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Harrison needs to overcome the resistance to Baltimore's consent decree

The progress of the Baltimore Police Department Monitoring Team, one year into the consent decree agreement.

It’s difficult to quantify our level of gratitude to the anti-police reform advocacy organization in Indiana that took it upon itself to decide what Baltimore needs when it comes to law enforcement and to petition the Trump administration to get it. The National Police Association apparently took note of the wildly unscientific survey City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer conducted of Baltimore police officers and concluded that city cops are hopelessly confused and demoralized by the consent decree and thus unable to do their jobs, putting the public’s safety at risk. The group took action in the form of an eight-page letter to President Donald Trump asking him to direct the Department of Justice to do whatever possible to weaken the consent decree. The massive violation of Baltimoreans constitutional rights documented by the Justice Department warranted not even a token mention in the NPA’s analysis. Neither did the Gun Trace Task Force scandal.

The Baltimore police consent decree “does a tremendous amount of harm,” a law enforcement advocacy group said, and it is asking the Trump administration to modify reforms it calls too burdensome.

This leads us to two thoughts. First, we must again express our thanks to Mayor Catherine Pugh for rushing to complete negotiations over the consent decree while the Obama administration was still in office rather than leaving the matter up to the Trump DOJ, whose attitudes about police reform seem to dovetail nicely with the NPA’s. The matter is now in the hands of Judge James Bredar, who does not appear given to such nonsense, perhaps because his knowledge of Baltimore is more than theoretical. Our second thought is that Acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has his work cut out for him.

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Mr. Harrison spent the last several years implementing New Orleans’ consent decree as superintendent of that police department, and he said in a statement to The Sun’s Jessica Anderson that he found that the goals of effective, proactive policing and respecting residents’ constitutional rights were complimentary, not in opposition to one another. “The consent decree did not make officers soft on crime in New Orleans (in fact, it contributed to significant declines in violent crime), and it will not make officers soft on crime in Baltimore,” he said. “It will only ensure that officers do their jobs in a constitutional way.”

Of the 362 Baltimore Police officers who participated in a recent survey, more than 40 percent said they don’t feel comfortable intervening in an incident and initiating arrests without a call for service.

We certainly agree; the aggressive policing tactics Baltimore employed in the early 2000s may have had a short-term impact in reducing crime, but they carried a tremendous long-term cost in the diminution of trust between the community and officers that came to a head in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. Baltimore police may be frustrated now at the additional demands of record-keeping and training the consent decree requires, but we’ll wager that the lack of witness cooperation, the reliance in Baltimore on street justice rather than the kind that comes in the courthouse, and even the active resistance officers sometimes face at crime scenes are bigger impediments to their work.

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But it’s clear that not all Baltimore police buy that. While Mr. Schleifer’s survey may not represent a true sample of overall attitudes in the department — those who chose to respond may well skew toward discontent — it reflects an attitude among at least a subset of the rank and file that the consent decree is preventing them from doing their jobs. That’s not true, of course; the consent decree not only allows proactive policing but demands it as it seeks to reduce barriers between police and the community they serve. But those steeped in the tactics of Baltimore’s old unconstitutional policing need to be convinced that de-escalation does not put them or the public at risk, that recognizing and responding appropriately to mental health crises makes the community safer and that clearing corners is not the same as reducing crime.

The NPA’s letter suggests that any who demand reform are anti-police, and it complains bitterly about a lack of support for the department from the city's elected and appointed leaders. Clearly that attitude is shared by at least some in the BPD. That’s unfortunate but perhaps not surprising given the department’s history and the lack of permanent, consistent leadership the department has seen during the implementation of the consent decree. Baltimore’s officers need someone who can inspire them to embrace a new paradigm of policing — and weed out any who can't or won't adapt. That’s a big task, and we certainly hope Mr. Harrison can complete it.

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