On The Watch: What's Baltimore's Fair Policing Plan?

Jun 19, 2015

At the second community comstat, Baltimore officers were approached by local residents in West Baltimore. usually, the Baltimore Police Department hold weekly private comstat meetings where they discuss crime trends and safety issues in the city's police districts.
Credit Mary Rose Madden for wypr

Programming Note: Today, we start a police reform series called, "On The Watch: Fixing The Fractured Relationship Between Baltimore's Police And Its Communities".  The series will run for the next twelve months.  Please email the reporter at mmadden@wypr.org with any comments or suggestions.

Crime in Baltimore is up, but police presence is down, residents say.  Arrests have plummeted, open air drug markets operate freely and since May 1, six homicide victims were under 18.

As police search for leads in those cases, they’ll be relying on the community for help.  But the relationship between the city’s police and its residents is at an impasse, it seems, since the death of 25 year old Freddie Gray. When cops arrive at the scene of a crime they say they’re met with crowds recording their every move with cell phone cameras. Experts say that’s a sign that the community doesn’t trust the police.

In light of all that, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has called for a bold new approach to policing in Baltimore. He says he wants to "engage the community in a profound way."

To accomplish that, he wants his officers to know the residents personally – to figure out what the citizens in their districts need and how to help them.

"We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and sit down with this community and listen to their expectations," he says. "We’re going to have to change and adapt any way we can."

Instead of dealing solely with crime, police ought to focus on thing like truancy, mental illness and drug addiction to try to improve neighborhood health, Batts says.    

Earlier this week, for just the second time ever, he held a "community comstat"  - this one in a playground just a few blocks from Pennsylvania and North Avenues.

In a typical Comstat meeting, commanders and sergeants report crime trends in their districts and talk about specific problems they see.  But in this one, Batts asked his commanders what they’re doing to get closer to the people in their districts. "I want to talk about this neighborhood.  I want to talk about this community since the riots, what you see, what you feel, what the people are telling you."

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts asked his commanders to talk about types of outreach they are doing in their districts. Some talked about private meetings, movie nights, and handing out brochures to citizens looking for help getting a job, expunging their record, or getting their GED.
Credit Mary Rose Madden for wypr

It’s a new approach for Baltimore, but right now it’s not clear whether Batts can successfully lead the department in this community-oriented direction. After officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray were indicted on charges ranging from second degree murder to misconduct in office, police union officials said officers are more worried about being prosecuted for bad arrests than they are about being shot in the line of duty.   Recently, the union launched an investigation into the department’s response to the riots in April. 

University of Baltimore criminologist Dr. Jeffrey Ian Ross says it sounds like the police union and the police chief are in a war.  And that will make it difficult to fulfill the community engagement plan.

"A lot of these are buzz words," he says. "But when these policies and practices have to be implemented on the street, there can be considerable variation and disjuncture between what the definition is and what the actual practice is."

Ross says that can leave rank and file officers in a tough spot – they have to change what they’re doing to adapt to new and sometimes vague policies. At the same time, they have to stay both effective and safe when they’re out on the street.

Morgan State University professor Dr.Lawrence Brown says there’s another big problem with the community-oriented policing strategy:  Most of Baltimore's cops don’t live in the city.

"That presents a problem because when they are commuting to a neighborhood like Sandtown-Winchester – they don’t have relationships," he explains. "They don’t consider those people to be their neighbors."

Nearly three-quarters of the city’s police officers live outside of Baltimore –that’s from a 2012 Abell Foundation report. One in ten doesn’t even live in Maryland.

Brown says this, among other things, creates a barrier to building trust, especially among African Americans. That lack of trust means communities are loathe to give the police the benefit of the doubt as long as they’re seen as outsiders.

He says people don’t think the police can be perfect every day, every minute.  They’d give the police "leeway" when questionable situations arise if they thought the police had their best interests in mind, but justice for police brutality cases has been absent for too long and the "bond of trust" has been broken.

"Everything is suspect," Brown says.  And citizens feel the police use excessive force with no accountability. To change the image of the Baltimore Police, one needs to change many of the fundamentals that have lead to the dysfunction, he says. 

One local resident in Sandtown Winchester said even though he’s repeatedly been handcuffed by police and released with no charges, he still supports the force.  He wants to see them in his neighborhood – in fact, he wants to see more of them walking the streets, playing ball with the kids, "talking to us".

This special series is supported by grants from the Bendit Family Foundation, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, The Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund, and Open Society Institute-Baltimore.