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Baltimore must prioritize police reform

Mayor Catherine Pugh named New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael S. Harrison as her nominee. It’s a bold move that could either become a lasting symbol of her decisive leadership or the choice that fatally weakens her administration.

There has been a lot of consternation about Baltimore City’s stubbornly high murder rate and the number of murder cases that go unsolved. Yet city officials have not, with steadfast commitment, supported the change necessary to get different results. And the recruitment of a police commissioner is one more unfortunate example.

Research and common sense tell us that a critical component to solving crimes — and protecting public safety generally — is a trusting relationship between residents and their law enforcement leaders. When this trusting relationship exists, residents are willing, even motivated, to collaborate on new strategies and cooperate with investigations because they see their public safety leaders as allies. And residents who are victims of crime or feel threatened will be more likely to seek assistance and protection from law enforcement officers and not take matters into their own hands. When this trusting relationship is absent, the system designed to keep us all safe breaks down, with deadly consequences. Such is the current state of affairs in many Baltimore communities.

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But we can fix this.

Just as the 2015 Department of Justice investigation into the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) laid bare some of the underlying causes of Baltimore’s public safety problem, the federally-mandated consent decree that followed provides a road map for repairing the relationships crucial to making things better. This road map includes increased civilian oversight and transparency, more training for officers on de-escalation and effective ways to interact with young people and people with mental illness, increased supervision, and better equipment and technology, among other things.

But this road map is more than a list of boxes for the city to check off. Most certainly, focusing intently on the consent decree’s sound implementation is not “out of balance” as Gov. Larry Hogan recently stated. To improve public safety, the city must use the consent decree to rethink the role of police in Baltimore. This means taking specific steps to change the culture of the BPD to embrace oversight and accountability and shift to a guardian mentality that helps residents truly feel protected and valued as partners. This important culture shift must and should begin with the selection of the next BPD commissioner.

We are encouraged to learn that the mayor’s latest choice to lead the BPD, New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, has experience implementing a consent decree and that, in an initial statement, he expressed hope that “citizens’ trust is restored to a new level that enables true collaboration and confidence.” But even if Mr. Harrison is confirmed, the process leading up to his selection was deeply flawed and must be re-designed. To mitigate further damage to residents’ confidence in their political and law enforcement leaders, the city must change course, incorporating meaningful citizen review in the selection of the commissioner.

With the stakes so high, we had hoped that the process for selecting Baltimore’s next police commissioner would involve community members even before a nominee was named — as was done recently in San Diego and as is being done now in neighboring Baltimore County. To date, however, the process in Baltimore City has been inexplicably closed. This closed process is partially to blame for Joel Fitzgerald’s tanked nomination, and it renders statements about embracing city residents as full public safety partners mere rhetoric. Now that another nominee has been announced, we hope the process will, at the very least, include multiple opportunities for community members to meet the nominee, question him and offer feedback to their elected representatives before the City Council decides whether to confirm the appointment.

If we are to improve public safety in Baltimore City — solving and preventing more crimes — the mayor and City Council must make police reform, including the difficult task of changing the department’s dysfunctional culture, a top priority. As set out unequivocally in the Consent Decree, meaningful citizen engagement and improved police-community relations are necessary components of any effort by the BPD to remedy its unconstitutional practices. We cannot continue to return to the tired mentality that sees police as warriors and efforts to build bridges with the community as distractions or impediments to safety. In truth, those bridges are what will keep us safe.

Diana Morris (diana.morris@opensocietyfoundations.org) is director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, and Tara Huffman (tara.huffman@opensocietyfoundations.org) is the director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice program.

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