The outside experts called in to determine how Baltimore police detective Sean Suiter died reached a dispiriting conclusion: So many times in recent years the department’s failings have been pointed out publicly, they wrote, yet each time they go largely unaddressed.
“Perhaps the most important lesson learned is that the Suiter investigation serves as a case study in how BPD has failed to learn its lessons from prior tragedies,” the retired police officers and analysts of the Independent Review Board wrote.
They pointed to five similar studies since 2011 and the department’s struggles to handle major incidents.
And yet the department has continued to be rocked by scandals: an elite group of officers convicted of robberies; beatings and other misbehavior caught on video; and the riot after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. Meanwhile, a steady stream of commissioners and interim commissioners has headed out the door — six since that 2011 report.
In the face of the latest findings, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s staff say they’re focused on finding the right leader and then pushing ahead with meeting the terms of a federal consent decree to remedy widespread civil rights abuses.
But other city leaders are increasingly questioning whether the time has come for more radical change.
Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle said in an interview Friday that the department has scheduled a meeting in the coming week to review the report on Suiter’s death and weigh its recommendations. He said the public should be confident that change is coming this time because the department is now operating under the watchful eye of a federal judge and a U.S. Justice Department consent decree imposed after Gray’s death.
“I’m focused on the future,” Tuggle said. “I’ve been allowed to continue to drive reform with no interference.”
But state Sen. Bill Ferguson, who sponsored legislation to create a commission to investigate police corruption, said the time has come for “institutional reform.”
“If we keep trying to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, we'll never see real improvement,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “Changes of policies here and there aren't going to take us where we need to go.”
What that change might look like is less clear.
The chair of the City Council’s police oversight committee wants to create a civilian board of commissioners to oversee the department. The chairman of a civilian watchdog group suggested mass firings to “gut” the department. The local ACLU branch wants to see the overhaul of laws that allow misconduct investigations to be kept secret.
“It’s one thing to agree there’s a problem; it’s hard to agree on the solution,” Ferguson said.
The seven members of the review group Ferguson backed were announced Friday. They have the power to compel testimony and are charged with producing a preliminary report on corruption in the Gun Trace Task Force by the end of the year and are expected to continue their work through 2019. The choice of one of the panel members, attorney Mitchel M. Gordon, is being reconsidered after The Baltimore Sun revealed he had represented several members of the gun task force in workers’ compensation cases.
The outside review completed last week was ordered by then-Commissioner Darryl De Sousa to examine the Police Department’s investigation into Suiter’s death. (De Sousa resigned in May after being charged by federal prosecutors with not filing tax returns.)
The medical examiner’s office had ruled the death a homicide, but the review panel concluded that Suiter had killed himself.
The seven-member group found that the department’s credibility had taken a blow from how the case was handled, faulting De Sousa’s predecessor, Kevin Davis, for misleading the public and sharing inaccurate information about the case.
“It is essential that BPD restore its credibility with the public,” they wrote. “The only way to do that is to be credible in all public communications, which entails being as accurate and transparent as the investigation permits.”
Davis has contested the report's conclusions, saying in interviews that the panel turned up no new evidence to justify their conclusion that Suiter had killed himself.
The review board members also highlighted deeper-seated problems. They wrote that Baltimore police personnel told them that the department is resistant to change, beset by “political jockeying” at its highest levels and tends to “circle the wagons” when bad news breaks.
“BPD’s inability to learn from experience, time after time, does not inspire confidence that it can be fixed from within,” the panel wrote.
The solution? The panel called for stable leadership at the department and a commissioner with the freedom to assemble a strong senior team to push through change.
“The selection of the next police commissioner is a matter of historic civic importance given the current state of the department,” the board wrote.
The board’s report pointed to the experience of Charles Ramsey, who took over the Washington Metropolitan Police Department in 1998 when police faced high crime and distrust.
But over the course of almost a decade in charge, Ramsey said, he was able to bring down crime, push through reforms internally and convince the public the police were on their side.
“All three things are important, but they've got to be going on simultaneously,” he told The Baltimore Sun.
Ramsey said he had a strong relationship with the mayor and the guidance of a formal agreement with the Justice Department.
“It does provide a solid road map for change,” he said.
If Baltimore can attract a highly qualified commissioner, Ramsey said, his success in Washington could be repeated.
“As long as the resources are provided and there’s the support, there’s no reason Baltimore cannot achieve its goals,” said Ramsey, who is working in Baltimore as part of the independent team monitoring the consent decree.
City Solicitor Andre Davis echoed the emphasis on the hunt for a new police commissioner. The mayor’s office says it has received more than 40 applications. Tuggle, who had a long career at the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, has said he’s interested in keeping the job.
“We need to stabilize the leadership,” Davis said. “We’re going to do that in the coming weeks.”
But Brandon Scott, the chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said what’s called for goes beyond who is leading the department.
“We need to change the structure so the citizens feel like they have direct accountability,” he said. “We have to blow the structure up at a minimum.”
Scott has proposed creating a board of commissioners that would have power to oversee the hiring and day-to-day work of the city’s top police officer; some members could be elected by the public. He also envisages an inspector general reporting directly to the board.
“It’s been clear to me for years that we have to build a structure up,” Scott said. “We need this department to not just have one sworn police person as a leader.”
Other proposals set forth in the last year are less far-reaching.
Politicians and activists have long called for legal changes that would give the public access to officers’ internal affairs records, making it easier to hold problem officers accountable.
David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said the change could be accomplished with a bill in the General Assembly shorter than a single page that would exempt internal affairs files from secrecy rules that govern public employees’ personnel records.
“You can't have trust and secrecy,” he said.
But Rocah acknowledged that such a measure would likely face stiff resistance from police departments and officers’ unions.
The mayor’s office proposed legislation in Annapolis this year that would have given the police commissioner more power to fire officers accused of misconduct and made it easier to have civilians sit on the internal department boards that hear accusations of wrongdoing. The bill was introduced late in the session and didn’t advance beyond initial hearings.
It’s not clear whether Pugh’s team will try again next year. Davis, the city solicitor, would say only that there would be some “serious legislation coming out of the mayor's legislative shop.”
The Community Oversight Task Force, a body convened under the consent decree, proposed the creation of a fully independent civilian body to investigate police misconduct — something it called a “completely re-imagined system of oversight.”
But that would involve disbanding the current Civilian Review Board, whose members pushed back against the proposal, saying they could be effective with the right resources.
Bridal Pearson, the Civilian Review Board’s chairman, said measures like having police live closer to the communities where they work and internal systems for catching minor misconduct could help.
But Pearson said without a revolution in the leadership ranks, it wasn’t clear to him whether change would stick. He suggested “massive firings” from the very top of the department down to its front-line supervisors.
“I don’t think a few changes in policy are going to make a difference,” Pearson said, saying instead it would be necessary to “gut the whole BPD.”
One idea has gained more widespread support. Last year the City Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the General Assembly to give control of the Police Department back to the city. The community task force also backed the idea.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said that move would then allow the council to have a greater say in how the department is run, opening the door to more civilian involvement in the disciplinary process and new rules on how the department makes use of its staff.
"There’s not one other police department in the State of Maryland that is not under the control of the local jurisdiction,” Dorsey said. “Baltimore is the sole outlier. It is very clear that under this circumstance things are not getting better.”