Complaints of excessive use of force and other misconduct by police are nearly as old as modern police departments themselves; the first known use of the term "police brutality" appeared in The New York Times in 1893, and it's been a problem for law-enforcement officials ever since.
If police brutality isn't new, neither was much in the plan to combat it unveiled this week by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts. Most of the steps it outlined, such as beefing up the department's internal affairs unit, giving the chief greater power to discipline officers and studying the idea of equipping police with body cameras that record their interactions with the public were little more than hasty rehashes of the strategic plan Mr. Batts commissioned in 2012 when he took over the department. Moreover, the document made virtually no reference to what may be the most important change that is needed: a mechanism for making the department more directly accountable to the citizens it serves.
In an op-ed piece published today, Ms. Rawlings-Blake seemingly went out of her way to assure the public that she has been on top of the problem for longer than they've been aware of it. "I don't have the luxury of being in the dark about much of anything," she wrote of the need to reform how misbehaving officers are disciplined. She also suggested that most of the problems cited by a recent Sun investigative report were "years-old cases" that occurred before she took office and that the problems they represented had since been fixed.
That hardly squares with the fact that such incidents have continued to occur on her watch, however. As recently as last month a police surveillance camera captured what appeared to be an unprovoked attack by an officer on a citizen outside a Greenmount Avenue liquor store, and a few days later a cell phone video surfaced showing police pummeling a man to the ground outside a neighborhood nightclub during a violent arrest, though the question of officer fault was much less clear in the latter case. Nor did the mayor's comments account for a string of scandals that took place earlier in her tenure, including officers taking kickbacks from a towing company and another dealing drugs while on the job. Given the department's recent history, to suggest that misconduct by officers is no longer a significant problem seems Pollyannaish at best.
Mr. Batts says state laws and union agreements prevent him from intervening more directly in cases of misconduct. But if that's the case he needs to work with lawmakers and union officials to resolve such issues in a way that gives him more power to suspend or fire rogue officers. Keeping them on the job costs the city dearly in terms of lawsuits and it gives citizens the impression that the department is incapable of policing the wrongdoers in its own ranks.
It seems clear Mr. Batts should expedite equipping officers with body cameras. The devices, worn on an officer's uniform, have been shown to significantly reduce excessive use of force by police and citizen complaints of abuses. They exert a restraining influence on both the police and the people with whom they interact. New York City and the District of Columbia recently have begun requiring some officers to wear the devices, and there's no reason Baltimore should have to wait for the recommendations of a task force before at least launching a pilot project for their use.
But if the city is to truly make its police department more accountable and transparent, it must go beyond the periodic town hall-style meetings Mr. Batts and the mayor have been conducting with community residents and develop institutional channels for civilian oversight of police operations. That means replacing the city's current toothless civilian police review board with one that has real authority to investigate allegations of misconduct and to compel the department to discipline officers who abuse their powers.
We're all for Mr. Batts having a bigger role in disciplining officers who misbehave, but even under the reforms he and Ms. Rawlings-Blake are proposing the process would still be a closed one conducted without any meaningful civilian oversight or input. That's not good enough. Mayor Rawlings-Blake may be right that the zero-tolerance policing policies Gov. Martin O'Malley employed as mayor a decade ago were damaging to police-community relations, but he has been gone for a long time. She has been mayor for four and a half years and was City Council president for three before that. Police misconduct is her responsibility, and she needs to fix it.
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