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Former Baltimore police commissioner: Reform policing by creating a federal secretary of police | COMMENTARY

Kevin Davis when he was Baltimore Police Commissioner talking to and others about the homicide of Kendal Fenwick, 24, who lived in 3500 block of Park Heights Avenue.
Kevin Davis when he was Baltimore Police Commissioner talking to and others about the homicide of Kendal Fenwick, 24, who lived in 3500 block of Park Heights Avenue. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Talk about defunding, dismantling and demeaning police must stop. The adults need to enter the room and make real and thoughtful changes.

For the real policing transformation that many are calling for, elevating the oversight of municipal policing to the executive branch of the federal government makes sense given the collective outrage and resolve following the murder of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

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The country needs to look at creating a secretary of police.

Our nation’s current 15 Cabinet secretaries serve as an advisory body to the President of the United States. They include departments like Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Education, Labor and Transportation that speak to the aspects of American life we assign greatest importance. The Department of Homeland Security was established after 9/11, but their focus is necessarily broad and federal.

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Congress could tie big-ticket federal funding allocations to mandatory compliance with new selection, training, policy and education standards established by the secretary of police that apply equally to all the nation’s 18,000 local police departments. These same standards would apply to the New York Police Department as they would the Fargo, North Dakota, Police Department. They would be used to nationally certify and decertify police officers based on successful completion and adherence to training, education, use of force and other standards of conduct.

Like the collection of crime data, use-of-force data collection must be a federal responsibility as well. Define it, measure it, collect it and make necessary training adjustments annually. It is past time to align use-of-force continuum thresholds and similarly equip all police officers with body cameras and less than lethal tools. Make the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF) Integrating Communications, Assessment and Tactics (ICAT) training the national use of force de-escalation model and require its implementation.

Governors can respond to criticisms of biased police-involved shootings and in-custody death investigations by creating an independent investigative state agency. Experienced and credentialed retired detectives not beholden to police chiefs, mayors and county executives would pair with equally autonomous prosecutors not bound to elected district and state’s attorneys. Outcomes would be more just, equitable and transparent. They would need the capacity to immediately respond and assume control of these scenes and investigations to be effective.

Local cities and counties must reexamine collective bargaining agreements with police unions. Discipline provisions now keep pace with deliberations about wages, benefits and working conditions. My father was a cop before police unions existed. Our family of four struggled on his meager salary. He worked seven days on, one day off. I believe in police unions. But as a former police commissioner, I know what it takes to remove bad apples from our profession. If you want to hold police chiefs accountable, remove discipline from collective bargaining.

A paradigm shift is underway. It suddenly seems so 1990s and 2000s to discuss federally mandated consent decrees as the answer to calls for police reform. After all, they apply to police departments that have already failed. What about the rest of them? I served in two police departments that fell under federal consent decree. One was a success story, and the other still a work in progress.

I recall with great clarity my time as Baltimore’s police commissioner and the painstaking negotiations with Civil Rights Division attorneys following a Department of Justice findings report. Decades of unconstitutional policing dominated our deliberations. So much time staring at a rearview mirror, looking back and wondering how it all accumulated over so many years.

A nonpartisan opportunity like this one does not come around often these days.

Now is a time to look forward, to restructure and build. A time to get it right.

Kevin Davis (commishkdavis@gmail.com) was police commissioner of Baltimore from 2015 to 2018.

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