It’s not every day that a city of 32,693 on the lower Eastern Shore gets a chance to help set the standards for police reform in this country, but that’s exactly where Salisbury finds itself this week. On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors announced that the Salisbury Police Department was the only small city in the country to be named a recipient of a 2021 Police Reform and Racial Justice Grant. The $75,000 grant, funded by Target, will not only provide better training for officers to de-escalate encounters but is expected to help pay for social workers to accompany certain calls for service, particularly those where someone might be in the midst of a mental health crisis.
The grant is notable for any number of reasons. Police in Salisbury, much like law enforcement in most every community, receive their share of mental health-involved calls. Providing what are often referred to as “crisis counselors” to accompany police has been a controversial solution. At minimum, the goal is to prevent police shootings of individuals in psychological distress. But it’s also not clear whether such an investment represents much more than a temporary bandage on the broader problem of a lack of community-based mental health services. Baltimore has launched its own crisis counselor program earlier this year to forward certain 911 calls to behavioral health specialists. Montgomery County has taken similar action. Those bear watching, too.
But perhaps the more intriguing element of Salisbury’s efforts is that in many other communities on the Eastern Shore or in other rural parts of Maryland, broader efforts toward police reform have been viewed skeptically. Indeed, it would not be difficult to find a lingering “Back the Blue” yard sign or “Thin Blue Line” flag in front of a home in Republican-leaning Wicomico County, which preferred Donald Trump over Joe Biden in the last election. The Eastern Shore’s legislative delegation to Annapolis has been, like most in the GOP, reluctant to favor police reform, particularly measures construed as “defunding” law enforcement.
Yet Salisbury Police don’t really have the option of playing politics with public safety. The city has had to grapple with many of the same issues its urban cousins have dealt with in recent years. Salisbury’s crime rate is relatively high compared to other cities of its size, and about one-quarter of its residents live in poverty, according to U.S. Census figures. And it’s not as if Eastern Shore police departments have been immune from potential examples of police misconduct. The death of 19-year-old Anton Black, who was African American, while in police custody in Greensboro (about 50 miles north of Salisbury) was one of the events that spurred statewide police reforms. More recently, a video recording of a violent arrests of vaping Black teens on boardwalk in Ocean City (about 30 miles east) drew national attention. Approximately 41% of Salisbury residents are African American, and those incidents, as well as those at the national level, such as the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, undoubtedly weigh heavily on their minds.
Police accountability, racial equity, de-escalation, these are not just buzzwords for Central Maryland’s more liberal bastions. The usual suspects at the Fraternal Order of Police or on conservative talk radio will decry the common sense police reforms that the General Assembly this year adopted (twice in the case of “Anton’s Law,” which was named after the late Greensboro teen and increases public access to police misconduct records, as it was one of several reforms vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan). But most in Maryland appear to recognize that “reimagining” police is, in fact, pro-public safety whether it’s in West Baltimore or Salisbury’s Westside. At least to the degree that it leads to better training, fewer incidents of excess force or targeting of people of color, meaningful responses to alleged misconduct and a restoration of public trust in police.
So, kudos to Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, Police Chief Barbara Duncan, members of the Salisbury City Council and others who have pressing for police reform in this county seat for years. Too often, racial justice is seen as a big city issue. Same with police reform and innovation. But as Salisbury is now demonstrating, that’s simply not the case. One can only hope that Governor Hogan and perhaps even the local congressman, Rep. Andy Harris, a devoted Donald Trump supporter, will get behind this crucial effort. After all, what works in Salisbury may be the key to helping a lot of communities, big and small, upgrade their police departments to 21st century standards.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.