A number of good ideas have emerged for reforming the Baltimore Police Department. All the new policies, retraining and peer-intervention programs in the world will be for naught, however, until police officers and their bosses know that they will be held accountable for the success of those measures as demonstrated by their conduct on the job.
Accountability requires establishing a disciplinary system capable of getting rid of bad officers quickly. Putting other reforms in place is a monumental waste of time until accountability is restored by an overhaul of the existing, ineffective disciplinary system. It must be the first priority.
Fixing the disciplinary system means substantial changes to state law, including the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR). The LEOBR may work adequately where policing is less demanding than in Baltimore, but it has been the ruination of the city’s department.
The key to the success of any hierarchical organization like a police department is putting one person in charge, giving that person the necessary tools to run the organization, and then holding that person fully accountable for the results. It is a tried-and-true formula that the state abandoned years ago for police departments when it enacted the LEOBR at the behest of police unions.
I believe that at least two changes to the LEOBR are necessary. The first, and most important, is restoring the power of the police commissioner to discipline police officers. That will require officers to answer for their conduct to the commissioner rather than to “hearing boards” consisting of their peers who are not accountable for their decisions.
The second is eliminating the requirement that disciplinary investigations be done by other officers in the department. That will allow the commissioner to use civilians or an outside agency to do investigations.
The Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) must be amended to make disciplinary decisions by the commissioner a matter of public record so that the commissioner can be held personally accountable for departmental discipline. There never will be accountability in any governmental agency, least of all a police department, without transparency.
Finally, end the right of police unions to collectively bargain over how discipline is administered. Discipline in a police department can be a matter of life or death for citizens. The administration of discipline in the department is the responsibility of the police commissioner and elected officials, not police unions or labor arbitrators.
The story of the arrest of Baltimore police sergeant James Lloyd by Jean Marbella and Jonathan Pitts laid bare the core problem with Baltimore’s department — a destructive organizational culture that actively resists change. That culture took root because Baltimore officers too often evade discipline for misconduct.
Put the arrest of Mr. Lloyd in its historical context. In the past five years we have seen riots following the death of Freddie Gray, the damning report of the investigation of the Baltimore Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice, the scandal of the Gun Trace Task Force, and the national protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.
After all that, four Baltimore police officers allegedly saw fit to use their status and powers as police officers to shake down a contractor who Mr. Lloyd claimed owed him a refund. How could any Baltimore officer possibly be that contemptuous of citizens’ desire for changes in police behavior?
If the allegations are true, they are an illustration of how deep the problems within the department are and how fundamental the reform must be. Decades of a lack of accountability bred a culture that thrives on deceit and protects officers from the consequences of their misconduct.
Until accountability exists the culture will not change. And if the culture does not change, behavior will not change.
Officers lie, steal and abuse citizens with impunity. Racism, brutality and corruption are protected by the blue wall of silence. Behind that wall lies a world where a different set of rules apply. The wall will never be torn down until there is a functioning disciplinary process that holds officers responsible for the consequences of their actions and, in some cases, their silence and inaction.
Maryland politicians likely will want to respond to the public demand for police reform by going after low-hanging fruit. Instead, the General Assembly should tackle the difficult task of revising the LEOBR and MPIA first. Until discipline and accountability is restored, any other reform will be ephemeral.
David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state’s attorney for the county. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dplymyer.