Maryland's toxic cultures

Someday someone will surely invent an aghast-o-meter to measure the outrage felt as we watched a single officer appear to contradict everything the Baltimore Police Department, city leaders, federal authorities and just about anyone connected to police reform have been talking about since the death of Freddie Gray, more than three years ago. The bystander-recorded video clip of a newly minted Baltimore police officer pummeling a man Saturday — because he supposedly talked back and refused to hand over identification during a “crime suppression” detail — revealed to the nation in a matter of seconds that little has changed in the BPD.

We might call this a “toxic culture” within the city’s police department, but it appears those two words have already been taken this weekend. Because on the same day as Baltimore’s continued shame was being broadcast to the nation, the coach of the University of Maryland’s football team was being placed on administrative leave along with several members of his staff. This came in the wake of an ESPN report that detailed the “toxic culture” and player abuse under head coach D.J. Durkin and how it could have contributed to the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair, who collapsed after a team conditioning practice in late May and died in mid-June, apparently of heatstroke from the incident.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden famously observed that character is measured by how one behaves when no one is looking. The good news in both of these episodes is that someone was paying attention, and authorities took swift action once the allegations came to light.

In the case of the beating video, which went viral over the weekend, the officer who threw the unwarranted punches has already resigned, and Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle says there’s an active criminal investigation into his behavior; a second officer, who observed the incident, has been placed on administrative duty pending the outcome. And while videos can be misleading or lack context, what can be seen in the recording is simply inexcusable: an officer repeatedly wailing on an apparently unarmed man, ultimately taking him to the ground. But don’t take our word for it: Lt. Gene Ryan of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police chapter has described the scene — using a particularly poor choice of phrase — as a “black eye” on the department, as well.

In College Park, the decision by Athletic Director Damon Evans and University President Wallace D. Loh to put Coach Durkin on leave and launch an external review of the football program’s coaching practices and whether they “reflect — not subvert — the core values” of the university also is an entirely appropriate response.

But what if there had been no video? What if ESPN reporters had not tracked down players willing to give accounts of alleged intimidating and bullying behavior by football coaches? Would either institution have observed what was going on in their midst? Would the second police officer at the beating incident, which occurred outside a bar and liquor store in East Baltimore, have come forward to report it? He doesn’t intervene on the recording.

And what about the coaches and trainers on Mr. Durkin’s staff? Had they ever raised red flags? Surely, even if Coach Durkin were blameless in the death of Jordan McNair, which the university also has been investigating, the additional reporting so far has raised some serious doubts about judgment and “old school” mentality toward the health and well-being of student athletes. And it’s not the first time UMD has faced such doubts, either. Granted, it’s been 32 years since the death of Len Bias, and so even hardcore Maryland fans below the age of 40 can be forgiven for not remembering the scandal that emerged after the College Park basketball star died of cardiac arrhythmia after taking cocaine. Here’s the short version: It was revealed that the Maryland athletic department didn’t give a hoot about the academic performance of its athletes and lots of folks, including head men’s basketball coach Lefty Driesell, left in disgrace. Since then, the school has claimed to care about graduation rates and students attending class and remaining in good academic standing. Shouldn’t they have emphasized keeping them healthy, too?

This may be the most worrisome aspect of this weekend’s outrageous behavior and the subsequent crackdowns. In both cases, these are institutions that have either undergone or are undergoing serious reforms. The officer in the beating video was not some veteran raised when sticking an espantoon into the gut of an uncooperative suspect was considered standard operating procedure. He graduated from the city’s police academy in April. In other words, he has only known policing in Baltimore since the federal consent decree was signed and leadership made it a priority to emphasize community policing and respectful behavior toward citizens.

So how do you change a toxic culture? If it only required changing leadership — firing commissioners or police officers or head coaches or athletic directors — it would not have been such a painful weekend for the state of Maryland. As it happens, Coach Wooden of UCLA had some thoughts about success: He believed in faith, in family and in honor. Perhaps recruiting people who believed in those things would be a great place to start.

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