Once again the Baltimore City Police Department is dominating the news cycle for the wrong reasons. Recently the department has had to deal with a young officer being recorded assaulting a citizen along with a sergeant being arrested after being punched by another officer downtown. Then, of course, there is the release of the Independent Review Board’s report into the death of Det. Sean Suiter. The board determined that suicide was the most likely cause of death, which is the polar opposite of the department’s original stance that Detective Suiter was murdered. These incidents are just the latest in what seemed to be continuous blows to the credibility the department has within the community.
All of this is taking place as Baltimore is in the second year of a federal consent decree to reform the Baltimore Police Department and during a spike in violence. It is also important to note that Marylanders are preparing to elect a governor as well. Fate would have it that these incidents happened as the Community Oversight Task Force (COTF) mandated by the federal consent decree released its recommendations on how it believes civilian oversight of the department can be achieved.
With the release of their recommendations, the members of the mayoral appointed COTF have joined an ever-growing list of Baltimore leaders — including the entire Baltimore City Council — calling for oversight of the Baltimore Police Department to be restructured. In recent years, advocates and the Baltimore City Council have unsuccessfully tried to have the Baltimore Police Department’s status as a state agency changed to that of a local agency with increased civilian oversight. Having a locally controlled police department is the case for every other department in Maryland and every large city department across the country.
By now it should be clear to everyone that the current structure of the Baltimore City Police Department is broken beyond repair. Baltimoreans want, deserve and can have a much improved police department. Providing that starts with changing the structure of the department.
Already there have been multiple proposals put on the table of how BPD’s structure should be changed. Local control, a Board of Police Commissioners and creating a Police Accountability Commission (PAC) have all been suggested. Though they vary in details, the common theme in the proposals is the increased civilian oversight and balance of power through the branches of government. In fact, it has been suggested that some members of the Board of Commissioners be elected by the citizens of Baltimore.
This commonality of increased civilian and local oversight throughout the different proposals can only be viewed as frustration with the current departmental structure. Baltimoreans feel as if they are helpless to hold their police department accountable for their misconduct and for keeping their neighborhoods safe. This feeling is compounded when they realize that their city local officials outside of the mayor have limited power over the department.
Baltimoreans — those who are elected, wear a badge or are just a regular steamed-crab-eating residents — are tired of the violence in their city. They are tired of the seemingly never-ending list of scandals, corruption and questionable practices of its police department. If the trust between the citizens and BPD is ever going to be repaired, then we must change the structure now, or be ready to explain the outcome of inaction to Baltimore’s future generation.
So as we inch closer to November’s election, we must challenge all of our elected officials and those seeking office. This challenge is even more important for those in office or seeking office on the state level as the state of Maryland holds the power to change BPD’s structure. Will all of our elected officials commit to working with their counterparts and citizens in making immediate significant structural changes to the Baltimore Police Department?
The piecemeal approach will not work. With just tweaks and appeasing, we are doomed to repeat our failures. We all know that unity has to be the nucleus of building a safer Baltimore, which depends on reforming the police department. All egos, personal feelings and objectives must be set aside to do what is needed to help save our city. Now is the time to act we may never have another chance.
Brandon Scott (Brandon.Scott@baltimorecity.gov]) is a Baltimore City Councilman and chair of the Public Safety Committee. Ray C. Kelly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of the Community Oversight Task Force and CEO of the No Boundaries Coalition.