Year two of Baltimore Police consent decree will focus on training: stops, searches, use of force and more

After a year of largely rewriting polices, the Baltimore Police Department will begin retraining officers next year, which some observers hope will result in noticeable reforms.

Year two of the federally mandated consent decree will focus on officer training on stops, searches and arrests, use of force, impartial policing and body-worn cameras. Widespread reforms are required by the agreement reached between the city and the U.S. Justice Department in 2017 after an investigation found city police regularly violated residents’ civil rights, especially minorities.

Many in the community are looking to the consent decree’s implementation to improve police and community relations, as well as bring professionalism to a department that has been exposed for corruption with the convictions of Gun Trace Task Force members and for continued misconduct, including an officer caught on video repeatedly punching a man and another officer who was fired after police said he was drunk on the job.

But the training phase will present challenges, including staffing shortages and a lack of technology to monitor officers’ progress.

Training “plays an important role in shaping the Department’s culture. Training addresses updates in policy and curriculum but it is equally important that training reflects the Department’s shifting cultural attitude and approach to policing,” a training plan stressed.

“For current members, continuing education is needed to hone learned skills, develop new skills, maintain certifications and understand changes in law and policy. Regardless of the learner or topic, training is needed to fulfill the mission, values and goals of the BPD,” the plan said.

For example, beginning in March the department will conduct a “Train-the-Trainers” program for use of force. During practice sessions, members of the monitoring team from the Justice Department will participate and provide feedback. Officers are expected to be training by August, according to the second-year plan. The use of force training will cover the use of firearms, batons and pepper spray, as well as de-escalation techniques, such as slowing down a situation, disengagement and waiting out a subject. Training on use of force will include role-playing scenarios and interactive exercises that show proper decision-making.

Some community members had hoped to see visible changes already.

“I think everyone has been frustrated because we don’t see it on the street level yet,” said Ray Kelly, chief executive of activist group No Boundaries Coalition. He said the turnover in police leadership and continued high levels of violence have consumed the department’s attention. City and police leadership, he said, are focused on other issues while many in the community are looking for a cultural change in the department.

“We haven’t even created a situation where we can focus on the actual consent decree reform,” he said. “There still isn’t a police commissioner. We still have no one to hold accountable.”

City Solicitor Andre Davis said reviewing and updating the policies would prove critical to reforms, but noted it can be frustrating to those who want to see changes now. However, he said, the training phase would be more meaningful to residents.

“It’s getting real, when it really touches people,” Davis said.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the process, has repeatedly questioned the department’s ability to implement reforms without a permanent police commissioner.

Progress has “steadily continued despite the absence of permanent leadership in that critical post. However, the long-term success of many of the Decree’s reforms will be influenced by and depend in part upon BPD’s leadership, including a new Commissioner,” Bredar wrote in an order filed this month. The order was granting a number of deadline extensions requested by the city, the Police Department, the U.S. Justice Department and the monitoring team.

Mayor Catherine Pugh has chosen Fort Worth, Texas, Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald as commissioner; his confirmation hearing before the City Council is scheduled for early January.

The monitoring team overseeing the consent decree implementation said that the training schedule for 2019 would be rigorous in order to meet the benchmarks of the consent decree.

“This is an ambitious agenda for training reform. It is all the more ambitious because BPD will be changing — and improving — the way it delivers training in order to satisfy Consent Decree objectives,” the team said in the second annual plan released Dec. 21.

Previously, officers had received all in-service training in a single two-week period each year. Now, they will receive training in multiple, shorter blocks focused on specific subjects. This allows all officers to be trained on a specific subject in a short period. The monitoring team said this would allow the department to hold officers accountable at the end of a training cycle, rather than waiting until the end of the year.

The training plan also identified challenges, such as “Understaffed and overextended Academy personnel,” as several positions remain unfilled.

The in-service training will increase from 23 hours to 40 hours, which the plan said would put a strain on officers in patrol, a segment that already suffers from a vacancy rate of more than 20 percent, higher than other areas of the department. A staffing study previously found that the training academy has more staff compared to other departments in the nation. Baltimore has 71 training staffers, more than the New Orleans Police Department’s 27 employees assigned to training.

The staffing study suggested hiring more civilians for clerical work or community members for scenario-based training could free up officers for additional training duties.

In addition to a staffing shortage, the training plan also says no process exists yet to track training’s impact.

“Currently there is no consistent feedback mechanism to determine the effectiveness of the training or trainers,” the plan said. In addition, there is no reliable mechanism to document and track training, which requires technology improvements, the training plan said.

Another concern is a training site. The plan said the police academy is “not ideally suited for classroom instruction that allows for a comfortable, adult-learning environment.”

For the first time, officers will also receive some training electronically.

Ken Thompson, who heads the monitoring team, said that in the coming year, the community would also be invited to observe some scenario-based training.

Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has studied police reform, said training is paramount for true reform.

“This is really the best hope of bringing about meaningful and extensive changes” to a troubled department like Baltimore, he said.

Training, even for the most senior-level officers, is imperative to changing the culture of the department, he said. Supervisors, he said, will be responsible for making sure officers are following the new policies. Use of force policies, he said, must have additional requirements for reporting, and supervisors are responsible to make sure the reports are honest, complete and accurate. “In some of these departments, officers were never really held accountable on this,” he said. “This is a major culture change.”

Walker said it’s a very long, complicated process to implement reforms. “You can’t do new training without new policies. Those are two of the most important changes.”

The consent decree is expected to take years to complete, and some cities have taken longer. Despite the federal government shutdown this month, Judge Bredar denied a recent motion requesting deadline extensions.

Year three will continue training in other areas, such as sexual assault investigations, crisis intervention, interactions with youth and community policing.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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