David Plymyer: Restoring Trust in Baltimore Police Dept. Is Job No. 1

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison testifies before the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing in Annapolis last year. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Baltimore mayoral candidate Mary Miller has said that city officials must stop treating the crime problem in Baltimore as a political hot potato, and must start providing “air cover” for Police Commissioner Michael Harrison while he tries to resuscitate an ailing police department and implement his plan to reduce violent crime.

She’s absolutely right, and let’s be blunt about why her admonition is necessary: There is an epidemic of political cowardice that has prolonged the epidemic of violent crime in the city.

The top priority in Baltimore should be rebuilding public trust and confidence in the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). It is absolutely crucial to restoring the effectiveness of the BPD and gaining citizens’ acceptance of the type of targeted, proactive policing that is needed to reduce murder and other violent crime.
So, why isn’t it the top priority? Why wasn’t it even mentioned by the city delegation in the General Assembly and by Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) in their recent pronouncements on what they believe needs to be done to end the carnage in Baltimore?
In my opinion, political cowardice by city and state elected officials is the primary reason that Baltimore has made limited progress over the past five years in slowing the deterioration of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) and ending the concomitant epidemic of violence. There is posturing and finger-pointing by politicians, most of which is a smokescreen to cover a lack of action. Instead of looking for ways to solve the crisis in the city, they spend their time and energy jockeying to avoid blame for it.
Too many elected officials have made a cynical political calculation that there’s political risk in acknowledging they have a role to play in solving an intractable problem. Once they do, they open themselves to blame if the violence continues. Therefore, they take the position that solving the crime problem is someone else’s responsibility. In Ms. Miller’s words, crime is a political hot potato.
As for the BPD, the old saw that success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan, applies. City officials in particular want as much distance as possible between their own political reputations and the foundering department, lest they go down with the ship.
Provide “air cover” for the commissioner? At present, city officials would just as soon let the commissioner take all the hits. That way, if he goes down, at least they won’t go down with him.
Change can be threatening. Building trust and confidence in the BPD is a process that requires some risk-taking by all stakeholders. Politicians are not exempt.
The high cost of fear and mistrust of the police
Baltimore desperately needs a police department that can reduce violent crime that is destroying the city. Two problems impeding the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) are tightly entangled, and the second problem won’t be solved until the first one is. The first is that too many citizens lack confidence in and even respect for BPD officers. The second is that the BPD is slowly being dismantled by attrition.
Officers are leaving the department in greater numbers than they can be replaced. U.S. District Court Judge James Bredar oversees the federal consent decree mandating extensive changes to the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). Judge Bredar called the situation “dire,” describing the BPD as “bleeding out.” Short 300 sworn and 100 civilian positions it needs, the department ended last year with 31 fewer officers than it had as the year began, despite intensified recruiting and retention efforts.
Recruiting and keeping police officers will remain difficult until the strained relationship between police and citizens improves. If the widely circulated video of a BPD sergeant being kicked by bystanders as he struggled on the ground to arrest a man in West Baltimore is any indication, there is ample room for improvement.
Police recruiters will tell you that the appeal of a position of stature and responsibility serving the public plays an important role in persuading people to enter law enforcement – especially for the most desirable candidates. Their attraction to police work includes the expectation of a certain amount of public appreciation and respect.
With that in mind, ask whether such persons would want to go where they are exposed, not just to personal danger, but also to public disdain. Given a choice, why take a job in a city where may be kicked and spat upon rather than thanked for your service?
Not only does public fear and mistrust of the BPD affect law enforcement by making recruiting and retention more difficult, it discourages cooperation between citizens and officers to solve crime. Research continues to show a correlation between distrust of and disengagement from police and a rise in violent crime. It also shows that building trust restores cooperation between citizens and police.
Judge Bredar said he is “pulling the fire alarm” because of the critical shortage of officers. Perhaps elected officials will respond by working together to rebuild a constructive relationship between Baltimore citizens and their police department. But I have my doubts, for reasons set forth below.
No heroes on the City Council
City councilmembers are notorious for disclaiming responsibility for the fate of the BPD on the basis that it is a state agency not subject to their control. They need to stop making that excuse.
First, they can take important steps that have nothing to do with “control.” How about setting an example? Attitudes on the council seem to range from indifference to outright hostility toward the BPD. One outspoken councilman infamously referred to the BPD on Twitter as “occupying mercenaries.”
Apparently, appearing to be pro-police can be hazardous to a councilmember’s political health. Well, appearing to be anti-police is hazardous to the safety of the city.
I don’t expect councilmembers to be cheerleaders for the BPD, but they must encourage citizens to re-engage with the department. Yet, how can they expect citizens to re-engage with police when the public doesn’t see elected leaders do that?  Councilmembers should take every opportunity to bring their constituents together with police commanders and rank-and-file officers so they can get to know each other and establish trust.
Also, the council has a crucial role to play in persuading police union leaders to declare a ceasefire in their open warfare against Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. The council has far more power over Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police than it cares to admit. I will give you an example.
