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Baltimore media need to question claims made by police commissioner | COMMENTARY

In this Dec. 20, 2019 file photo, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announces support for a pilot program that uses surveillance planes over the city to combat crime in Baltimore. U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett in Baltimore on Friday, April 24, 2020, ruled against a grassroots think tank and area activists who asked him to keep the surveillance program from taking off, arguing that it violates their First and Fourth Amendment rights.
In this Dec. 20, 2019 file photo, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announces support for a pilot program that uses surveillance planes over the city to combat crime in Baltimore. U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett in Baltimore on Friday, April 24, 2020, ruled against a grassroots think tank and area activists who asked him to keep the surveillance program from taking off, arguing that it violates their First and Fourth Amendment rights. (Jerry Jackson/AP)

It hasn’t taken Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison long to start sounding like former Mayor Catherine Pugh in challenging the “narrative” of an unsafe city, touting success in crime-fighting programs without providing facts to back the claims and trying to use the media to push a positive narrative about the progress he says his administration is making.

As a media critic, the most disappointing thing to me about this same-old, same-old from a Baltimore official is that Mr. Harrison is finding media outlets in Baltimore willing to take his words essentially at face value and put them out over the airwaves. And if that kind of coverage continues, citizens are going to get spin instead of genuine reform. And we are long past being able to afford any more of that when it comes to problems with our police.

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One recent example of Mr. Harrison’s public relations effort can be found in an interview he did on WBAL NewsRadio’s C4 and Bryan Nehman show July 29. In his introduction to the conversation, Clarence M. Mitchell IV, known as “C4,″ characterized it as a one-year checkup on the crime-fighting programs Mr. Harrison introduced in July 2019.

In answer to a question about a highly controversial surveillance plane program that was relaunched in May, Mr. Harrison said Baltimore police have had “two clearances, one for a murder, I believe, and one for a nonfatal shooting” with the help of the program.

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But when Sun reporter Jessica Anderson pressed police for details of those “clearances,” they declined to provide them, including the identity of the homicide suspect, saying investigations were ongoing. A department spokeswoman said only that the program has led police to one homicide arrest and to a person of interest in a shooting case, Ms. Anderson wrote in an article published online July 31.

As noted in that article, clearance means a case has been closed by an arrest or by exceptional means, such as when a suspect has died, according to the FBI.

Without more details, it is hard to judge the accuracy of Mr. Harrison’s claim. But whether the number is one or two, I would like to know what kind of evidence the spy planes provided for those two “clearances.”

I dislike hearing public officials exaggerate, overstate or make any public claim and then say they can’t provide supporting facts because it is an ongoing investigation.

But I hate seeing veteran media workers allowing it without asking for details or pushing back. And that should be especially true in a city like Baltimore in the wake of Ms. Pugh’s vast dishonesty.

But neither C4 nor Mr. Nehman did that kind of tough questioning.

C4 began the interview by asking about overall success for the Baltimore Police Department short term and in terms of a multiyear plan Mr. Harrison has been promoting.

Mr. Harrison claimed that based on his conversations with police chiefs around the country, while Baltimore is seeing a decrease in murders robberies and nonfatal shootings, other cities are “seeing increases in them.”

That’s a pretty big claim, but neither C4 nor Mr. Nehman responded by asking how many cities he’s talking about and for the names of those cities. So, we have no idea if what Mr. Harrison claims is true or not. We cannot even go and fact check it, because we don’t know what cities to check. But it sure sounds like we are heading in the right direction, doesn’t it?

Instead of seeking such details, Mr. Nehman followed up by asking, Mr. Harrison, “What do you need to help you in the fight against crime?”

I am not saying an interviewer should be combative, but to me, this interview felt like the opposite of the press serving its watchdog duty.

In an interview with WBAL-TV posted July 26 online, Mr. Harrison was making similar claims about what he characterizes as the success of his crime-fighting program.

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“It is not the correct narrative that when you come into Baltimore your life is in danger or you are somehow not as safe,” he said in the interview.

The TV report did push back by citing unnamed “suburban callers” to WBAL NewsRadio saying the Maryland National Guard should “step in.”

Mr. Harrison also said, “People are already saying, ‘We’ve seen more police. We’ve seen them doing something different.‘” That claim went unchallenged.

What people are saying this? How many are there? Can you share some of their statements with us?

Unless we in the media ask such questions, we are only adding to the public safety problems in Baltimore.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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