Reacting last week to the jury trial conviction of two officers in the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force — on top of guilty pleas from six others — many city leaders returned to the familiar “few bad apples” narrative to minimize the significance. Perhaps these leaders have forgotten the rest of the idiom: “One bad apple spoils the barrel.”
The criminal behavior described during the federal trial was alleged to have extended well beyond the eight-member Gun Trace Task Force to at least a dozen other officers over many years, underscoring the lack of effective leadership within the department and the profound need for training and civilian oversight. The concurrent claim that recent police academy graduates lack a basic understanding of constitutional policing further underscores this need.
Systemic problems with the Baltimore Police Department were well documented in the findings of the recent Department of Justice investigation, which concluded that the police department “engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.” And, of course, those findings, which led to a consent decree between the BPD and DOJ, echo the experiences of community members who have complained of mistreatment and unconstitutional behavior by police officers for decades.
At this point, anyone who continues to suggest that the problems in the Baltimore Police Department are limited to a “few bad apples” is refusing to acknowledge the deep, systemic issues in the department and stands in the way of genuine reform.
Acknowledging the department’s deep-rooted problems and engaging in the difficult work of re-imagining policing in our city is not only legally and morally necessary, it is essential to solving crimes and preventing violence and homicides. Indeed, while cities around the country have seen drops in violent crime, those that have not — including Baltimore and Chicago — suffer from endemic corruption in their police departments and unconstitutional practices. When residents do not trust or feel respected by the police, they have no incentive to provide the information that can help to solve or prevent crimes.
Baltimore police officers have enormously difficult jobs, and most of them work hard every day to protect and serve the people of this city. But their work is made more difficult — and dangerous — when their department does not take essential steps to ensure that all officers are trained in constitutional requirements, de-escalation techniques and practices to rebuild community trust.
Real change will require better training, leadership, policies accountability systems — including citizen review — and a concerted effort to eradicate the collusion and “no-snitching” culture that appears to have taken hold in parts of the department. None of this will be easy, and public officials would do better to acknowledge the long and difficult task ahead than to maintain that problems extend only to “a few bad apples.”
Continued commitment to, and implementation of, the consent decree is one essential part of this reform process. Federal Judge James Bredar, who oversees the consent decree, and Kenneth Thompson, head of the monitoring team — which recently released its first year monitoring plan and budget and its schedule of progress reports — have so far demonstrated such a commitment.
OSI-Baltimore has supported the process by underwriting grassroots organizing, public education and advocacy around the consent decree and broader police reforms. We will soon launch the Community Responsive Policing Project to help communities partner equitably with the police to design the “micro-policing plans” in their communities that are required by the consent decree. We also have enabled the police department to hire two senior positions to advance its efforts to establish a new internal culture and the Civilian Oversight Task Force to hire a researcher. And we have funded the Center for Policing Equity to survey residents’ attitudes toward police, which will serve as a baseline to measure progress in making the reforms set out in the consent decree.
The uprising after the death of Freddie Gray represented a potential turning point for Baltimore — which is really two cities. It was an opening for residents of one Baltimore, largely white and middle class, to begin to understand the experiences and history of the residents of the other Baltimore, where opportunities and economic stability have been diminished because of discriminatory housing policies and inequitable access to key resources, from health care to jobs. Members of this Baltimore spoke loudly and clearly during the uprising, demanding real reform. What a disappointment it would be if we collectively squandered this rare opportunity to create lasting change for all residents.
Diana Morris is director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.