For years, councilmembers complained about the amount of police overtime paid because of a 4-days-10-hours-each shift schedule required by the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the FOP. The union refused to agree to change to a 5-days-8-hours shift schedule, which the city said would reduce overtime costs.
Councilmembers claimed they were legally helpless to do anything about it, but they were not, and I pointed that out in a series of op-eds.
After the second op-ed appeared, I got an email from the city’s Department of Legislative Reference asking me to review a bill drafted at the request of an unnamed councilmember and “inspired” by the op-ed. The bill would have removed the subject of shift schedules from collective bargaining and left shift schedules entirely up to the police commissioner.
Five days after the bill was drafted and ready for introduction, the union acceded to the city’s demand to change shift schedules. The union president explained that “the alternative to acceptance was dismal” and that union members made the “hard choice to preserve our contractual rights, going forward.”
The draft bill was not introduced. It had served its purpose; the council’s shot over the union’s bow worked. But the story of what the council did to make that happen was not made public. Why? Because, the council is especially leery of getting drawn into the hostilities between the FOP and the mayor and police commissioner. They want to stay out of the fray, even when the police commissioner needs air cover from the police union.
Reining in the FOP
Lately, the FOP leadership has reinforced the stereotype of BPD officers as angry and impulsive, not exactly the way to build trust. The union president’s outbursts, calling for new leadership in the aftermath of the attack on the sergeant, achieved rare unanimity as city officials, including the mayor and state’s attorney, as well as the Baltimore Sun editorial board, condemned his inflammatory statement as unhelpful.
FOP leaders’ statements have detracted from the department’s progress in training officers how to interact more constructively with the community.
And let’s be clear: FOP leaders’ attacks on Commissioner Harrison have little or nothing to do with crime. The FOP’s displeasure with him dates to March 15 of last year when Harrison, three days after being sworn in as commissioner, went to Annapolis to testify against a bill that would have undone the city council’s power to restrict the scope of collective bargaining.
That bill was the union’s move to counter the council’s threat that had forced the union to capitulate and change shift schedules. The union-backed bill also would have removed a significant amount of the commissioner’s authority to allocate personnel resources.
The bill failed, largely because of the new commissioner’s testimony. The FOP leadership was furious at Commissioner Harrison, and the relationship immediately went downhill from there. If you believe that all of the animus the FOP has directed at Commissioner Harrison is because they disagree with his crime plan, then you don’t understand strident public safety unions like Lodge 3 of the FOP well.
Councilmembers need to make it clear to FOP leaders that criticism and disagreement are one thing, but a concerted campaign to discredit the police commissioner in the eyes of the public because he stood up to the union is quite another. And the council must do that while underscoring their support for rank-and-file officers who risk their lives daily on the streets of Baltimore. The council has the tools, but the task requires a lot more courage than the council has shown.
Legislators and the governor watch from the sidelines
Citizens will be more willing to trust the department and its officers when they see real steps taken to justify that trust. There are ways to increase trust that have been avoided for fear of political consequences.
One big source for suspicion of the BPD is the secrecy of its disciplinary process. That secrecy fueled widespread belief that lax discipline allowed corruption to spread throughout the department. Introducing a reasonable amount of transparency into the disciplinary process would be a gesture of good will and a step toward restoring trust.
Both last session and this session I circulated, among members of the General Assembly from Baltimore, the draft of a public local law applicable only to the BPD. The bill would allow public inspection of the discipline record of a BPD officer for cases in which disciplinary action arose from dishonesty, untruthfulness, or brutality in the course of the officer’s duties. This proposal has fallen on deaf ears. Why?
I believe that answer lies with a group of senators and delegates from the city who are especially risk-averse, protective of their seats in the General Assembly. They simply don’t like taking on politically fraught challenges and talk a braver game than they play. Passing even such a modest bill would be a heavy political lift. Undoubtedly the FOP would oppose it, which means that it would not get the support of Governor Larry Hogan. The FOP is the only public employee union that the governor falls all over himself to keep happy.
But how much courage would it take for Governor Hogan to disappoint his FOP friends a bit and back a measure meant to build trust between Baltimore residents and the BPD? He is only too willing to blame lenient judges and State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for the crime in Baltimore, but don’t expect him to risk his standing with the FOP to support this one small measure to restore effective policing in Baltimore.
When in doubt, procrastinate
What about other measures to restore confidence in the BPD? The governor’s office indicated in a letter to me last year that any significant reforms to the BPD must await the report of the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing. Senator Bill Ferguson (D) of Baltimore, now president of the Maryland Senate, was the primary sponsor of the 2018 law that established the commission in the aftermath of the BPD’s gun trace task force scandal.
The law required the commission to issue findings and recommendations by December 31, 2019. Last year,   Ferguson sponsored a bill that extended the deadline for the report to December 31, 2020, which means no changes requiring legislation could be implemented until the middle of 2021.
Well, after all, what’s the hurry? It’s not as if the city is in the middle of some kind of crisis.
Mary Miller’s insights into the problems that beset the BPD and its ability to fight crime are accurate. Whether she or anyone else can inspire city and state elected officials to muster the courage to build the type of relationship between the BPD and city residents that is needed to make the BPD an effective police department remains an open question.
— DAVID PLYMYER
The writer is a former county attorney in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter: @dplymyer