Say what you will about the recent anonymous survey of Baltimore police officers that got only one out of 10 officers to fill out the form — the effort was revealing, just not in the way its creators had envisioned. That roughly 90% of the city’s 2,800 sworn officers declined to fill out the anonymous form speaks volumes of the level of distrust and suspicion surrounding recent efforts to root out misconduct. Blame it on management, blame it on nationwide concerns about racial discrimination and police brutality, or blame it on how the volatile issue has been made all the more inflamed by a presidential election where there’s a self-described “law and order” candidate in deep denial over racism. But at some point, the buck stops with Baltimore’s men and women in blue: Why do they fear telling us what they know?
Keep in mind, this wasn’t the Spanish Inquisition. This was a survey by the state Commission to Restore Trust in Policing; its anonymous survey asked what should have been construed as straightforward questions about whether officers had ever witnessed misconduct and whether they’d report it if they did. Surely, the low response rate was at least partly due to the police union’s refusal to participate. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3 President Mike Mancuso explained on Twitter Tuesday that members distrusted Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and what he and others in “upper command” would do with the results. “They’ve proven over and over they don’t have our best interests in mind. To be singled out as the reason for their failed survey is just another example of a long line of excuses when PC Harrison fails,” he wrote.
But such a reasoning hardly passes the smell test. An anonymous survey is an anonymous survey. Failing to fill it out doesn’t reflect badly on Commissioner Harrison, it reflects badly on the rank and file. It’s telling, for example, that at least 9% of the officers who filled the survey out had, indeed, witnessed misconduct including the theft of money and drugs, the planting of evidence or the deliberate misrepresentation of overtime. Does that not concern the FOP? It should. Baltimoreans aren’t shocked by this because they read and listen to the news. They’ve heard of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force and its campaign of robbery and extortion. Hasn’t the FOP? Should the union be invested in clearing the names of hardworking, decent officers?
Baltimore residents — you know, the folks who pay the salaries for those thousands of officers, the good and the bad — have ample reason to distrust police. Restoring the city’s relationship with those who protect and serve ought to be the highest priority of everyone who has ever worn the uniform. The lack of trust isn’t some trivial public relations problem, it’s a gaping wound. It’s a major reason why Baltimore’s violent crime numbers are as bad as they are now. And the survey could easily produce numbers that actually buttress the union’s case. It’s notable, for example, that the majority of those relative few who filled it out have low expectations of fair investigation of misconduct and believe officers who have gotten in trouble have been disciplined too harshly. Isn’t that what the union believes? Should it not be seeking to reinforce the legitimacy of that view with a more meaningful survey?
This is getting tiresome. This is hardly the first time that Mr. Mancuso has set himself up not as an ally to honest, hardworking cops on the street but in opposition to Commissioner Harrison and, by extension, the mayor and City Council. It’s one thing to play politics. It’s quite another to stand in the way of something so benign (and potentially helpful to the union’s own cause) as an opinion survey. Or should we just take Mr. Mancuso’s word for what’s happening on the streets of Baltimore instead of the police officers who know what’s going on?
Here’s the reality: When the commission makes its report on the Gun Trace Task Force scandal and its recommendations for reform, Mr. Mancuso will be against them whatever they are. And perhaps, just perhaps, when it’s time to explain why he’s against police reform he will observe the low participation rate in the survey as evidence that the commission’s research was incomplete or ill-informed. Survey sabotage does not constitute police misconduct but it does represent leadership misconduct and union members who refused to participate ought to be embarrassed about the whole debacle.
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.