The court-enforceable agreement between city officials and the U.S. Department of Justice, approved today, stands to drastically reform policing in Baltimore. It will improve daily interactions between citizens and police officers and ultimately help drive down crime as people become less distrustful of cops and begin to view them as partners in the city's crime fight.
The agreement, detailed in a 227-page court document, goes a long way toward addressing many of the concerns around policing in our city that have long been voiced by citizens — the many mothers, brothers, cousins, pastors, lawyers and advocates who have witnessed and been subject to disparities in policing in Baltimore. The grandmother who lives with her teen-aged grandson and is forced to watch helplessly as police ransack their home in search of contraband that does not exist. The deacon who looks on in horror as his nephew is subjected to another unwarranted stop and frisk, simply because of his style of dress and disposition.
A blistering DOJ findings report released this summer outlined many such instances and found, among other injustices, that the Baltimore Police Department "makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression."
My boss, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who has personally experienced unwarranted stops by the police, understood intimately the toll that discriminatory policing can exact on a city. More than two years ago, well before the tragic death of Freddie Gray while in police custody shook our city, Mr. Young called for a full-scale investigation of Baltimore's police department by the U.S. Justice Department. And both he and Mayor Catherine E. Pugh were committed to signing a consent decree to overhaul policing in Baltimore before the next president takes office.
The agreement calls for, in part:
•The establishment of a Community Oversight Task Force to recommend reforms to the current system of civilian oversight.
•The adoption of a policing approach that is community-oriented and based on problem solving principles.
•Focused improvement on officer training that promotes de-escalation techniques.
•Technology upgrades that will more quickly allow the department to identify potential problem officers.
•Limiting police interactions with minors and the identification of gaps in the city's mental health system.
While the agreement offers a blueprint for establishing constitutional policing in Baltimore, it will also likely reduce crime as residents, long burdened by the inappropriate actions of a minority of officers, become less afraid of police and therefore more likely to work with them when it comes to reporting neighborhood crimes.
These actions will have an outsized impact on average citizens in Baltimore, but they will also affect the men and women in blue. Numerous officers have been frustrated by the slow pace of reform and have voiced their concerns. They take seriously their charge to protect and serve and have been dispirited by the actions of some of their colleagues. These are the same officers who enthusiastically welcomed a push by the City Council president to introduce body camera legislation a few years back. We heard directly from a number of officers who viewed a second set of impartial eyes as an opportunity to build trust with citizens.
The signed consent decree with the federal government offers proof that Baltimore is committed to police reform. The way forward won't be easy. The pact with the federal government will be costly for a city that's still struggling to emerge from the Great Recession.
But in the words of John F. Kennedy, the challenge is "one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."
It's in this spirit that Baltimore takes a step toward its next chapter in bringing about meaningful police reform. We are moving forward; our citizens deserve nothing less.
Lester Davis is deputy chief of staff and communications director for the president of the Baltimore City Council. A former newspaper reporter, he has written stories for The Baltimore Sun, Washington Post and Palm Beach Post newspapers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org