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SRB’s Mixed Record on Police Reform

P. Kenneth Burns

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake often talks of her commitment to police reform. She says her background shows she’s "very meaningful" and "intentional" about "getting [it] right."

But her record is a mixed bag of pushing her own ideas for reform and avoiding a definitive stance on a policing strategy that has been roundly criticized for ruining thousands of lives.

Baltimore Del. Jill Carter says Rawlings-Blake’s record is nothing to brag about. She says the mayor was nowhere to be found last year when the city’s General Assembly delegation was working on reforms.

“She was always wrong and misguided in her views on what law enforcement should look like; which is exactly why we’re in the situation that we are,” says Carter.

But Matthew Crenson, a retired Johns Hopkins political science professor, says Rawlings-Blake’s record on police reform is “very hard to define” because she speaks in guarded terms.

“And that’s a particular liability in a mayor.”

Take zero tolerance policing, for example. Rawlings-Blake and Martin O’Malley were members of a city delegation to New York to see the practice in action in 1996 when both were city council members.

She never took a public position on zero-tolerance until she came out against it in 2013 in a clash with Governor O’Malley over how to best deal with a rise in crime.

She avoided taking a position again this week, calling it the prevailing best crime fighting practice at that time.

“Just with anything, hindsight is 20-20 and there were things that were unintended consequences of that policy,” she said.  “I am willing to learn those lessons and because of that it made changes in our crime fighting strategy.”

Zero tolerance has come under fire in recent years for leading to the mass incarceration of young black men for petty crimes.

Councilwoman Rawlings-Blake’s earliest foray into the zero-tolerance controversy came in 2000 in response to complaints that it encouraged racial profiling.  She introduced a bill requiring city police to document traffic stops and develop a strategy to discourage racial profiling.

But she withdrew it after city lawyers told her the council could not tell police what to do.

Anthony Batts took over as police commissioner in 2012 and commissioned a $285,000 consultant’s plan.  Professor Crenson says both Batts and the mayor saw it as an opportunity to change the department.

“It seems as though they were dissatisfied with the way the police department was operating, even though the crime rate – especially violent crime – was coming down; and they wanted something new,” he says.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake also put forth her own plan to implement body cameras after vetoing a council backed proposal.

And she and Batts asked the federal government to do a collaborative review of police department operations in October 2014.  That review was folded into a full scale civil rights investigation after Freddie Gray died in police custody last April.

This year…

The mayor has proposed a couple of reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights for the second year in a row in Annapolis.

But Lawrence Grandpre, assistant research and public policy director for the activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, questions her motives.  He says the mayor just wants more control “to be sure that she and her office could have political cover” to “put cops who have a high profile incident on suspension of fires them.”

The mayor, who says she could be skeptical of her critics, says her push for reform last year was a lonely fight. 

“They could have been here with me fighting for reform,” she says.  “Seems to me they’re the ‘Johnny Come Late-lies’ to this effort.”

Rawlings-Blake is not seeking re-election this year, so it isn’t clear whether she will continue to push for reforms after her term expires in December.