Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s new crime plan isn’t wildly inventive. It doesn’t espouse cutting-edge theories of policing, and in many respects it echoes ideas his predecessors (or their critics) have been talking about for years. But the very obvious nature of some of the prescriptions the report describes — like the idea that in 2019, officers should not have to drive back to the district station to file reports on paper — underscores the reality that in many respects, “the basics” are not something the BPD needs to get back to but rather are a standard to which we still must aspire.
All in all, the two documents Mr. Harrison released Thursday — one dealing with short-term crime fighting and the other with long-term strategies and reforms — give us several reasons for hope and one big cause for worry.
The community is at the center of the plan. Complying with the terms of Baltimore’s federal consent decree are only one part of the efforts Mr. Harrison describes to reduce the barrier between the BPD and the people it serves. The plan sets specific standards for patrol officers to engage with the residents and businesses and enlists local communities in setting their own crime-fighting priorities. One of the plan’s most important ideas is that the department should not have designated neighborhood engagement officers because every officer should be one. That echoes an observation Charlottesville, Va.'s reform-minded police chief Rashall Brackney made during a Maryland Humanities forum on the future of policing this year: We should stop using the term “community-oriented policing” because there should be no other kind.
Accountability is paramount. Historically, the BPD didn’t even keep track of officers who have multiple misconduct settlements and judgments against them. Mr. Harrison’s plan calls for new systems to track allegations against officers and even behavior that may serve as warning signs of problems. He is also importing a program from New Orleans to train officers to speak up when they see troubling behavior by their colleagues or superiors.
It measures the right things. Baltimore was at the forefront of data-driven policing, but the things it measured — arrests, stop-and-frisks, corners cleared — incentivized aggressive tactics that led to the civil rights violations the Department of Justice cataloged in its report three years ago. Mr. Harrison’s plan expands COMSTAT to cover much more. The BPD will be tracking whether arrests lead to convictions, uses of force, community engagement, the frequency and duration of proactive policing tactics, consent decree compliance, complaints against officers and much more.
The plan is adaptable. Mr. Harrison has already implemented some new strategies, like a focus on place-based policing (dedicating extra resources to specific geographic areas that are disproportionately plagued by violent crime), but the plan emphasizes the need to continually evaluate whether they are working to reduce overall violence or merely displacing it, and to adjust accordingly.
It recognizes that enforcement isn’t enough. Mr. Harrison continues his predecessors’ efforts to target “bad guys with guns” (though he doesn’t put it that way), but he recognizes that alone won’t solve the problem. He wants officers to proactively check in on businesses in high crime areas, talk to people at risk of involvement with violence, call 3-1-1 to report unsafe conditions and partner with other agencies to provide social service needs.
And the thing we’re worried about: Can he pull it off? Plenty of Baltimore police commissioners before Mr. Harrison have talked about the need to improve recruitment and retention of officers, to upgrade department technology, to get patrol officers out of their cars, to use civilian staff for tasks that don’t require sworn officers, to work with the state’s attorney’s office to improve the quality of cases, to emphasize de-escalation instead of the use of force, and so on. None of these are new ideas. Can Mr. Harrison actually make them happen where so many other commissioners haven’t?
Here’s our request of the commissioner: Break down the commitments in your plans into measurable action items. What goals can you accomplish this month, this year, next year? These plans present a glossy, full-color image of a better BPD. We want to see the results in black and white.