The federal judge overseeing the Baltimore Police Department’s consent decree urged the agency’s leadership to push harder for progress on several fronts, including producing long-awaited reports about officers’ pedestrian stops and the resulting searches.
The comments came in the first quarterly review of the department’s progress with its consent decree since the abrupt departure of former Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who continues to be credited with ushering the agency through the process at a quicker and more efficient clip, and more than 6 1/2 years after BPD first entered court supervision.
And yet the department remains significantly behind on meeting a variety of targets identified by the judge that would show it has data to back up city leaders’ claims that it is a wholly reformed department, one they emphasize is nearly unrecognizable from the scandal-plagued agency that gained notoriety for police corruption and heavy-handed, sometimes brutal treatment of city residents.
“There are solid reasons to have positive impressions about what’s going on in the department on many fronts,” Judge James K. Bredar told the city’s top attorney, Ebony Thompson, after she championed the progress made in recent years. “But positive impressions aren’t going to carry the day. The defendant has the burden of proof, and we’re rapidly approaching the point now where that’s what this process is going to be mostly about.”
Bredar and attorney Tim Mygatt of the U.S. Department of Justice zeroed in on the lack of comprehensive reports featuring police stop-and-search data. The reporting and data collection methods continue to be tweaked and no data has yet to be released, setting Baltimore behind the timelines of other major metropolitan departments that have been ordered to produce similar reports.
In his comments, Bredar sounded a more critical tone than he has in the past, saying that while the Police Department has taken steps to produce more data on stops and searches, it has encountered “serious problems” that have “frustrated the monitors and the court” because they were “likely avoidable.”
Without hard data on police-citizen interactions, Bredar argued, there is only anecdotal evidence of the department’s progress, and that is not enough to allow it to exit the consent decree.
“You’ve got to prove compliance,” Bredar told Thompson. “This is increasingly a concern of mine. Is the city going to be able to deliver data that is going to permit the findings that are necessary before you can progress to the next stage?”
Thompson and Police Department leadership have contended that the agency is taking steps toward producing the data, but has been beset by technical problems borne out of the outdated state of the department before it entered the consent decree.
To that end, Mygatt recalled how the department was in disarray when the DOJ first began its investigation, with field interview cards from pedestrian stops being kept in bankers’ boxes, to be entered into outdated computer systems by officers on medical leave.
“It was a bigger problem than I have seen in my career in any other agency I have been a part of,” Mygatt said. “That doesn’t mean it’s excusable. We’ve got to fix that problem. We’ve got to jump a few decades forward. I think we’re on the path to do that, but we’ve got to get it done.”
Mygatt said the reports on stop-and-search data will show “whether this system we’ve been building has been working.”
Brooklyn Day shooting exemplifies failures of community policing plans
Bredar, city leaders and the DOJ attorney all spent considerable time discussing the failures of city agencies, particularly the Police Department, evident in the initial details about the Brooklyn Day mass shooting in early July.
The federal judge said that the release of the past-due “after-action report” that has been drafted by the Police Department would be an “very important moment” for the department.
Even the best police departments make mistakes, Bredar said, but “the test of a healthy police department isn’t so much whether mistakes are made, but how they react to their mistakes, and whether they are transparent, whether they are scrupulously honest and fair and even-handed in their self-review and then, of course, in their corrective actions after.”
Acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley — who attended his first quarterly consent decree hearing as the city’s top cop, but has been closely attuned to the process under the mentorship of former commissioner Harrison — said that it has been evident to him from early on that the department could have responded to the event better. To that end, he said, the agency has taken steps already to correct some mistakes.
“Those who didn’t do their job will be held accountable,” Worley said.
The Brooklyn Day shooting was discussed in the context of community policing, a strategy that hinges on frequent and constructive communication between police officers and the neighborhoods they serve.
The lack of a police presence at the event leading up to the shooting, even as tensions erupted frequently, has been frequently cited as a breakdown in police-community relations.
The independent monitoring team recently dinged the department for its lethargic progress on putting community policing plans into action in a comprehensive assessment, saying officers spend too much time responding to calls and not enough time patrolling on foot.
Much of that, Bredar supposed, could be attributed to the “staffing crisis” facing the department, which is more than 500 sworn officers short of its budgeted capacity. For many officers, he said, it is “physically impossible for them to spend 40% of that shift out of their car engaged in positive activity that are not related to calls.”
“But I am also increasingly aware that there are shifts when that’s not what the officers are doing,” Bredar said. “They’ve got to be there because the shift could turn at any moment and become one of those frantic exercises, but many of those shifts when I’ve been riding along, that’s not the situation.”
Bredar, who estimated he has gone on anywhere from 25 to 30 ride-alongs with officers, said, “the question in my mind is how automatic is the instinct in the officers and the sergeants that, when things slow down, to stop, park, and get out and walk foot?”
Judge approves of mayor’s selection for new police commissioner
Bredar was a frequent cheerleader of the perceived stability of the Police Department leadership, attributing that to the progress made in the consent decree, up until the abrupt resignation of Harrison.
Frequent turnover of department leadership had prevented the agency from making much progress before Harrison was brought in, Bredar frequently observed.
But the judge was heartened by Mayor Brandon Scott’s choice of department veteran Worley, describing him as a “full partner in the reform initiative during the Harrison years.”
He recalled that three or four years ago, then-Lt. Col. Worley was asked to present on a topic about the department’s reform efforts, and “it immediately became clear that this police officer, whose roots and experience were all in Baltimore, had not just fully embraced the values and direction mandated by the consent decree, but that hew as a skilled leader in his own right.”
“In short, unlike other transitions in leadership early in the life of the consent decree, my expectation is that this change at the top will not distract or derail the reform process,” he said. “Full speed ahead.”