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Now is the worst time to become a police officer. Here’s why I’m doing it anyway. | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison welcomed 32 new officers to the police academy on Monday March 9.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison welcomed 32 new officers to the police academy on Monday March 9. (Jessica Anderson)

When we were packing our things to leave for spring break back in March, the Class of 2020 did not know it would be our last week of in-person classes as undergraduates at The Johns Hopkins University. The administration would send out an email a few days later telling underclassmen not to return to their dorms and informing seniors that we wouldn’t be having an in-person commencement ceremony.

Many of my fellow classmates struggled to find a job or hold onto job offers because of the pandemic, but I was lucky enough to use my suddenly cleared schedule to accept a job offer and begin working at what would soon prove to be one of the most controversial employers in the city: the Baltimore Police Department.

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Last summer, unsatisfied and conflicted by what I felt was an overzealous anti-police rhetoric on campus regarding the creation of an armed Hopkins police force, I decided to learn more about being a police officer by doing a “ride-along.” I showed up at the Northern District police station, put on the bulletproof vest they gave me, and spent the next six hours riding around in a police car with a veteran patrol sergeant responding to a breadth of calls for service.

At the end of the day, I walked away convinced that I had learned more about Baltimore City in those six hours than the three previous years I had studied public health at Hopkins. The next week I submitted the application to join the department and began the six-month process of medical and psychological evaluations, fitness tests and background investigations that ultimately led to a job offer: police officer trainee.

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When I picked up the phone in April to accept the offer early, I knew this year was already going to be an unprecedented time to become a police officer — the training required for police work does not fit neatly with social distancing. I didn’t know that on May 25, the future of policing in America would change forever when a white Minneapolis police officer would murder an unarmed Black man by digging his knee into George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

This video and subsequent videos of other heinous acts by police led myself and many of my fellow academy classmates to stop and ask if this is the career for us. These videos and (sometimes contentious) talks with my friends from Hopkins have caused many a sleepless night of introspection over the last month, asking myself why I’m in the police academy.

Whenever I begin to ask those questions, I go back to the fall of 2019 when I made up my mind that I was needed at the BPD. On October 12th, 2019, a 2-year-old boy was shot over an “act of road rage.” The BPD swiftly charged the suspect in that case, but there were 16 other shootings that particularly violent weekend alone and not enough officers to properly investigate them all then, and the many since then.

Reporting has consistently shown that the Baltimore police department is chronically understaffed, crippling its ability to adequately investigate these and other crimes. A high 911 call volume pushes officers to patrol and forces specialized units such as child crimes, sex crimes, cyber crimes, etc. to operate with only a couple of detectives, leaving many investigations either unsolved or painstakingly slow for victims of crime.

Today amid the calls to defund the police and increasingly intense scrutiny on the actions of individual departments and individuals, it is possibly the worst time to become a police officer. But the staffing crisis has not gone away. When I think about why I am still here, the answer is simple. I am here because the department is better with me in it. I am here because unfortunately there are officers in this country that will kneel on the neck of an unarmed man, and I am confident that I would have the mental fortitude to pull them off. I am convinced that the only way to fix the problems with policing in this country is to be a part of the solution. In Baltimore, that means you can be a part of the greatest comeback story in America.

Taylor Richter (trichte2@jhu.edu) is a recent Baltimore police recruit.

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