This week, video surfaced that appeared to show a Baltimore police officer spitting on a suspect who had been arrested and was lying prone on the ground. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called it "disgusting" and said the officer, a 34-year veteran of the force, should resign. Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called it "outrageously unacceptable." The officer has been suspended and is subject of a criminal investigation over the incident.
But another thing Mr. Davis said during a news conference underscores what's most striking about it: He knows, and every officer on the force knows, that their interactions with the public are increasingly being videotaped. The community is watching. Moreover, at the mayor's request, the U.S. Justice Department is in the midst of a wide-ranging probe into the department's practices to determine whether there is a pattern of civil rights violations. Mr. Davis has consistently talked about the need to repair relations with the community, as did his predecessor for the last three years. Yet something like this can still happen.
To be fair, the quality of the video isn't good enough to definitively say what happened, though it certainly looks bad. And even if it is what it seems, this act represents one moment in the career of one officer. Nonetheless, its impact on the community's opinions of the police cannot be underestimated. All the reform efforts the city has undertaken so far did not prevent something like this, and they won't erase that image from the public's mind.
To combat both the reality and the perception, city leaders need to take even bolder steps than they have before, and for that reason, we hope they will take seriously a half-dozen reform proposals due to be released tomorrow by former NAACP head Ben Jealous in conjunction with the Center for American Progress and a coalition of Baltimore community groups called the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs. They are asking that the department ensure a tougher, more open disciplinary process for officers who abuse their positions, an end to the gag order on those who accept settlements in police brutality suits, accelerated implementation of police body cameras, new measures to evaluate and encourage community policing practices, universal training in de-escalation techniques and more transparency about department policies.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake made a highly publicized and unsuccessful push this year to reform the state Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, and there is some value in continuing to pursue that goal, but as the campaign's report makes clear, there is much the Baltimore Police Department can do on its own to ensure proper discipline. The report suggests beefing up the Internal Affairs division and releasing annual reports of its activities. It also notes negotiated provisions in the contract with the police union that make it more difficult to discipline bad officers. Another important reform in this area that isn't mentioned in the report would be to add resources and powers to the city's civilian review board so that officers' actions can be judged by those they are supposed to serve.
Last year, after The Sun reported on the millions the city has paid out in settlements of police misconduct suits, Mayor Rawlings-Blake pledged to consider dropping a standard clause in such agreements that prevents the plaintiffs from talking publicly about their cases. Yet the only change the city has made has been to tighten the policy. Other cities have managed to survive without such a clause; Baltimore can too, and it would send a message that the city has nothing to hide.
As part of a civil settlement in Freddie Gray's death, the mayor agreed to accelerate a pilot of police body cameras, but full implementation across the department could still take years. The coalition's report calls for the city to complete the task by the end of October. We understand that there are issues the city needs to work through in how they will be used, but data storage issues aside, there is no reason that can't be accomplished on a large scale rather than a small one. After all, we are not debating whether the department will go forward with body cameras but how.
The report suggests ways to remove the incentive for officers to make more arrests and instead to evaluate them on outcomes related to community satisfaction. That's not as easy to measure, but it would certainly be more effective in terms of improving police-community relations. Posting the department's policies and procedures online — as many other cities have done — would help residents understand what to expect in encounters with police. And de-escalation training, which is already occurring here on a small scale, could help keep both police and civilians safe by preventing the kind of crisis situations in which officers feel compelled to use deadly force.
No reforms can ensure that no officer ever winds up on video behaving badly, but they can create an atmosphere in which the community views such incidents as aberrations rather than the norm. The coalition's proposals would be an important step in that direction.