You don’t need to have read the entire 164-page 2016 Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department to see why sending cops out onto the streets with a shaky sense of the law and Constitution is a bad idea. You don’t even need to make it past the second sentence: “After engaging in a thorough investigation, initiated at the request of the City of Baltimore and BPD, the Department of Justice concludes that there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.” Specifically, the report found a pattern of “unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests”; “enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans”; “excessive force”; and retaliation “against people engaging in constitutionally protected expression.”
Those findings led to a consent decree between the DOJ and the city that is being enforced by a federal judge and overseen by a monitoring team. Correcting those deficiencies will require the city to spend millions on new equipment and training and the development of new procedures in the years ahead.
But somebody at BPD apparently didn’t get that memo. The Sun’s Kevin Rector and Justin Fenton reported Friday that a third of the recruit class that had its badge-pinning ceremony on Saturday had not been able to demonstrate that they understood basic legal and constitutional standards for arrests, searches and other elements of policing. And it wasn’t the ACLU or some other outside group making that claim. It was the BPD sergeant who is in charge of the department’s legal instruction, and he said it unequivocally and on the record.
The fact that the recruits were able to pass a multiple-choice test on legal standards, rather than the scenario-based practical exams that the department has been using in recent years, and only after the lawyers who had been administering them were replaced by police who lacked that expertise, should raise real suspicion. Acting Commissioner Darryl De Sousa says he’s looking into the complaints by Sgt. Josh Rosenblatt, but his concern wasn’t strong enough to stop the department from presenting the 17 recruits in question with badges and guns and sending them out for their last eight weeks of on-the-street training. Even if the multiple-choice exams meet state standards, department commanders need to recognize that the standards the department has historically required in this area are clearly not stringent enough. And the fact that four recruits had been held back repeatedly over their inability to pass this test were suddenly able to once it was changed should be a massive red flag.
We’re pleased that the city’s Fraternal Order of Police is backing up Sergeant Rosenblatt, though it’s not entirely surprising; the group was complaining about the poor state of BPD training long before the DOJ came to town. Mr. Rosenblatt took a risk by speaking up publicly, and we certainly hope he won’t face any consequences for blowing the whistle on what is a politically sensitive topic. Mayor Catherine Pugh has made speeding the department’s hiring process a focus of her administration, and former Commissioner Kevin Davis bragged last year that the department was finally bringing more new recruits onto the force than it was losing through attrition. There is no question that the BPD needs to get more officers on the beat — it is at least 500 down from its historical levels of staffing — but it does more harm than good to field officers who don’t understand the rules of constitutional policing.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund on Monday wrote to the consent decree monitoring team to urge them to investigate and to re-train the officers who failed the more rigorous exams. We second that request. But city officials can’t simply leave it to monitoring team to solve the problem. Mr. De Sousa’s confirmation process begins today, with hearings expected later this month. He has good relationships with many on the City Council, but members should not let that get in the way of their responsibility to ask him hard questions about this and the department’s other deficiencies. Between the widening Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal and the continued high rate of violence, we can’t afford for the council to rubber stamp this or any nominee to be Baltimore’s top cop.