As the Baltimore Police Department seeks to eliminate a wide gulf of community distrust, officers are undergoing training to address racial biases that could taint the way they deal with residents.
Since April, more than 200 officers have been trained in "fair and Impartial policing," in the hope that it will improve relations with residents. Those efforts will expand in January as Lorie Fridell, an associate criminology professor at the University of South Florida, returns to put police leaders — and some community members — through the training.
"Our focus is on the officers who want to do the right thing," Fridell said in a phone interview. "It won't take months or years to get rid of the biases."
Fridell has worked with police departments across the nation, including those in and around Ferguson, Mo., where a white officer fatally shot an unarmed black teen in early August. Violent protests broke out again this week, when news came that a grand jury did not indict the officer who shot Michael Brown. The officer, Darren Wilson, told a grand jury that the fatal confrontation started when the teen tried to grab his gun.
A frequent complaint in Baltimore — one noted by officials including City Council President Jack Young — is that white officers often treat black residents like criminals.
A recent Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that Baltimoreans have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests, and the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality since 2011. Most of the victims were African-American, and some said officers used racial epithets or showed other signs of bias. Nearly all of the victims in incidents that sparked the lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.
The Sun also found that some Baltimore officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and there were significant gaps in the system used to monitor misconduct in the Police Department. In the aftermath of the investigation, police Commissioner Anthony Batts asked the Justice Department to review his agency and aid in reforms.
The training program is part of a nationwide effort promoted by the Department of Justice to enhance officers' understanding of how biased policing — whether implicit or explicit — impacts relationships in fighting crime.
"We're trying to knock down barriers," said Capt. Mark Mason, the Baltimore police academy commander. "We're hoping for less discourteous and excessive-force complaints."
Such training was among the reforms most often highlighted by police and community leaders in Las Vegas and Philadelphia — cities where federal officials also have intervened to address allegations of police brutality.
In those cities, the training didn't start until the federal reviews had been completed, but the timetable is more aggressive here. Even though Baltimore's federal review is in the early stages, the city's 2,800 officers are expected to complete the training by the end of 2015.
Racial views within the Baltimore Police Department need to improve, said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., past president of the local NAACP branch. He said many officers who live outside the city hold negative attitudes about poor African-American residents.
"I have to be optimistic," he said about the training. "It's something we need."
City Councilman Warren Branch, head of the public safety committee, said he wants to see how the training is rolled out and whether the impact will be tracked. "Any positive improvement is good."
So far, Baltimore police have used the training in three academy classes and several schools for newly appointed sergeants and lieutenants. With 120 field-training officers having taken the six-hour course, the training is being used on the street to spot potential problems, Mason said.
"We want [supervisors] to hold the officers accountable," he said.
The training works best with officers who want to be "fair and impartial" and can understand their biases, Fridell said. The training isn't likely to sway officers who hold racist views, she added.
She said it's crucial that community members attend the command-level training to know what the Police Department is doing and to hold members accountable.
Cheatham said he hopes that the department doesn't select "yes men and yes women" to please Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Batts. "This will only work if community leaders are a part of the process," he said.
Fridell has developed various programs for police forces, including those for academy instructors, recruits and patrol officers, front-line supervisors, middle managers and top-ranking officials.
In the class for patrol officers, she leads role-playing exercises to show officers how implicit bias can affect the way they handle incidents such as domestic violence calls. The training also focuses on biases — sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status — that officers might not be aware of, Fridell said.
For example, a recent training session for Tampa, Fla., officers required them to guess who was carrying a weapon among elderly people and young white and black males. Officers selected the young black man, but the elderly white woman had the weapon, said an NAACP official who attended the session.
One training scenario puts officers in a mostly white neighborhood where they spot two dark-skinned men trying to enter a home. The officers are asked how they would respond and whether the response would be different if the two men were white.
Another asks officers how they would handle a call for "three scraggly teenage males with long hair and low rider pants, taking pictures" of the police chief's home. Officers are asked to discuss whether they would have gotten the call if the photographers were three adult women in suits.
The training could curb some of the allegations uncovered in The Sun's investigation. For example, in a lawsuit settled in 2012, an 87-year-old African-American woman accused a white officer of standing over her and using racial insults. She accused the officer of breaking her arm; the city paid her $95,000 in a settlement that did not acknowledge any wrongdoing by the officer.
The federal government paid for Fridell's previous work in Baltimore; the Police Department will pay her $4,700 plus travel expenses to return in January. She will help officials examine bias in hiring practices, training courses and community outreach.
Police leaders in Durham, N.C., spent more than a year researching different programs for impartial policing before choosing Fridell's. So far, two academy classes and command staff have been through the training, said Chief Jose Lopez.
He expects all 513 officers to complete the training by April. In a city with heavy Hispanic and African-American populations, Lopez said, the training helps officers examine biases and how that affects their work.
"It's all about making you think differently," he said. "We're trying to educate people. The majority of the officers are receptive to the training."
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said recruits and patrol officers will start similar training in January. He called Fridell "probably the leading expert on that" training in the country.
Fridell developed the program years ago as director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
In August, she trained leaders at the Tampa Police Department, one of the largest police agencies in Florida. Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP attended the session.
Carolyn Hepburn Collins, president of the NAACP's Hillsborough County branch, said the training will likely have a quicker impact on young or new officers. She believes it's harder to change the mindset of older officers.
At the NAACP's recent national convention, Collins said, organization leaders encouraged local officials to participate in such training. Collins believes the training will improve officers' perceptions of the community.
"This will make a difference," she said. "It will open up a dialogue."