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Editorial

Next generation of police must ‘be the change’ | COMMENTARY

Demonstrators make their way from Annapolis District Court to Lawyer's Mall in a Maryland Coalition for Justice & Police Reform march to demand police reform on March 4, 2021. On Wednesday, April 7, they got their wish as lawmakers gave final approval to landmark police reform legislation. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun).

Members of the Maryland General Assembly deserve considerable credit for the sweeping package of police reforms they approved this past week addressing so many issues of concern, from no-knock warrants to excessive force to accountability and transparency. Even opponents of these measures including the veto pen-wielding Gov. Larry Hogan must acknowledge that the legislation includes many common sense changes from improved access to mental health treatment for officers and requiring body cameras that have already proven so helpful in resolving disputes to making it easier to discipline and discharge those involved in misconduct. That this is happening even as the nation witnesses, by way of live cable television, the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd, makes this achievement all the more timely and compelling. And while some of the reforms might have gone further, as advocates had sought, there’s no denying the legislation represents substantive change.

Yet, even as lawmakers override the governor’s vetoes and move on to the flurry of other pending bills before the 90-day legislative session wraps up on Monday night, an unanswered question from an often heated debate still hangs in the air: Will these reforms, this drive for accountability, cause police to leave their profession or make it more difficult to recruit? This was one of the chief cudgels used to bash reforms by opponents including police unions. It is likely overstated, misrepresents reforms — which are meant to, in time, restore faith in police in some of Maryland’s most crime-weary jurisdictions — and underestimates the intelligence and compassion of rank-and-file officers, who are perfectly capable of recognizing the legitimate issues at work here.

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It is this last point that deserves to be expanded. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s a popular quote sometimes falsely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi but might be described as a bumper sticker version of his teachings. What’s needed in the months and years ahead is for police agencies, particularly in the nation’s challenged urban centers, to attract a new generation of officers who believe in the principles represented by these reforms. We need a new crop of men and women in blue who believe in this mission. Who reject stop-and-frisk tactics and broken window policies that target low-income communities of color, who understand that accountability and transparency are essential to maintaining their credibility with the general public, and who are appalled by excessive use of force just as so many of the police witnesses who have testified in the Chauvin trial are.

Protecting and serving the public is not a job, it is a calling. The obvious point of comparison is teaching in disadvantaged schools. And what Maryland and the rest of the country could use right now is a generation like the Peace Corps or Teach For America who want to “be the change.” The need is apparent. Already, two of this country’s largest police departments, New York and Chicago, have launched recruitment campaigns that use that very quote. Their goal is not just to broaden diversity but to attract people to the profession who are not trapped in the mistakes and prejudices of the past. Will it be easy? Almost certainly not. The job has never been easy. It won’t be easy now. But few careers offer such a direct opportunity to make the world, or at least a neighborhood, a better, safer place to be.

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From the start, from even before the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody six years ago this month, the issue of police reform has been wrongly cast as a debate for or against the police. For the vast majority of Americans it has never been that. This session, lawmakers produced a major step forward in what this has always been about: restoring trust in a profession hampered by too many unaddressed incidents of misconduct, racial bias and excess force. What’s needed now are officers and prospective officers who heed the call.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.


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