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Can peer intervention change Baltimore’s police culture? | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison listens to a question from Wesley Hawkins, of The Nolita Project, at a rally at City Hall last month to remember George Floyd and other African Americans killed by police and to demand change.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison listens to a question from Wesley Hawkins, of The Nolita Project, at a rally at City Hall last month to remember George Floyd and other African Americans killed by police and to demand change. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The problems of the Baltimore Police Department are well known. They began well before the fatal injury to Freddie Gray in 2015 and clearly continue through today. The arrest of Sgt. James Lloyd last week, on charges he kidnapped and extorted a contractor who performed unsatisfactory work at his house, is just the latest in a string of disturbing incidents involving a relative handful of city officers allegedly abusing their power and violating citizen rights — whether by fabricating evidence; robbing drug dealers; making vindictive arrests or using excessive force.

The challenges to reforming the department are likewise well documented and include a union resistant to oversight, an officer’s bill of rights that can be misused to shield bad actors, and a toothless Civilian Review Board. But the BPD’s biggest obstacle to overcome can be summed up in one word: culture. It’s the key to reform; fix the culture, and you fix the department.

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It’s at the core of everything wrong with the BPD. And it’s the reason we’re likely to hear about more Sgt. Lloyds (and Jenkinses and Newbergs, you may remember from earlier instances) before long. It takes time to change a culture. In fact, it takes years, which means even at this stage — three years after the city signed a five-year consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve a “pattern and practice” of violating residents’ constitutional rights — Baltimore has only just begun its shift.

To be successful, it’s going to require sustained commitment from department leadership, a clear understanding of the benefits to such change, stated goals that measure modifications in performance, and buy in from everyone involved. That last part will be the toughest to achieve.

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Think about your own character flaws and the ongoing effort it takes to address them; now multiply that by 2,500 sworn officers, and then increase it by a factor of 10, because police culture in general — the beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, traditions and values of a department — is unlike any other, simply because of the nature of the job.

No one but another officer can ever truly understand what police go through day in and day out, the stress of risking their lives, being called on to save others, seeking out the worst humanity has to offer — often while being questioned, yelled at and recorded by bystanders.

Those kinds of shared experiences create deep bonds — the kind that allow partners to trust one another with their safety, but also, for some, to cover up misdeeds through the so-called blue wall of silence.

Three officers supposedly stood by while Sergeant Lloyd threatened to arrest his contractor if the man didn’t refund a patio payment, according to charging documents. They’re actions may not rise to the level of Sergeant Lloyd’s, which grew from a different corruption in the department’s culture that suggests officers are above the law and can do as they please, but they’re just as detrimental to reform efforts. That’s among the many lessons from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May: One officer knelt on his neck, while three more let it happen. All are culpable, and all have been charged criminally.

But what if they had intervened, instead?

What if just one of them had tapped Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin on the shoulder — as George Floyd repeated the words “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times in the nearly 9 minutes it took to take his life — and said, “Hey, let me take over here, you need a break.”

Or, if the charges against Sergeant Floyd are correct, what if one of his colleagues stepped in, acknowledged his frustration and saved him from himself?

“It’s actually displaying the appropriate loyalty” to another officer, by “preventing their colleague from going down the wrong path … rather than covering it up on the back end, which is a very perverted display of loyalty,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said in an interview with The Sun’s editorial board.

As superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, he oversaw the implementation of a peer intervention program several years ago that he’s planning to soon bring to Baltimore — in “a matter of weeks,” he said. It’s called EPIC, which stands for Ethical Policing is Courageous, and is intended to train officers “how to de-escalate each other’s behavior and to intervene before the officer makes a bad decision that could compromise” each of them, Commissioner Harrison said. It can be used among peers and on supervisors.

In New Orleans, once deemed “the most troubled department in America” by the DOJ, EPIC is credited with a 35-point boost in community satisfaction with officer interactions (pre-EPIC, 53% of people said officer dealings were pleasant and courteous; post-EPIC, 87% said so) and a significant drop in citizen complaints against officers. Some even credit the drop in homicide rates in that city, to a 48-year low in 2019, to the renewed trust spurred by EPIC.

While Baltimore has a much bigger force than New Orleans, its issues are similar to those the Big Easy faced when the force there entered into their own consent decree with the DOJ in 2012. Commissioner Harrison is hoping that translates to similar results from EPIC. We certainly need them.

Baltimore’s EPIC curriculum has been drafted, in collaboration with consent decree monitors and the DOJ, and will soon be submitted for public comment, Commissioner Harrison said, and the police union briefed. Then, once the department figures out how to safely move officers through a classroom amid the pandemic, training will begin.

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It won’t be magic. It’s one piece in a multipronged effort to institute a department-wide culture of accountability in Baltimore. Many officers already get it, and they go to work and do good every day. We saw them interacting with residents during the recent protests demanding respect for Black lives in Baltimore and police reform. We see them playing ball with young people through the Police Athletic League. We breathe sighs of relief when they show up after our calls for help and give us directions when we’re lost and treat us civilly when we’ve gone over the speed limit.

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But charges filed against the Lloyds in the police department have a way of overshadowing all that, and they must be stopped. EPIC offers a way to do that among peers, offering the best chance for a real cultural shift. Implementing it swiftly should be among the department’s top priorities, and every city officer should give it their all; it’s for their own good.

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Commissioner Harrison said it took a year or two to see change from EPIC in New Orleans, and we can expect a similar timeline here, which is a bitter, if necessary, pill to swallow. That time surely comes with a price, but we don’t yet know what it is. Another contractor? Or another Gray? Baltimore can’t afford either.

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

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