On the Watch, Part 8: Will New Policies and Alerts at the Baltimore Police Department Bring Changes?

Jun 2, 2016
Originally published on January 5, 2017 6:24 pm

Last week, a Baltimore judge found Officer Edward Nero not guilty of reckless endangerment, among other charges, in the death last year of Freddie Gray.  Nero's attorneys said he wasn't aware of an updated policy that required prisoners to be seat belted when he helped put Gray in a transport van, handcuffed, with shackles, and no seatbelt.

According to the medical examiner, Gray died from injuries suffered in the back of the van.

The day after Nero's verdict came in, leaders at the Baltimore Police Department announced new software they'll start using July 1.  It's designed to guarantee that all officers read department policies and directives - and that they fully understand them. The software (called PowerDMS) goes along with a new COPS manual. COPS stands for "core operating policies".

Jason Johnson is the director of Strategic Development at the Baltimore Police Department.  It's a new department that Police Commissioner Kevin Davis created last October.

"One of the gaps we’ve identified is that police officers really have to know what the agency’s policies are,” Johnson says. “Right now, there’s an issue with officers having ready access to policies."

The software alerts officers to new policies on their smartphones.  Then officers are to read the policies and answer some questions that confirm they understand it. Only at that time do they get to sign off on the policies.  If they miss the email alerts or don’t complete the tests, commanders will be notified and call it to the officer’s attention.

Officers will be getting a lot of alerts telling them about new policies.

The first thing they’ll get on the new software are six directives on "use of force," including tasers, pepper spray and what they call "impact weapons"—batons or clubs.  Johnson says there will also be a new performance review board solely to “conduct a thorough review” anytime an officer uses serious force.

Johnson says they're also updating the department’s Early Intervention System.  Anytime an officer uses force, is the subject of a citizen complaint, gets into an accident – that officer gets a data point.  Supervisors will be able to easily track their officers' data points – they'll get alerts and the data points show up in a computer screenshot.

"A supervisor has the ability to look and can tell which officers need more counseling, more training, can recognize an officer that uses more force than his peers," he says.

These new computer tools are supposed to help commanders stay in touch with what their officers are doing on the streets.  But there’s a lot that happens in an officers’ day to day interactions with citizens that isn’t – and can't be – monitored.

Commissioner Davis has told the rank and file he wants them out on the streets, walking foot patrol – a lot. And he's recently reinstated beats for some cops. He's trying to bridge the divide between cops and the community.

The Past

But Tyrone Syler, a 54-year-old  plumber and steam fitter, says more cops on the streets won't necessarily promote that sense of "community policing." Syler, who has lived in West Baltimore all his life, recounted an encounter with police not long ago, when he was walking out of the corner store after playing the lottery.

"I got my money in one hand and my numbers in the other," he said, and the officer asked to search him.

"I said 'hold up, I'm a working man," Syler recalled.  "I work every day. In the meantime, his partner is searching for something.  I said I hope he’s not trying to find something and put it on me."

He said the cop told him to go home.

Syler said the police make it feel as if being black and living in the inner city is a crime.

"If they see a bunch of black males – say more than four -  they say, 'yo! I’m gonna go around this corner, ya'll still here when I come back, y'all going to jail.'"

This is a common complaint in Baltimore's inner city neighborhoods. Davis acknowledges that officers have, in the past, "chased the numbers."

"Police officers historically have been graded or evaluated on the number of arrests, citations and field contacts," he says. "Productivity has been defined as ‘how many guys have you arrested?'"

He says he wants to change that. Instead of evaluating cops on the number of arrests they make, he says the department should look at the quality of arrests.  What happens when those cases go to court?

"Are (the arrests) resulting in convictions or are the charges being dismissed?"

Davis asks. Officers should be evaluated on how those cases turn out.

Johnson says a human resources team is putting "fresh eyes" on officer evaluations.  He says they are looking to update the evaluations, but didn’t give a timeline.

The Future

Davis says the department has been one dimensional - tracking the numbers of homicides and officer arrests - and that’s it.  But the problems that have arisen in the city need a multi-dimensional approach.

Major Marc Partee sends his first foot patrol class of veteran cops out to "walk foot" with a new mindset; connect to people, use more than the handcuffs or the gun to deal with problems.

"Just open up, let them see we’re human," he tells the class, even the guys they think are "just hanging out on the corners".

Kevin Wheeler, 40, is an activist who supports police reform, but he's skeptical that just walking a beat is enough to overcome years of bias and what he calls a systemic lack of accountability.

"Just because an officer is walking around talking to people doesn’t mean they see them as people," Wheeler says. That's what happened to Freddie Gray.

"They didn’t see him as a person.  They didn't hear him calling out in pain."

And questions remain. With the training, the new policies, the new auditing systems - will all the Baltimore cops see themselves as part of the community they've sworn to protect and serve?

What motivates a 21st century police officer?  Is it a supervisor? A paycheck?  Is it a lawsuit?  Or, is it something else?

This year-long special series is funded by the Bendit Family Foundation, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, The Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Foundation, and the Open Society Institute – Baltimore.