’s spokesman Lester Davis said both the commissioner and the mayor talk daily with rank-and-file officers and believe they would prefer everyone work together rather than communicate via tweets.
“When you’re talking about the president of the FOP, he has shown a willingness to be inflammatory,” Davis said. "It’s not helpful.
“The mayor is going to sit down with [FOP President] Mike Mancuso, they’re going to break bread, and they’re going to find a way forward to work together,” Davis said.
A spokeswoman for Mancuso said the FOP would not comment until the union’s new crime strategy is completed in 30 days.
Harrison said he regularly attends department roll calls and wants to allay any concerns about the recent string of attacks.
There is no sign that the attacks are part of “some concerted effort to go after police,” Harrison said.
“It does speak to the culture of violence in the community and the lack of respect of the law,” he said. “The brazenness of today’s criminal element has escalated, and it has escalated against us.”
“The brazenness of today’s criminal element has escalated, and it has escalated against us.”
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison
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But Harrison rejected the notion that criminals have become emboldened because of the shift in policing brought on by the consent decree. Anyone who believes that is mistaken about the decree.
“It is about a process of improvement and implementation of best practices,” he said. "The law has not changed. Policing has evolved. We have to adapt to a new way, a better way.”
Those who support reform say fighting crime and protecting citizens’ constitutional rights are not mutually exclusive.
“We’re not saying you can’t arrest someone for this crime,” said Ray Kelly, a member of the Community Oversight Task Force appointed by the city as part of the consent decree to recommend reforms.
“You just can’t beat them over the head with a stick while you’re doing it,” said Kelly, formerly president of the No Boundaries Coalition of West Baltimore advocacy groups. “The whole idea that you can’t do effective policing if you’re not roughing people up is not true.”
Kelly said the road to implementing the consent decree has been filled with hurdles, and the latest tensions will not deter progress.
“Throughout this whole three years, we’ve had every possible distraction and roadblock,” he said.
There have been changes in mayor and police commissioner, scandals like the Gun Trace Task Force members convicted of robbing citizens and the death of detective Sean Suiter among them, he said.
“Eventually we will climb out of it,” Kelly said. "We just have to keep doing the work so we can persevere.”
The recent turmoil comes in the wake of other indications of a police force beset by low morale, particularly in a study conducted for the consent decree monitoring team and based on focus groups of 68 officers up to the rank of lieutenant. It found that the police felt hampered by the consent degree, fearful that even justified uses of force would lead to discipline and concerned that commanders would throw them under a bus to protect the department’s image under media scrutiny.
For criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross, the pushback against the consent decree signals that it is “doing what it should" — bringing about necessary and sweeping rather than limited change, he said.
“We’re talking about systemic change in a police department, and nothing is going to happen overnight,” said Ross, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Baltimore. “In principle, things can only get better. We may need a generational change.”
But Ross said how such change will be affected needs to be communicated through the ranks, who must be on board with the plan.
“Whatever they’re being told to do or not do has to make sense to the officer on the street,” he said. "We have to hope and assume they’re being given this info, and they’re training them. If not, that’s a problem. If the consent decree is not being rolled out in a manner that allows officers to do their job effectively, that’s a problem.”
Whether it’s Harrison’s crime plan or the consent decree, a major hurdle is staffing levels. The department is hundreds of officers below what officials believe it needs to be, and recruitment is a priority — especially now that the recent attacks have cast a harsh light on what officers face on the street. Harrison recently launched a recruitment and retention campaign focused on those who want to be part of what is a challenging task.
“I’m focused on improving the working conditions and making this a better place to work, which is what helps with retention and morale,” he said.
As the campaign for mayor next year heats up, policing will no doubt remain in the forefront. Several candidates said getting everyone rowing in the same direction will be critical.
Catalina Byrd, a Republican and a member of the Community Oversight Task Force, said the FOP has not been “helpful or constructive” in its response to the number of officers coming under attack, but speculated that the union feels “left out” of the reform process.
“We can include them in the conversation,” she said. “It’s going to take everybody.”
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Additionally, she noted, the FOP is not the only group with concerns for officer safety.
“People who know officers have the same concern, without making incendiary statements,” Byrd said. “If you’re concerned about officer safety, you don’t add fuel to the fire.”
Thiru Vignarajah, a Democrat running for mayor and former Maryland deputy attorney general, said the lines of communication between City Hall, department leadership and the union need to remain open amid their differences.
“Just having these petty feuds in public is not helpful,” he said. “These are conversations that are supposed to happen in ways that don’t discourage the public and sap our confidence. They should meet even if they disagree.”
And, Vignarajah said, the focus has to remain on what is common ground: addressing the violence and improving police-community relations. If there’s any agreement, it may well be the sense that "nothing is working and everyone is fed up.
"The level of frustration is the culmination of a bunch of things — cops working on a force down by hundreds, the community disengaged and seeing more violence than ever before,” he said. “I don’t blame officers for feeling under siege, but it’s not the consent decree that’s putting them under siege. The community feels under siege as well.”