Times of crisis present opportunities for leadership. In 2020, we are facing twin crises: A global pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus, and nationwide demonstrations fueled by generations of unfair treatment of Black men and women by law enforcement. Our nation’s leaders are missing these opportunities. The White House is managing a chaotic and ineffectual response to the pandemic, and the U.S. Senate has failed to act on police reform. In both cases, we see politicians choosing partisanship and political gridlock over meaningful progress.
In Baltimore County, we have chosen a different path. We came together — Democrats and Republicans — to announce the SMART (Strengthening, Modernization, Accountability, Reform and Transparency) Policing Act, which will make policing in our county more accountable, equitable and just.
Since taking office in December 2018, my administration has taken numerous steps to build more inclusive and equitable communities. We hired the county’s first diversity and inclusion officer and created a Community Advisory Council aimed at changing the culture of county government. We established the Workgroup on Equitable Policing, a group I’ve since made permanent, to recommend reforms.
When the senseless murder of George Floyd while being arrested by Minneapolis police led to impassioned protests for justice across the country this summer, we knew we had to do more. In June, we announced unprecedented actions to make long overdue updates to use of force policies; undertake an independent analysis of hiring and recruitment to ensure our department better reflects the diversity of our county; and increase transparency of key data. We continue our work to implement these reforms, including fulfilling our promise to release public data dashboards just last week.
Working with Chief Melissa Hyatt, the Baltimore County Police Department is taking these and other important steps in the right direction. But as I said when we announced those efforts, they were important steps, but only the beginning of where we still needed to go.
I was proud to join six out of the seven members of the County Council — a legislative body ideologically split 4-3 — who came together across party lines to announce the SMART Policing Act, a united next step forward for equal justice. The SMART Policing Act includes critical new policies championed by Councilman Julian E. Jones Jr. earlier this year, like banning chokeholds and prohibiting officers with records of misconduct from other police departments. This bill will also codify into law many of the significant reforms already underway — ensuring that they cannot be undone by future administrations. At a time when many of us feel more divided, and more alone, then ever before, we are doing the unthinkable in Baltimore County: pushing meaningful, bipartisan legislation to improve policing.
How did we do it? We listened to our constituents. As we joined in peaceful protests from Towson to Turner Station to Randallstown and back, we heard from parents concerned about their children. We heard from students scared for their lives. We also heard from police officers who are doing good work and don’t want the actions of a few to tarnish their distinguished profession. We heard from neighbors of all ages, races and creeds asking us to do better, to be better. We also listened to one another. In doing so, we realized that we all share a vision of modern policing practices and stronger community relations. We took the time to get this right, and we kept our eyes on our north star: that the imperative to act was bigger than any one of us.
These conversations are not easy, and it’s easy to be misunderstood. To be very clear, we support the brave men and women who put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe. We hope they see this effort for what it is: an opportunity to make a great department even better and an opportunity to foster more trust with those we all serve.
Collectively, we know this is not the end, but another step along the way toward a more just future. We cannot overcome the 400 years of inequity that started when the first enslaved people landed on our shores with a single piece of legislation. But as leaders, regardless of party, we have a responsibility to act on the changes this moment demands. I’m grateful to my colleagues on the County Council for their solidarity and partnership in doing just that.
With the SMART Policing Act, we will look back and say that we took another important step to make our police department, and our county, better for everyone.
John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. (email@example.com) is the Baltimore County Executive. Twitter: @BaltCoExec.