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With Harrison in charge and a consent decree in place, has anything changed in Baltimore? Officer's arrest says maybe so

Sgt. Ethan Newberg, 49, a 24-year Baltimore Police Department officer, is being arrested and charged with second-degree assault, false imprisonment and misconduct. (Phil Davis / Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore’s new police commissioner, Michael Harrison, talks a good game about his successes in cleaning up the force in New Orleans and about his plans for instituting new accountability here. The consent decree Baltimore signed with the federal government after a post-Freddie Gray investigation found a pervasive pattern of unconstitutional policing makes a lot of promises too. This week, we got a good indication that it all might be for real.

Recall this story from five years ago: In June of 2014, Officer Vincent E. Cosom Jr. was caught on video repeatedly punching a man for no discernible reason at a bus stop near the intersection of North and Greenmount avenues. A city surveillance camera operator flagged the incident that night, and both prosecutors and internal affairs officers were aware of it. Yet the officer remained on the force for three months until the lawyer of the man who was assaulted released video of the incident. Mr. Cosom was suspended from the force a day later, but it would be another six weeks before prosecutors charged him with assault and perjury.

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Then consider this one: On May 30 of this year, police say, Sgt. Ethan Newberg was serving a warrant at about 10 p.m. A bystander questioned why Mr. Newberg felt the need to sit the suspect down on the wet sidewalk. Police say the man asked twice but did not raise his voice and then walked away. Police say Sergeant Newberg chased after the man and grabbed him. Another officer tackled the man, handcuffed him and arrested him.

That was a Thursday night. A witness called the police to report the officers’ evident misconduct, but she did not have Sergeant Newberg’s name or other pertinent details. A couple of days later, the department’s body worn camera unit saw the footage as part of its now-routine review of all arrests, and officials there flagged it as a problem. Commissioner Harrison learned of it on Tuesday. Mr. Newberg was supposed to come in on overtime that day (more on that later) but was told to stay home. He was officially suspended as of Wednesday, which was when Mr. Harrison first saw the video, and by Thursday night, he had been arrested and charged with assault, false imprisonment and misconduct.

To recap: In 2014, pre-Freddie Gray, pre-consent decree, and four police commissioners ago, it took just shy of 20 weeks between the time police were aware of an evident act of officer misconduct and his arrest, and even that probably wouldn’t have happened if the victim hadn’t sued and if he hadn’t hired some media-savvy attorneys. In 2019, under the consent decree and Commissioner Harrison, it was almost precisely one week — down to the hour — between misconduct and arrest. And this time we weren’t talking about an officer punching someone; we were talking about an unconstitutional arrest.

“I was recruited and brought here to be that kind of commissioner and to deal with the issues we’re dealing with,” Mr. Harrison said in an interview. “We’re working to rebuild and regain the public trust, and by the way to regain the trust of the men and women of the department who are looking for all our members to perform the right way. … One bad thing makes it harder for all of us.”

There are still some loose end the department needs to clear up. The other officer on the scene — who has not been named but is of lower rank and experience than Mr. Newberg — actually made the arrest and engaged in a discussion with Sergeant Newberg about the ostensible reason for it. What went on the police report was not at all what actually happened, Mr. Harrison said. Will that officer also face discipline or charges? And what of Mr. Newberg’s whopping $248,000 in pay in fiscal 2018, most of it due to overtime? Even putting aside questions about the BPD’s historically lax controls on overtime, as documented in an audit last year and made obvious through the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, shouldn’t so much overtime worked by one officer at least raise red flags for possible burnout?

Nonetheless, we can’t help but see the department’s actions as encouraging. The department now has body cameras to document possible officer misconduct, internal procedures to flag questionable incidents and a commissioner who did not hesitate to do something about it. That should be routine, but compared to where we were, it’s real progress.

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