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Must police 'run amok' to preserve justice?

In the wake of the rise in homicides in Baltimore, certain members of Baltimore's police department are promoting a deceptive and dangerous narrative, translating the public's demands for more humane policing as a request for impotent policing. Some believe that attempts to hold officers who caused injury to Baltimore residents accountable is "a disservice to law-abiding citizens" ("Baltimore police officers break silence on riots, murder spike and Freddie Gray," CNN, June 10, 2015). The president of the police union is on record as saying that officers "are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."

The suggestion is that the people of Baltimore have to choose between a police force that inflicts harm and injustice to achieve public safety or a police force that stands down and lets the bad guys run amok. This is a false choice, one that the people of Baltimore should soundly reject and that the Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts should publicly repudiate.

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In asking for accountability, the people of Baltimore are not asking for ineffective policing. Rather, Baltimore is demanding policing that reduces crime and respects the human and civil rights of those who come into contact with the police, regardless of race, ethnicity, social class or neighborhood. To assert that public safety can only be achieved through racial profiling, harassment and brutality of certain populations and neighborhoods is to assert that certain populations and neighborhoods must be sacrificed at the expense of others.

This is not the Baltimore that any of us want. But this is the Baltimore we have, and will continue to have, unless there is a fundamental shift in the philosophy, culture and expectations of officers, the people who oversee them, and the people who look to them for protection. This shift will not come organically. We must remember that power concedes nothing without a demand. If we want change in Baltimore, we have to continue to make the demand, no matter the response.

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Institutional change is incredibly hard. It requires releasing old paradigms and adopting new mindsets, first at the organizational level and then at the individual level. It requires abandoning stereotypes and recognizing prejudices that drive everyday behavior. It requires admitting that the status quo is ineffective, even injurious, and developing a new "normal" that at first feels alien but that produces better results over time.

Achieving this kind of culture shift is not new to Commissioner Batts. During his 27-year tenure with the Long Beach Police Department, he reduced excessive force complaints against Long Beach police while simultaneously reducing the homicide rate. His tenure in Oakland was rockier, and he resigned after only two years, citing disagreements with the city's elected leaders.

Nonetheless, Oakland primed Mr. Batts for what he is facing right now in Baltimore. People are being killed at an accelerated pace. The investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice is likely to result in recommendations that Commissioner Batts and his team will be obligated to operate under some form of monitoring. Elected officials across the city have yet to develop a common understanding with each other and, together, present a united front with the commissioner on how to stop the bleeding. These dynamics are challenging, but they also offer opportunities to make big bets and bold moves that transform Baltimore into a model of community policing that reduces violence while building public trust.

Baltimore is hungry, even desperate, for this kind of change. There is a new generation of activists who will be allies and promoters of any solutions that bring about safety with accountability and equity. There is a robust philanthropic community — one that includes OSI-Baltimore — that is ready to commit needed resources, including access to experts and best practices. And there is a growing appetite for leadership that will confront the critics, leverage the impatience, make informed choices and reject anything other than a police department that serves and protects all Baltimoreans. That is the kind of policing we all need and deserve, and anything less is not an option.

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Tara Huffman is director of OSI-Baltimore's Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program and a Baltimore resident. Her email is tara.huffman@opensocietyfoundations.org.

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