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Coalition calls on city residents to "channel this outrage" into police reform

A coalition of civil rights, religious and community leaders gathered Thursday in Sandtown-Winchester to urge city residents to work for lasting reform of the Baltimore Police Department.

The Rev. S. Todd Yeary, co-chair of the Maryland NAACP, said the trial of Officer William G. Porter isn't the only test underway in the city. He said the Police Department's effort to change its policies and practices also is under scrutiny, as are elected officials.

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"What are we going to do about the structural issues that led to the pressure building that ended up being released because of a police encounter?" said Yeary, senior pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church.

The group, which is calling itself the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, spoke a day after Porter's trial on charges in connection with Freddie Gray's death ended in a hung jury. Attorneys met with the judge Thursday to discuss a retrial, but no date was set. Five other officers also face trials. All six have pleaded not guilty.

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Ray Kelly, an organizer with a West Baltimore group called the No Boundaries Coalition, said the activists are seeking more than a verdict in the coming trials; they want a change in Police Department policies and the protection of protesters' First Amendment rights.

"Somehow we must continue to channel this outrage," he said.

The Baltimore Police Department is undergoing a civil rights probe by the U.S. Department of Justice, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Kevin Davis have pledged to make systemic changes. Rawlings-Blake selected Davis to lead the agency after she fired Commissioner Anthony W. Batts in July.

In an interview Thursday, Davis welcomed citizen input for improving his department and said he wants to have an open discussion about what those improvements should look like. "I hope people keep their eye on police reform," he said.

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He said he is focusing on three things: policy and procedure, training, and an "efficient disciplinary system" when officers stray from that policy and training.

"If you have a breakdown of any of those three legs," Davis said, "you've got problems."

The justice campaign is made up of dozens of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, CASA and Jews United for Justice.

Members said they are sending youth leaders to high schools and colleges to register voters, collecting testimony from victims of alleged police misconduct, holding workshops to teach people about their rights and organizing city residents.

Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP and a senior fellow at Center for American Progress, said the Police Department needs to go beyond increased training for officers. He said more "bad cops" must be fired and the department must lift a policy that stops victims of police brutality from talking publicly after reaching legal settlements with the city.

The city has paid $6.3 million to settle more than 120 cases of alleged police misconduct since 2011, in addition to the $6.4 million Gray's family was awarded.

Jealous said "uprisings" in various American cities follow a typical pattern surrounding "deep frustrations around housing, around jobs and active police brutality that sets it off." Baltimore is now facing two crises, he said, "increasing homicides and ongoing police brutality."

Change will come when trust builds between the police and the community, he said. And trust will come through increased transparency, he said.

"We're calling on Commissioner Davis to sit down with this coalition, and together explain to us how he is going to get serious about reforming the Police Department," Jealous said.

The group previously asked the department to equip the force with body cameras and give the public access to the footage. It has also asked for better community policing, "de-escalation" training for all officers and for department policies to be published online.

The mayor's office has said many of the recommendations are being implemented, including equipping officers with body cameras and instituting a training curriculum to instruct young officers in community policing.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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