Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has been getting calls from police chiefs around the country, seeking advice from a man who has helped steer two big-city departments through federal oversight. They are asking about the process, reforms and what may be in store for their departments.
But, four years after Baltimore entered into a consent decree, some local residents and elected officials are questioning whether the reforms are worth the steep price and considerable effort at a time when resources could be spent on social programs, including drug and mental health treatments that supporters say can uplift communities.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis not only sparked a national conversation on race and policing, but in the aftermath, activists saw that pressure and broad support can produce quick results. Legislators in Maryland took less than a year to enact sweeping changes to hold officers accountable and protect civil rights.
By contrast, the relatively slow pace of revamping Baltimore’s deeply flawed department through a bureaucratic federal process is trying the patience of many. Agreements can last for as long as a decade and typically end only when a federal judge overseeing the process is satisfied that improvements have taken hold.
“I feel like people have given [the consent decree] an opportunity to work, but now we’re a number of years in, but we haven’t seen tangible results,” Democratic state Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore said. “I’m worried because I don’t know how we fix this. The consent decree may not ever produce the results that we want.”
The U.S. Justice Department recently opened civil rights investigations of the Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, police departments after two high-profile deaths at the hands of police officers in those cities, signaling the Biden administration will play a major role in monitoring allegations of systemic police abuse. It marks a sharp change from the Trump administration, which under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions took actions to all but eliminate federal oversight of police misconduct claims.
In fact, the Department of Justice’s 2017 agreement with Baltimore, three months after Trump took office, was the last one it has entered into with any city. Baltimore signed off on the oversight after DOJ investigators found a pattern of officers regularly violating residents’ constitutional rights, by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force, especially in minority neighborhoods.
Though not all investigations result in consent decrees, Harrison and others believe new Attorney General Merrick Garland will increasingly use the Justice Department’s authority to press for police reforms.
“We will see more pattern and practice investigations. We will see more involvement from the Department of Justice,” Harrison said.
The DOJ announcements prompted phone calls from the police chief of Louisville, where police shot Breonna Taylor to death in her own home, and other police leaders, he said in an interview.
“Many have already started calling,” he said.
Harrison’s knowledge is in demand because Baltimore is the second major police department he has guided through the consent decree process. Harrison spent 28 years on the New Orleans police force, working undercover early in his career to help the FBI catch corrupt cops, then rising through the ranks, including a stop as head of the internal affairs division. He became police superintendent in 2014, two years after that department entered into an agreement with the federal government, which accused it of a corrupt culture and rampant civil rights violations.
He arrived in Baltimore two years after it entered into its consent decree, also brought on by what federal prosecutors called a corrupt culture that routinely violated citizens’ civil rights, spotlighted by the arrest and conviction of members of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.
In both cities he was tasked with fixing a broken force and navigating the mandates of the decree, with the efforts being overseen by a federal judge.
In Baltimore, there is no official estimate on the total costs — or even a date when the agreement will end — but the tally is already in the tens of millions, according to budget figures and city estimates. For starters, city taxpayers spend $1.5 million each year for the consent decree monitoring team, a dozen experts responsible for helping implement reforms required by the agreement.
The fiscal 2022 budget gives the department’s Compliance Bureau, which oversees reforms, $38.6 million. That figure includes a range of programs that are part of the reforms.
Still, the overall costs associated with the department and the monitoring team — at a time of a national “defund the police” movement aimed at reallocating resources — have some questioning whether the consent decree is creating enough meaningful change.
“Are Baltimoreans having buyer’s remorse on the consent decree?” Carter asked on Twitter.
In an interview Carter said she’s continued to hear residents concerned about officers being racist, among other issues. But the way the consent decree is set up, the department answers to U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, and not to residents.
“They need to report back to the people,” not to the court, Carter said.
At a recent citywide taxpayers’ night, about 80 residents spoke out against a proposed $28 million increase to the department’s $555 million budget, with many demanding a $100 million cut to police funding and increases for affordable housing, substance abuse treatment and other programs. But most of the increase is due to higher costs for active employee health insurance and higher obligations for police pensions, the city’s budget director said.
Tré Murphy, co-founder of Organizing Black, which advocates for lower police budgets, said activists from other cities, including Minneapolis, are watching Baltimore’s consent decree process unfold.
But instead of setting an example to follow, he said, Baltimore is setting “a very dangerous standard and precedent.”
Murphy said the consent decree process in Baltimore has removed control from local activists and the community, and placed it with the court and Justice Department.
“It removes the burden from local public officials and takes away the power from local grassroots organizations who are calling for removal of power,” he said. “The consent decree is not living up to the promise that Baltimoreans were promised. At this state, people would rather re-imagine the entire system.”
There is no timetable for how long the consent decree will remain in place, although they can run a decade or longer. Seattle and Washington entered into decrees in 2012, and they are still in force and being monitored.
Supporters of the city’s efforts say dismantling the reform process now is not the solution.
The head of Baltimore’s monitoring team, Ken Thompson, said he understands the sense of urgency, but said in order to create culture change, reforms have to be done in a meaningful way.
Much of the work on the consent decree so far has been rewriting policies and training officers on those polices, including revamping use of force and instructing officers to intervene if they see colleagues crossing the line with suspects or members of the public.
Now, the monitors, the court and the DOJ will begin to examine how well officers are following those policies in the way they conduct stops and searches.
In the coming months, the police department will generate more internal assessments, the monitors said. The department’s “audit unit is becoming a key component of a fledgling culture change that would turn BPD into a reflective, self-correcting agency that prioritizes policy compliance and best practices,” they wrote.
Though much work remains, Thompson, head of the monitoring team, said he believes there have been positive changes.
“I think people are underestimating how much progress this department has made in the last four years,” he said.
He pointed to how the department handled the protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last year. Some protests elsewhere devolved into violent clashes with police, but they remained mostly peaceful in Baltimore, with officers, including the commissioner, marching alongside protesters.
Thompson said a recent assessment showed use of force by officers had declined 15.5%, and cited a recent weeklong training for all internal affairs investigators, which was joined by other agencies.
“You have other law enforcement agencies calling Baltimore,” he said. “The department has made some pretty significant strides. It’s a far better department than it was in 2015.”
Still, Thompson said, many of the changes will take time to be felt on the street.
“This is a long-term process. It’s still years away,” he said.
In the coming months, the monitoring team will evaluate the department in how it handles use of force, calls for service, sex assault investigations, misconduct investigations and training.
Officer recruitment and retention remain a problem. The latest monitor report said the department has 2,398 officers, about 387 short of what the consent decree calls for.
In the first four months of this year the department has lost 88 officers while hiring just 48. The department also has about 25 fewer internal affairs investigators than needed, which could hurt the department’s ability to meet the decree’s demands.
The department is still struggling with how it handles internal affairs investigations. The BPD has yet to address its “troubled legacy of permissiveness, which has emboldened officers not only to violate policy, but — as with the Gun Trace Task Force — to break the law,” monitors wrote in their latest report.
Harrison said not all consent decrees are the same, but that those departments undergoing reforms have commonalities.
“With regard to culture, they’re similar. With regard to specific policies, they’re different,” he said. “When it comes to culture and officers being conditioned to work a certain way, bad patterns or practices, there are some similarities.”
Harrison said he had encouraged other leading police officials to embrace the reforms.
“The one piece of advice is: Learn from the others who have been there instead of waiting for DOJ to tell you,” he said.