Federal judge expresses concern over who will lead the Baltimore Police Department 'out of the wilderness'

The judge enforcing federally mandated police reforms in Baltimore expressed grave concerns Thursday about the department’s ability to implement real change without a permanent commissioner at its helm.

“There are no more critical questions confronting the city of Baltimore right now,” U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar told city, police, and U.S. Justice Department officials during a second quarterly hearing on the consent decree.

The judge said it remains unclear who will lead the department and whether that person will have the ability to lead the department “out of the wilderness.”

City Solicitor Andre M. Davis, who is leading the city’s search for its next commissioner, agreed with Bredar about the importance of finding a strong leader who can invoke change. He said turnover in the department has caused concern for him and other city leaders as well.

“We join you in your frustration,” Davis said.

The Police Department has had three leaders since the consent decree went into effect in April 2017. The agreement was reached under Commissioner Kevin Davis, who Mayor Catherine E. Pugh fired in January. Pugh then appointed Darryl De Sousa, who resigned in May after he was charged with failing to file federal tax returns. Garry Tuggle was named interim commissioner after De Sousa resigned.

Davis said the city is conducting a nationwide search with help from the Police Executive Research Forum. He said his office already has received 10 applications, despite the position being what he called the most challenging law enforcement job in America.

Davis told Bredar a commissioner is expected to be in place by Halloween.

Tuggle has said he wants the top job permanently, but acknowledged another leader might be appointed. On Thursday, he sought to assure Bredar of his commitment to leading the department in a positive direction. He called the success of the department personal, as he is a Baltimore native who got his start in law enforcement as a young city officer before going to work for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The department, however, has experienced a number of setbacks in recent weeks, including an officer who was arrested on drug charges in Baltimore County; a sergeant assigned to a plainclothes unit who was charged with driving under the influence after police said he crashed a department vehicle; and another officer who left the department after she declined to respond to a report of a man carrying a gun downtown.

Those incidents come as the department continues to work to rebuild its reputation following a corruption scandal that saw the conviction of eight officers in an elite gun trace unit on federal racketeering charges.

Tuggle said his experience in the department has shown him “this department can be better than it is.” He pledged to work to improve morale among the ranks.

The city entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department following a federal investigation that found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices in the city. That investigation was launched after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody.

On Thursday, the parties also discussed progress made in the areas of stops, searches and arrests, technology and misconduct investigations.

They addressed the police response in Harlem Park following the fatal shooting of Detective Sean Suiter in November. The first quarterly report by the independent monitoring team found that police conducted improper stops and searches in the area, which raised “clear constitutional concerns.”

City officials noted that policy reforms for the way officers conduct stops, searches and arrests are under way, but that efforts to upgrade its technology to adequately track those interactions have lagged.

Bredar, however, said Baltimore police had revised those policies in 2016, well before Suiter’s death. He asked what policy — if any — was commanding that scene. He said the problem with the Harlem Park response was not one of policy, but of implementation. He said the enforcement of policies rests with the department’s leadership, which he again noted is unclear at this point.

The judge also said that as long as outdated technology continues to be a big issue, it will hinder the department as it moves forward with other reforms.

The department’s police radios, for example, are expected to be obsolete by the end of this year, and there has been no plan to replace them. Matthew Barge, a member of the monitoring team, noted the devices are used by officers across the department every day and are their primary means of communicating. Without them, the safety of officers could be at risk.

At the end of the hearing, Bredar credited all the parties for their work, but cautioned they are still in the early stages of reform.

“We’ve got a long road ahead of us,” he said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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