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Reforming a Baltimore police department needs community buy-in and patience | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison walk to the State House in Annapolis on Thursday, May 13, 2021 for a private meeting with Governor Larry Hogan to discuss violence in Baltimore.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison walk to the State House in Annapolis on Thursday, May 13, 2021 for a private meeting with Governor Larry Hogan to discuss violence in Baltimore. (Pamela Wood)

Baltimore Police Chief Michael Harrison has become a sought out expert by his colleagues across the country. Having guided two major cities — New Orleans and now Baltimore — through federal consent decrees meant to clean up the departments, other police chiefs are seeking his advice and knowledge on what to expect if they were to come under their own federal oversight.

Chief Harrison certainly should be able to provide some tips based on his own experiences — about both the challenges and rewards. It’s no easy job regaining the trust of a community jaded by stories and personal experiences of brutality and police misconduct, nor is it easy to recruit new police officers to a police department doing the hard work of trying to change its ways. Mr. Harrison can fill other chiefs in on how he has navigated the complicated terrain of reform and what he may still be continuing to learn.

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But we also want Mr. Harrison to put more of that communication effort in at home in Baltimore. The perception of some is that reform is not working, that it’s too expensive, policing isn’t getting any more just and the homicide problems remain entrenched. He must regularly reach out and explain the process to residents, while also allowing them the opportunity to speak and share their perceptions. Communication early and often will root out misunderstanding before it gets out of hand and help inform Mr. Harrison’s decision making.

We certainly don’t want to see calls to discontinue the consent decree. The Baltimore Police Department has already proven it can’t yet oversee itself, which is why the federal intervention was needed in the first place. Violating people’s constitutional rights had become a routine part of the job for some officers, Department of Justice investigators found, prior to stepping in with oversight. Largely African American and low-income neighborhoods suffered the brunt of the injustices.

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Baltimore’s consent decree monitoring team also needs to create a way for regular check-ins with the community, to give them voice. Right now some residents don’t feel as if they’re being heard. State Sen. Jill Carter told The Sun that she continues to hear complaints about treatment by police, and those concerns should be taken seriously. There’s already evidence that not all police have cleaned up their acts. Remember last summer when Baltimore Sergeant James Lloyd was arrested after allegedly extorting, kidnapping and threatening to arrest a home contractor, whose work he was unhappy with? Even if Mr. Harrison and Mr. Thompson think enough is being done, others don’t. And if that perception wins, they will never get the buy-in of the community, which is needed to get results from the decree.

An equity and inclusion plan outlined by the police department Tuesday has promise for improving general interactions with Baltimore residents. Among the broad goals: keeping police department data on how it interacts with the public and tracking what works and what doesn’t.

“We will strive to improve and maintain effective lines of communication so that we can strengthen our relationships, build new relationships where there are none, and repair the relationships that were broken in the past,” the 18-page plan says, though it lacks in details and specific strategies, and we look forward to seeing what the police department has in store.

Baltimore residents also need to understand that changing the culture of a department that was decades in the making takes time. The four years that the consent decree has existed is not much time in comparison. Sure, the General Assembly passed sweeping police reform in one session, and we applaud lawmakers for that milestone. They acted with urgency and authority. The legislation will overhaul the disciplinary process for officers, add transparency to public affairs files, require police use only “necessary” and “proportional” force, and limit when they can use “no-knock” warrants. As transformative as the changes should be, we bet implementing them will be a more time-consuming process that will likely differ by jurisdiction. As The Sun reported, much of the work on the consent decree so far has been rewriting policies and training officers. The next steps will be to evaluate how well the officers adjust — and to measure if people’s rights are still being violated. The best way to do that, is to have open lines of communication with community members.

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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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