Toward Trust

Grassroots recommendations for police reform in Baltimore and beyond.

Grassroots Recommendations For Police Reform In Baltimore And Beyond

Last week, video surfaced of a Baltimore police officer spitting on a suspect who was lying prone on the ground after being arrested. The officer was suspended and is the subject of a criminal investigation into the incident. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the incident “disgusting” while the Interim Police Commissioner said it was “outrageously unacceptable.”

This summer, protests in Baltimore focused national attention on the city and amplified long-standing cries for police reform. The turmoil followed the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in the custody of Baltimore police officers. But for many Baltimore residents, Gray’s death was not an isolated tragedy, it was just the latest grievance against a police department that had long been perceived as overly aggressive, out-of-touch with the community, and able to act with impunity. It brought to a head historic tensions between the city’s citizens and its police force.

Now, the Center for American Progress has teamed up with the Campaign for Justice, Safety, and Jobs—a coalition of Baltimore-based grassroots advocacy groups—to release a set of six recommendations that aim to make the Baltimore Police Department more accountable, transparent, and ultimately more effective at preventing and solving serious crimes. As broad principles, the recommendations can also be adapted for other cities dealing with police-community tensions. Here’s more on the report’s recommendations:

  • Fire police officers who have demonstrated corruption or unnecessary violence. Police in Baltimore are too often able to act with impunity. The commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department should fire officers with a record of corruption and/or unnecessary violent behavior.
  • Remove the “gag order” on victims of police misconduct. The city of Baltimore has paid more than $6 million in settlements to victims of police violence, most of whom are banned from discussing the details of their case with the news media. This “gag order” allows the city to suppress information about cases of police misconduct, and should be ended immediately.
  • Distribute body cameras to all police officers within one year and ensure the footage is publicly available. The report suggests equipping Baltimore’s 2,500 officers with body cameras by 2017, speeding up the city’s current plan to have the cameras by 2017. The public should also have access to footage recorded from these cameras in accordance with the rules of the Maryland Public Information Act.
  • Improve community policing by prioritizing and incentivizing problem solving and community satisfaction. Currently, Baltimore police officers are encouraged, and in some cases rewarded, for conducting street stops and making arrests in poor neighborhoods. This practice focuses officers’ attention away from other serious crimes and creates tension and distrust between Baltimoreans and police. The Baltimore Police Department should stop rewarding officers for the number of arrests they make and the quantity of drugs they seize, and focus instead on rewarding officers for problem solving and increasing public perception of safety.
  • Publish all Baltimore Police Department policies online. In order to honor its promise to be more transparent, the Baltimore PD should follow the lead of cities like Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles and post their policy procedure manuals online.
  • Ensure that every police officer is trained in de-escalation techniques. According to a recent survey of police departments across the United States, on average, officers spend dozens of hours on firearms training but only around eight hours on de-escalation training. Baltimore PD should hire an outside, community-based agency to perform de-escalation trainings as well as refresher trainings that focus on cultural competency and crisis interventional skills with every academy trainee and officers.

In an editorial responding to the report’s six recommendations the Baltimore Sun wrote, “No reforms can ensure that no officer ever winds up on video behaving badly, but they can create an atmosphere in which the community views such incidents as aberrations rather than the norm. The coalition’s proposals would be an important step in that direction.”

BOTTOM LINE: For many, in Baltimore and beyond, the death of Freddie Gray was just one tragic consequence of a police department that had long been out-of-touch with the community. That culture of mistrust is far too common in cities across the United States. And while trust between communities and police won’t come overnight, these six recommendations are a start to bringing about change.

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