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Balto. Co. leads on police reforms

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz took commendable steps this week toward improving police accountability and reducing the chance of unnecessary use of force by officers. Coming on the heels of two fatal encounters between police and residents, Korryn Gaines of Randallstown and Tawon Boyd of Middle River, and a report questioning the department's handling of sexual assault cases, the efforts represent a recognition that Baltimore County is not immune to the distrust between officers and the community that has led to unrest in Baltimore City and elsewhere. The question isn't so much why Baltimore County is doing this but why all of Maryland's other counties aren't.

The most visible part of Mr. Kamenetz's plan is his decision to accelerate the roll-out of body cameras for county police. The officers involved in Gaines' shooting and the confrontation with Boyd were not wearing body cameras, eliminating the possibility of an objective record of the encounters. The officer who fired the fatal shots at Gaines said he did so because she raised a shotgun to firing position while making threats, but her supporters have questioned that account. A body camera could have provided a clearer picture of what happened. Now the entire force will have the devices by next September, a year sooner than previously planned.

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A second reform stems from a Buzzfeed report on sexual assault cases Baltimore County police labeled "unfounded" — meaning they were subject in some cases to only a cursory investigation. (The Sun in 2010 reported on a similar issue in the Baltimore City Police Department.) Though Mr. Kamenetz says he disagrees with some of the report's conclusions, he has established a policy calling for specially trained sex crimes detectives to interview the victims and any suspects in all cases of alleged sexual assault. That's crucial. Because of the trauma and stigma associated with sexual assault, victims are often reluctant to tell their stories and may even recant them. They may not be able to relate the details of their assaults in linear order, or they may behave in ways untrained officers don't expect. Mr. Kamenetz has also ordered reviews of old cases to determine whether any should be considered for further investigation and prosecution, along with an evaluation of the department's procedures by the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Circuit Judge Barbara Howe.

City police also pledged reforms after The Sun's 2010 investigation, but the Department of Justice's civil rights report this summer made clear that they didn't stick. The county's efforts will require an ongoing commitment by the executive, police chief and state's attorney.

Finally, the county will seek to improve its training for officers in handling encounters with people who have mental health issues, recognizing unconscious biases and de-escalating confrontations. Those issues appear to have been factors in both Gaines' and Boyd's deaths.

The Boyd case is still under investigation, but State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger determined that the officer who shot Gaines was legally justified in doing so. But that doesn't mean her death was inevitable. In a previous encounter with officers, Gaines had acted aggressively and erratically, and when police who came to her apartment to serve warrants found themselves in a stand-off, they were quickly warned that she suffered from mental illness. Her case was complicated because she was holding her 5-year-old son during the confrontation, but many legitimate questions remain about whether the situation could have been handled in a way that did not end in her death and his injury. "It really caused me to recognize that we need an outside set of eyes and ears ... to make sure officers are properly trained in these types of scenarios," Mr. Kamenetz said.

In general, the Baltimore County police have not faced the kind of distrust from the community that the Department of Justice so exhaustively chronicled in its investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. But Mr. Kamenetz is right in his belief that the county could be just "one bad decision away" from the kind of protests or even unrest that we have seen across the country in recent years. The same is true not just in big cities or counties. No police department is exempt from the need to reinforce trust between officers and those they protect, and to lessen the likelihood that routine encounters will turn deadly. The sooner other local leaders in Maryland recognize that, the better.

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