Alexia Davis knew she wanted to be a Baltimore Police officer — when she was 4.
“The area that I grew up in, there was always a lot of police officers around,” she said. “I felt like they always came in to save the day and that’s what I wanted to do.”
At 21, Davis was the youngest trainee to graduate Friday from the police academy, and will be fulfilling her lifelong dream as a patrol officer assigned to the Northeast District.
Struggling with a shortage of officers, the city police force is in the midst of a sea change dictated by a court-mandated consent decree that requires extensive reforms after a federal investigation found unconstitutional and discriminatory policing, and following the Gun Trace Task Force scandal that saw eight officers convicted.
It also comes as the Baltimore remains one of the country’s most violent cities, and with uncertainty as the department recruits a new commissioner.
“We know this is not an easy job. You also knew that we are in a city troubled by violence, but at the same time we are moving in the right direction,” Mayor Catherine Pugh told the graduates Friday. “It’s not about how many arrests you make, but it’s how many relationships.”
The graduation comes as the city battles persistent attrition among its ranks, especially among patrol officers, where the vacancy rate is more than 20 percent. A recent staffing study estimated that there were 800 patrol positions filled — about 300 fewer than budgeted.
City and department leaders also expressed a desire to hire more female, minority and local recruits. The city has begun a number of initiatives in hopes of increasing the ranks, including putting the application process online this summer and creating a fitness camp to help those who are otherwise qualified. But those efforts have yet to increase the number of new officers.
Of the 26 graduates, Davis is one of only two black women, and one of three who live in the city. The new class includes 15 white men, seven black men and two Hispanic men.
Pugh told these new officers that they are not only to serve as the city’s “protectors” but will help usher in a new era for the department.
“You also know that we are under a consent decree, which means we’ve got to get policing right in our city,” she said. “I hope that you will remain steadfast in your commitment. We expect that you will be honest, endearing and fair in policing the citizens” in Baltimore.
“This is, can be, will be, one of the greatest departments in the country,” she said.
Some, including Gov. Larry Hogan, have expressed concern that there has been too much emphasis on the policing reforms rather than combating crime. Hogan’s comments came as he announced a new initiative bringing in 200 law enforcement officers to fight crime and ensure more defendants are prosecuted in federal court.
But U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the decree, called such comments shortsighted. He said there there must be reforms or the citizens will never trust the department and crime will continue to surge.
“The twin objectives of constitutional policing and effective policing are intrinsically interwoven,” Bredar said. “You simply won’t one get one without the other.”
Bredar and the independent monitoring team that is helping with the consent decree’s implementation has called for a “postmortem” to investigate the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, including its causes and other officers that were implicated but never charged. Much of the consent decree’s focus is working to deter misconduct and improve misconduct investigations.
Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle did not mention the Gun Trace Task Force at Friday’s ceremony, but he urged the new officers to remember their integrity.
“One thing that you will leave here with today, that you should always keep with you, besides a sense of humor, is your sense of ethics, your sense of integrity. You can only lose that one time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and you can never ever get it again,” he said. “We need you to step up and show, not only this department but the city, state and this country, that the Baltimore Police Department is one to reckon with.”
During their nine months of training, the graduates saw changes in leadership in police commissioners and also at the academy. They seemed to understand that they are joining a department at a time when it is under extensive pressure to change.
“It’s not an easy time to enter the field of law enforcement,” said James Jackson, the class valedictorian. “People are going to question and critique every decision that we make.”
But he told his class members to remember why they chose to go into law enforcement.
“We chose this career path because we want to serve this community. We want to serve this city. We want to be a part of the change that helps heal this city,” Jackson said. “Baltimore, today you have gained 26 highly motivated officers that are ready to put the time and effort to serve this community.”
Christopher Austin, a former U.S. Marine from Frederick, said he saw an opportunity in coming to Baltimore to work in law enforcement over another agency.
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“I’ve always wanted to do something that’s bigger than myself,” he said. “Baltimore is a beautiful city. That’s what brought me here.”
Austin is assigned to the Western District where he’s only spent a short amount of time visiting during the academy, but he said he will remain receptive as he starts an often challenging job.
“I am just going to keep an open mind and be ready to learn,” he said.
Davis said she is excited to serve her community but has had to reassure family members about her new career, which is often dangerous.
During the ceremony, the graduates saw a reminder of that danger: Several officers were recognized for their service, including Officer Phillip Lippe who was shot and injured during a shootout in the Western District. Police said Nathaniel Sassafras, 29, shot at Lippe and another officer. Sassafras was killed.
Despite the dangers of the job, Davis said she’s excited to complete her training and start her new career.
“It feels amazing,” she said.