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Baltimore Police Department needs an overhaul — now

In vetting her nominee for Baltimore police commissioner — an appointment the City Council is set to vote on in January — Mayor Catherine Pugh said her administration “turned him upside down, [shook] him out,” and “turned him back around.” Her words were uncomfortably reminiscent of the unconstitutional tactics the police department has used in the past.

Perhaps it’s time we called a timeout on this whole nomination process.

First off, things are really, really bad at BPD, which is under a federal consent decree because of its illegal and discriminatory practices, so this appointment is of huge consequence. Second, the mayor’s method to pick Joel Fitzgerald of Fort Worth, Texas, to take over the top post was not transparent, which even further diminishes trust for the department among citizens. And finally, there are other models for structuring police departments that should be seriously considered to replace our current set up.

The last several months have been particularly embarrassing. An officer, who’s since quit, refused to act after fire department personnel informed her of an armed individual nearby because she wasn’t in her district. An off-duty sergeant was charged with driving under the influence (and inexplicably acquitted). Another officer, already suspended, was arrested for selling drugs. That was July.

In August, another sergeant, whose job it is to train recruits on lawful policing, was arrested for disorderly conduct on at a strip club on The Block (she also complained about a male cop punching her in the face during the arrest). Another officer resigned — and was charged with assault — after a video went viral showing him beating up a suspect.

In October, another officer was fired after being found drunk in his patrol car, and the city settled lawsuits filed by nine protestors for illegal detention and harsh treatment during an arts festival 2016. They were each paid $17,000.

And earlier this month, a judge convicted BPD’s original viral body camera sensation — an officer who claimed to be merely “reenacting” the seizure of drugs rather than planting them in a vacant lot — of fabricating evidence. Finally, let’s not forget the domestic quarrel between two married city sergeants at their Harford County home, leading them both to the slammer and suspensions.

All of this occurred well after the Department of Justice’s scathing 2016 report detailing illegal stops and seizures, mishandling of sexual assault cases and other abuses of power by BPD, not to mention the recently concluded federal cases against Gun Trace Task Force members, which exposed blatant criminal activity by cops including stealing from and assaulting citizens and grossly fraudulent overtime payments.

We are past the tipping point and misconduct continues, which means radical change is needed.

Mr. Fitzgerald has been offered up as a part of the solution, but we’ve had eight BPD commissioners over the last 18 years with varying records of success — and criminal activity. Fred Bealefeld lasted nearly five years, but he now works for Under Armor. Kevin Clark was run out amid domestic violence allegations. Ed Norris went to prison. Darryl DeSousa, also selected by Mayor Pugh, hadn’t filed his taxes and was under indictment.

This should make us pause. What are we getting in Mr. Fitzgerald? He’s never led a force the size of Baltimore’s nor managed a city with our level of crime. In less than a decade, he’s worked in three different places, and he’s been linked to overtime abuse in Allentown, Pa.

Mayor Pugh calls him a reformer without mentioning the specifics or outcomes of his reforms or how she selected him. Maybe he can fix Baltimore, but it just does not seem likely that he will even remain here for the bare minimum of five years that we need from a commissioner.

Instead of repeatedly throwing our eggs into the proverbial commissioner basket and then axing them like failed big-time college football coaches, we need to change BPD’s structure from the top down.

Eliminate the idea of a sworn officer commissioner. Instead, hire a civilian, chief operating officer type or a panel of such and let those folks manage the money. Additionally, let them handle BPD disciplinary actions rather than the ineffective Internal Affairs Division, which is run by officers in-house.

We can still have a commissioner of sorts to make strategic and tactical decisions in the department. Cities like New York, Boston and Newark have all implemented models like these to varying degrees of success. Plus, someone needs to repair relations with the State’s Attorneys’ Office, and a new commissioner could do that. The chances of Mr. Fitzgerald being BPD’s messiah are not great, but if he’s committed and smart, he can still fit in. Misconduct and spending must be curbed in BPD — and that isn’t going to happen without civilian management.

Our City Council should recognize the gravity of this moment and study other models of police departments, rather than limiting their inquiries to this latest nominee. Ultimately, the General Assembly needs to act to restructure BPD, but change starts with the council's vote. They can force state legislators to either restructure BPD or give the city more control. We’ve been here before and we have nothing to show for it.

January is too soon. Vote "no" for the commissioner ,and take some time to make a revolutionary change for our city.

Todd Oppenheim is an attorney in the Baltimore City Public Defender's Office. Twitter: @Opp4Justice; email: toppenheim@opd.state.md.us.

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