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Former BPD deputy commissioner: Baltimore police need to embrace change | COMMENTARY

About 50 people associated with the group "Good Kids. Mad City" marched from Waverly Elementary School, pictured, to Charles Village to protest for the defunding of Baltimore Police Department. But recent polls show that most Marylanders don't support the movement.
About 50 people associated with the group "Good Kids. Mad City" marched from Waverly Elementary School, pictured, to Charles Village to protest for the defunding of Baltimore Police Department. But recent polls show that most Marylanders don't support the movement. (Kenneth K. Lam)

A public opinion research poll released earlier this month by the Sarah T. Hughes Politics Center at Goucher College may have shocked some observers, but the data came as no surprise to us. Polling by Pew Research Center from this past summer revealed that despite the anger and civil unrest over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, most Marylanders did not support “defunding the police” or cutting already strained police department budgets. Not by a long shot.

In fact, respondents in both the Goucher College and Pew Research Center studies, were overwhelmingly opposed to defunding — 68% and 73% respectively. Additionally, 79% of those polled by Goucher supported increased funding to police departments to hire more or better trained officers.

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What do these poll results tell us? We think there are at least two important take-aways.

One, “defund the police” is a radical concept that most Marylanders, and most Americans for that matter, simply don’t support. The words might look nice for the TV cameras on big signs at protest marches, but it’s a ridiculous idea. “Defend the police” makes a lot more sense. Cutting police department budgets will mean fewer officers on the street and increased crime rates, outcomes that none of us want to see.

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Similarly, the data from both the Goucher College and Pew Research Center polls show that most Marylanders strongly believe police departments actually need to hire more officers.

Interestingly, when asked if they support reducing the budget for the police department in their community — and shifting the funds to social programs related to mental health, housing, and education — Maryland residents polled by Goucher College were split nearly down the middle, with 54% in support of the reducing and shifting, and 43% opposed.

Secondly, these new polling results make it clear that we need reasonable, safe and common sense police reform. Doing things “the way we’ve always done them” simply doesn’t work anymore. Our world today is different, and we as law enforcement professionals must adapt accordingly. We must identify ways to swim with the current, not against it.

To that end, we wholeheartedly support improving the dialogue between police departments and the communities they serve. We need to find new and better ways to talk with each other, not at each other. It’s the only path forward to improve or create trust that is so sorely lacking today.

We know what good policing looks like. It requires top-notch training and the use of best practices, such as knowing how to successfully de-escalate a confrontation so that it doesn’t turn to violence, or the tragic and preventable death of an innocent bystander or fellow officer. Good policing also requires listening, patience, empathy and mutual respect.

In this hypersensitive, overly-critical environment that we’re living and working in, it’s easy to look at data and opinions and react angrily. We are all bombarded daily with others' opinions on social media, on TV and radio, and in the newspaper.

We might all be better served by listening and learning, rather than by immediately reacting and responding. Maybe someone else has an idea or point of view worth considering. Perhaps trying a different approach isn’t so crazy. Is it possible that something that didn’t work very well five or ten years ago just might be successful today?

In other words, how can this polling data improve the work of police officers? How can it improve relationships between law enforcement and the people it serves? More importantly, are there take-aways that can help to reduce violence and save lives?

Those are the types of questions that we as law enforcement professionals should thoughtfully consider when confronted with public opinions that may differ from our own.

Jason Johnson (jason@leldf.org) is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and a practicing attorney. He served as a deputy commissioner in the Baltimore Police Department from 2016 to 2018.

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