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Baltimore Police interns could help ease recruitment woes, improve community relations as pilot program launches

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As law enforcement agencies across the country struggle to recruit officers and strengthen community trust, the Baltimore Police Department has announced an internship program in partnership with two historically Black universities in Baltimore.

The police department has hired a group of eight students and recent graduates of Coppin State and Morgan State universities for the pilot program., attended a news conference Tuesday at Coppin State.

The internship, which could become a nationwide initiative by next year, focuses on exposing participants to all aspects of police work, including its inherent complexities and ongoing reform efforts. They will spend time with officers in a range of roles, such as street patrol, administration, technology and data analytics, training, budgeting, special investigations and forensics. Each intern will complete a capstone project, including a written and oral report, on a certain function of the department.

“We want to give them a true look inside policing, and maybe they become ambassadors to help us rebuild public trust,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said. “Who better to help regain trust than young people from the communities most likely to be negatively impacted by police — minority communities?”

The department faces significant and pressing challenges, including rampant gun violence, deepening employee shortages and pushback from officers who oppose certain reform efforts.

Some of the changes are mandated under a 2017 consent decree reached following a Justice Department probe that found Baltimore officers routinely engaged in unconstitutional practices, especially during encounters with Black residents. At an April quarterly hearing on the consent decree, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar touted significant progress, while expressing concerns about sluggish hiring numbers.

Harrison hopes the internship program will help address that issue, while showcasing recent steps toward reform.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, is sponsoring the program, which provides a $10,000 stipend to each intern during the 10-week internship.

Executive Director Chuck Wexler — who interned with the Boston Police Department during graduate school — said his organization plans to use the project as a model for a nationwide program. He said such partnerships between law enforcement agencies and historically Black colleges could help define a path for a profession struggling with somewhat of an identity crisis.

“Being a police officer today is not what it used to be,” he said, noting increased pressure and scrutiny facing officers. The threat of a single viral video makes some officers reluctant to engage with members of the public.

But there’s more to policing than such negative encounters, which are often the most highly shared and publicized, Wexler said. Getting young people to understand that is a goal of the program. He said organizers also hope to learn from the interns about how police can better serve their communities.

Of the eight interns who started the program this month, several said they were not previously aware of significant changes underway inside the department.

Kayla Key, a senior at Coppin State majoring in criminal justice, said she became interested in crime scene investigations after a personal experience that exposed her to the impacts of Baltimore gun violence: finding a young man she knew shot to death. She’d planned to spend the summer working at Starbucks until the internship came along.

“You can see for yourself how the department is changing,” she said, explaining how the consent decree mandates certain changes.

Fortune Olayinka, a rising sophomore at Morgan State studying information systems, recently spoke with the department’s chief of information technology about some of the ways technology has become a key component of policing — because “the world is advancing,” he said.

Olayinka, who immigrated from Nigeria in 2014, said his parents were initially skeptical about his internship because of widespread negative perceptions of police in Baltimore. But he said their perspective has shifted since he started sharing some of what he’s learned in the program.

Working in law enforcement was never on his radar, but now, he’s considering a career with the department.

Recent surveys conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum show a staffing decrease among law enforcement agencies nationwide because of difficulty recruiting rookies, in addition to increased retirements and resignations. Although hiring numbers rebounded in 2021 after falling sharply in 2020, overall staffing levels are down, the researchers found. They also found that the largest agencies were suffering the biggest staffing shortages.

During a department budget hearing earlier this month, Harrison said staffing has become a huge issue. When officers are rushing from one call to another with no time in between, they can’t conduct patrols that help deter crime and build community relations, he said.

“A door of opportunity is being opened for you,” Morgan State University President David Wilson told the interns. “Once you enter the room, you are going to see chairs that you haven’t seen before, that you didn’t imagine existed beyond that door. Those chairs are called career opportunities.”

During his remarks, Coppin State University President Anthony Jenkins gave a shout-out to Col. Sheree Briscoe, a Coppin State graduate who is the first African American woman promoted to deputy city police commissioner. She recently gave a commencement speech at the university, challenging the graduating class to help improve the city, he said.

“Be the answer. Be the solution. Be the change agent. Be the difference-maker. Be bold in all that you do,” Jenkins told the interns. “Our city needs it. Our state is dependent on it. You are the future.”