Problems in the Baltimore Police Department that have allowed the agency to persistently violate the rights of poor, black residents run deep. They are, according to a federal probe, “rooted in structural failures,” “longstanding,” “systemic” and “widespread.”
Or “cancerous,” according to the lawyer for the family of the man whose fatal injury in police custody last year prompted the federal civil rights investigation.
Wholesale reform of a police department is a massive undertaking. But for an agency that faced a record number of homicides last year and is repairing relations with the community that were fractured after the death of Freddie Gray, 25, the job is even more daunting.
“The very moment you’re trying to press on the accelerator to deal with crime, you’re pressing on the brake to deal with constitutional issues,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which has extensively studied such reforms. “It really is a balancing act.”
Judging by similar federally mandated overhauls of police departments across the country, the work ahead for Baltimore is formidable. The city not only will have to find the money to pay for reforms, but it can also expect to deal with low morale and difficulty hiring and retaining officers for a department that has been branded a failure. Such reform efforts often come late, go over budget and yield mixed results, according to a previous Washington Post investigation of federally ordered police reforms.
In its 14-month probe of Baltimore’s police, the Justice Department uncovered problems, detailed in a report released Wednesday, that pervaded nearly every aspect of the agency. Not only did officers unconstitutionally target and stop African Americans for minor crimes, but they also conducted illegal strip searches, failed to investigate reports of sex crimes and beat people who posed no imminent threat — all while department management ignored or covered up misconduct and allowed a poorly trained, overworked force to operate in antiquated conditions.
Wexler said the challenges in Baltimore may most closely mirror the widespread breakdowns the Los Angeles Police Department faced in the early 2000s, after scandal involving the department’s anti-gang unit led the Justice Department to intervene. What was to have been a five-year process dragged on for 12 years and cost about $300 million.
But if done properly, say police leaders whose departments have successfully undergone federally mandated reforms, the transformations benefit police and communities alike.
Prince George’s County Police Chief Henry P. Stawinski III said that reform under a Justice Department consent decree is one of the largest and most intimidating tasks a police department can undertake. The Maryland county, 40 miles south of Baltimore, was under federal oversight for five years in the 2000s for concerns about the use of excessive force and the number of bites by police dogs.
“We had so much to do in terms of the crime fight, how could we be expected to do something this labor-intensive at the same time?” Stawinski recalled colleagues and other police executives thinking when the Justice Department introduced such police reforms. “It touches everything the department does operationally.”
Under two separate federal agreements, the department retrained its force, started using programs to track problem officers, installed 600 cruiser cameras, and rewrote the county police’s policies and general orders. As a result, Stawinski said, Prince George’s police emerged more efficient and modernized, allowing officers to better fight crime and improve relations with the community.
“At the end of this process, you’re going to be better and safer, and the public will be more trusting,” Stawinski said.
After the Justice Department left Prince George’s, use-of-force complaints to the local NAACP declined from about a dozen each month to one or two. And even some of the department’s biggest critics have noted improvements.
Timothy Maloney is a Maryland civil rights attorney who often represents victims in police-brutality cases, including winning an $11.5 million settlement for the family of a man who was fatally shot by a county police officer. He said that although the Prince George’s department still has flaws, it has improved substantially.
Baltimore, according to Maloney, is in a far worse position than Prince George’s was.
“In Baltimore City, nearly every aspect of the policing system is broken, from the discipline system, to the culture of the command staff, to the relationships with prosecutors to the level of training for officers,” Maloney said. “It’s very difficult to go in and clean up the bowels of an organization.”
As a former commander in Prince George’s County, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is one of the few police executives in the country who have worked for a department before and after Justice Department intervention. Not only can he better navigate the work, but he also can preach the benefits of the efforts, Stawinski said.
“This isn’t something that we’re doing to police officers in Baltimore,” Davis said. “It’s something that we’re doing for police officers of Baltimore.”
But Heather Mac Donald, author of the recently released “The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe,” worries that the Justice Department’s report will do more harm to a community struggling to stem violent crime. Backing away from targeting loitering and general public disorder — which the Justice Department criticized the Baltimore Police Department for doing in a way that discriminated against black residents — goes against what families in high-crime areas often beg for in community meetings.
“A pronouncement by the federal government that your police department is racially biased for trying to go where people are victimized is a real blow to morale,” said Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She said the costs to reform a department take “resources away from more manpower and tactical training that really is a valid upgrade to officers’ skills.”
But targeting black residents who are simply standing outside or on a sidewalk has little to do with public safety, said Samuel Sinyangwe, a co-founder of Campaign Zero, which advocates for police reform nationwide.
“The police have spent a lot of time, energy and resources on these types of low-level, nonserious offenses that hinder their capacity to work with the community to solve serious crime,” Sinyangwe said. “They’re contributing to worsening the problem rather than preventing violence.”
In the aftermath of the report’s release, Gray family attorney Billy Murphy said that elected officials “should expect a withering critical response” if they do not do everything they can to reform city policing and other race-based problems confronting the community.
Gray died in April 2015 after suffering a neck injury while being transported in a police van, and his death sparked protests and rioting. Six officers were charged in the case, and after one mistrial and several acquittals, prosecutors dropped all remaining charges. But Gray’s death prompted calls for change.
The Rev. Glenna Huber, director of a community organization called BUILD Baltimore, said the police department has been trying to mend relations with residents. More officers have appeared in some of the most violent neighborhoods, and the department recently worked with the community to shut down a gas station that was a hub of drug activity.
“Nobody has ever said we don’t want the police to police,” Huber said. “What we want is constitutional policing. We want to be able to feel safe in our neighborhoods.”
If reforms in Baltimore are not carried out correctly, Huber said, the problems that the Justice Department highlighted in Wednesday’s report could persist. But Huber, who serves in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, is optimistic.
“I’m a priest,” Huber said. “We live in hope.”
Kimbriell Kelly contributed to this report.