Baltimore Police Department leaders and the federal judge overseeing efforts to reform the agency met Thursday for a quarterly review of the city’s implementation of its 2016 consent decree.
Baltimore Police entered the agreement following a federal report that found widespread violations of constitutional rights, excessive use of force and racially-biased enforcement.
In his opening remarks, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said the agency has made progress, “particularly in the last three years,” and praised the leadership of Commissioner Michael Harrison.
Here are four takeaways from Thursday’s hearing at the Edward A. Garmatz United States District Courthouse:
‘Stay the course’
Bredar urged city leaders to “stay the course” on transforming the agency’s policing practices and strategies as they wrestle with demands from the public that they do more to address a flare-up of violent crime this summer.
Bredar attributed the department’s recent progress to a stabilization of Baltimore Police Department leadership provided by Harrison, who came to the city after shepherding the New Orleans Police Department through its federal consent decree. City officials in New Orleans recently ended that agreement, citing it as an impediment to recruiting officers in the face of its own violent crime spike — a characterization that Harrison disagrees with.
Like other cities, Baltimore, Bredar said, is suffering from “swinging pendulum syndrome,” where cries for restraint and reformed policing following rampant civil rights violations have been replaced in part with demands for tougher, “more muscular” enforcement as a result of increasing violent crime.
While Bredar said he sympathized with and understood public anxiety about violence in Baltimore, describing it as remaining at an “appalling and unacceptable level,” he emphasized that the federal consent decree doesn’t prevent legitimate law enforcement activity. It merely requires that it conforms to the U.S. Constitution.
In the past, such crime spikes, and the ensuing “agitation” from the public and city leaders, led to aggressive enforcement strategies that worsened community relations with the police, Bredar concluded.
“Baltimore’s prior practice of quickly changing crime strategies in the face of new crises has not served it well,” Bredar said, urging officials to “stay within the guardrails” of the consent decree as they develop new strategies to combat issues such as shootings and confrontations arising out of squeegee work.
Change comes slowly
City officials, DOJ attorneys, the independent monitoring team and Bredar all noted the alignment between the parties in terms of what needs to be done for the future of the Baltimore Police Department.
Bredar cautioned that despite the fact that there “isn’t much daylight” between the parties and their positions, the results of the progress being made might not be seen for several years. The role of the consent decree, he added, “for better or worse,” is to lock the city into a long-term strategy and not allow violent crime spikes to derail the path the Police Department is on.
It’s understandable that the public is concerned about crime statistics, and similarly unsurprising that “the full benefits and effects [of the consent decree] are not being reflected in the statistics. Bredar described a long, and hard-fought effort ahead to win back the trust from the public. That trust, he emphasized, was not eroded overnight, and it would not be rebuilt in just a couple of years.
“Baltimore is down in a deep hole,” Bredar said. “And it takes a long time to get out of that hole.”
A citywide squeegeeing plan may be in sight
Ebony Thompson, deputy city solicitor, told Bredar that the Squeegee Collaborative — a group of city officials, squeegee workers, downtown business leaders and law enforcement — has “put pen to paper” on an enforcement strategy that would “stay within the guardrails” of the federal consent decree.
City officials have largely demurred on outlining the details of such a plan after calls for curbing squeegee work resurfaced following the Timothy Reynolds shooting roughly a month ago, saying that recent Supreme Court precedent has thrown enforcement of anti-panhandling laws into question. Thompson indicated the plan could be unveiled next week at the next meeting of the collaborative, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
The plan, Thompson said, attempts to address root causes of squeegee work and adhere to constitutionality concerns, while also taking in some of the less desirable outcomes of squeegee work, which include theft, assault and destruction of property.
“We are very hopeful for progress in that regard,” Thompson said.
Bredar said he acknowledged that this was a “delicate process” but appeared to push back on insinuations that recent Supreme Court precedent would inhibit enforcement curbing squeegee work, saying that the court decisions are nuanced, and they are influenced by the facts at hand.
“It is true the Supreme Court set some markers,” Bredar said. “A lot of it is protected conduct, but at some point, there becomes (public safety and traffic risks).”
The city law department has yet to review the plan the collaborative developed.
Staffing remains a major challenge
Insufficient staffing at the Baltimore Police Department has become an obstacle to the successful implementation of the consent decree, city officials acknowledged at the hearing.
A filing from the Baltimore Police Department ahead of the hearing showed that 45 officers left in June and July, while the agency hired 14 officers over that same time frame. Year to date, 156 officers have left and 56 have been hired. Baltimore Police say they have 392 sworn vacancies as of Aug. 11.