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Police order officers out of cars to better engage residents

How does Baltimore police believe they can build trust? By requiring officers to get out of patrol cars.

Baltimore police Officer Steven Fraser popped into an East Baltimore carry-out and handed an employee a composite sketch of a serial robbery suspect. Outside, he saw a black plastic bag that held an abandoned beer can and tossed it into the trash.

An older woman with a cane approached a nail salon, and Fraser opened the door. The day happened to be national "Make a Friend Day," and the 25-year-old police officer was unwittingly doing his part as he walked the commercial strip along East Monument Street in Milton-Montford.

For Baltimore police officers, such strolls are now a requirement. Department commanders want officers out of their cars, mingling with residents and improving relations with the community they serve.

Law enforcement leaders in Baltimore and across the country have long focused on community policing. But city commanders now are looking to deepen relationships by requiring officers to spend at least one half-hour during each 10-hour shift on foot, talking to residents and business owners.

"We're pushing every police officer to get out of their cars for 30 minutes no matter if it's in a residential area, commercial area, to engage in the community," Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said.

The push comes amid heightened tensions between police and communities nationwide, fueled by a series of high-profile incidents in which officers have killed unarmed black men.

Baltimore commanders view the new rule as a step toward improving relations.

Batts believes lengthening workdays from eight hours to 10 hours — an initiative begun in January to cut down on overtime and allow commanders to deploy officers where needed — will give officers the time between emergency calls and police reports to get out of patrol cars and observe and interact.

Baltimore police union President Gene Ryan said high call volumes currently are making the requirement a challenge. Still, he said, he supports the standing order.

"I really think it's a good idea," Ryan said. "That's one way to improve the relationship with us and the people of Baltimore."

When Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hired Batts in 2012, she said improving trust between residents and police was a top priority. She charged him with responding to widespread complaints that police were out of touch with the neighborhoods they patrolled and harassed their residents.

In a policing strategy released in 2013, Batts sought to increase foot patrols, "training officers to feel comfortable interacting with individuals with a wide array of backgrounds."

Local activists and protesters say police have much work to do to gain residents' trust. But the mayor and commissioner see progress: They say excessive force complaints were cut in half last year compared with 2012.

Batts said he stole the idea for the 30-minute requirement from former Anne Arundel County Police Chief Kevin Davis, who implemented the policy there. Davis joined the Baltimore Police Department in January as a deputy commissioner.

Officers are required to tell shift commanders when they are out of their cars, and shift commanders are required to check periodically to make sure officers are walking their beats.

"I'm even OK if they're driving down the street, and they see Grandma sitting on the stoop, to get out of the car and have a conversation and share with Grandma where that officer comes from, where that officer was born and raised, find out about families," Batts said.

"It's the interactions. It's not just the prevention of crime. It's the interaction with the community, and feeling and knowing and touching and understanding people and understanding where they come from."

Dale Halegrave, former president of the New Greenmount West Community Association in East Baltimore, supports the new requirement — especially in the current climate, in which he believes police officers are shooting people for such irrational reasons as not complying with orders quickly enough, which some allege was the case when Cleveland police fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice last year.

He said police over the past 30 years have taken on a military mindset, seeing themselves as strict enforcers rather than public servants who protect residents.

In the past, he said, he has seen officers stand on a corner with their backs to the public "talking to each other." He hopes officers will better engage residents.

In 2009, Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III directed patrol officers to walk their beats more, and equipped about 2,000 of them with BlackBerry phones and a "PocketCop" program that allowed them to check warrants and run searches while on foot.

In recent years, police departments in Boston, Seattle and other cities have made a push to get their officers out of cars.

Baltimore police say community relations isn't the main goal of the new initiative, but safer blocks.

Southeastern District Officer Joseph Fisher was on foot patrol in front of a convenience store in the 1400 block of E. Fayette St. in February when he recognized a suspect wanted on a Baltimore County warrant for first-degree murder.

As the suspect went in the store, police say, Fisher called for backup, followed the man in and arrested him. Police say they found a black-and-gray .380 Hi-Point handgun with six live rounds in the suspect's waistband.

Fraser, a Detroit native who has been a Baltimore officer for about two years, said he believes foot patrol is the basis of proactive police work. It gives him the opportunity to monitor blocks more closely, listen to concerns and develop trust, he said.

"I try to put an hour or so into it," he said.

He said he enjoys walking through his Eastern District patrol area because "it also passes the time quickly."

Foot patrol has allowed him to develop relationships with many on East Monument Street, such as an African immigrant at the carryout where he orders pizza. He knows that the man hasn't been home in five years, and that he sends much of his paycheck to his wife overseas.

"He works hard every day from noon to close," Fraser said. "He makes a good pizza."

Some recognize Fraser's name from search warrants he has served and call him by his first name. But he walks his beat so often that he has earned nicknames.

On the 700 block of N. Rose Street, people refer to him as "Smiley" because he's usually smiling.

He said he's also been called "Stewie."

"I don't know where that came from, but I don't like that one that much," Fraser said.

As Fraser passed a stoop, a man stopped him to complain about the city's shutting down recreation centers, leaving youth with little to do.

Edwin Cooper, 25, said the Police Department's new commitment to walking neighborhoods "can be" helpful. But he said officers would have a greater impact if they hosted cookouts and organized sports for children and young adults.

Batts said police are doing that, too. Last year, the agency brought 150 children to a police explorer camp, where they held games, served meals and tried to form mentoring relationships. Batts said the department plans to double the camp to 300 this year.

Fraser traded pleasantries with residents as he continued down Monument Street. One boy walked by and gave the officer a friendly "what's up" as he walked by.

"See the kid that just passed?" Fraser said. "I locked up his dad, and still he said 'hi' to me."

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

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