The task of persuading jurors in the City of Baltimore that they can rely on the veracity of officers of the Baltimore Police Department recently has gone from difficult to nearly impossible because reform of the department is not moving fast enough. Only dramatic changes are going to fix the problems, and only dramatic changes are going to restore the trustworthiness of BPD officers in the minds of city residents.
Meanwhile, the hole the BPD is digging for itself keeps getting deeper.
The acquittal of Richard Gibbs Jr. in June on charges including felony possession of a handgun was a warning that the lack of credibility of BPD officers was approaching crisis proportions. Two BPD officers testified that, after Mr. Gibbs was pulled over for driving with an “obliterated” license plate, they saw him reach down to the floor for a gun and then saw a gun fly onto the hood of the car. His DNA was found on the gun.
Yet the jury acquitted Mr. Gibbs after only three hours of deliberation, apparently convinced by defense arguments that the defendant’s DNA was planted on the gun and the gun planted on the scene. The president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police said he was “stunned” by the acquittal. Experienced courtroom observers were not.
With the release in July of body-worn camera video appearing to show, depending on whom you believe, officers either fabricating or “re-enacting” the discovery of illegal drugs in a soup can, the credibility crisis officially arrived. Considering the BPD’s already tarnished reputation, the damage done by the video to the prosecution of crime in Baltimore is inestimable. Prosecutors now will be expected by jurors to prove that evidence has not been planted by police.
In March, a federal grand jury indicted seven members of the BPD’s “elite” Gun Trace Task Force on charges that were especially troubling. The United States attorney for Maryland at the time characterized the officers as nothing more than armed robbers with police badges — one more violent gang in a city saturated with violent gangs. As icing on the cake, the officers allegedly lied with impunity on their time sheets. Don’t tell me that adequate progress is being made on changing the culture at the BPD.
Too much faith is being placed in the consent decree between the city police department and the U.S. Department of Justice. While the consent decree is meant to reform the BPD after federal officials found officers engaged in a “pattern and practice” of constitutional violations, it will not accomplish structural changes that must be made. Believing that the consent decree will fix what ails the BPD is an exercise in magical thinking.
City and state officials must begin by recognizing that being a police officer in Baltimore is by far the most difficult law enforcement job in the state, and they must commit to the goal of making the officers of the BPD the best paid, trained and disciplined in Maryland. The goal is attainable if the political will exists.
City and state laws have rendered the BPD ungovernable, and those laws must be revisited to restore the authority to run the department to the police commissioner. Give the commissioner the power to enforce discipline. The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights enacted by the General Assembly may work fine where the challenges of policing are not as great, but it has been an abject failure in the city.
The department must build up an adequate core of competent sergeants and lieutenants capable of resetting departmental culture. It is first-line supervisors who set the tone for what happens on the street, and the weakness of the department’s cadre of sergeants and lieutenants has been a problem for years. Take sergeants and lieutenants out of the same union as the officers they supervise, pay them more and hold them accountable for the performance of their subordinates.
Limit the scope of collective bargaining to compensation and benefits. Negotiating over matters of police discipline, personnel policy, assignments and the deployment of police resources has been disastrous.
Enacting the necessary reforms will be contentious. If city and state officials continue to pussyfoot around with half measures, however, don’t expect the situation to improve.
David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dplymyer.