Facing Federal Review, Baltimore Plans to Curb Police Brutality

by | October 9, 2014

By Luke Broadwater and Mark Puente

Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner outlined Tuesday a sweeping plan to reduce police brutality, including the possibility of equipping officers with body cameras, while reiterating that they are committed to restoring public trust in the agency.

"We didn't create these problems, but as leadership in charge today, it's our obligation to do everything that we can to fix the breach between the community and police," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said about the 41-page report outlining their plans. The report was released as the U.S. Department of Justice prepares for a months-long review of brutality allegations.

The report, called "Preventing Harm," says Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts wants to increase staff in the internal affairs division, which handles allegations of misconduct, and study the body camera issue. Batts also wants to negotiate with the police union to get wider authority to quickly punish rogue cops.

Batts and other police leaders have been "reforming the internal discipline process so that bad actors are punished and bad cops are fired," the report says. "The best way to prevent abuse is to train on its use, circumscribe it with rules, and enforce the rules. When bad actors have impunity, the good cops become demoralized and the bad ones are emboldened."

The report cites a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation showing that residents have suffered battered faces and broken bones during arrests. The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits since 2011, The Sun found, and nearly all of the people involved in the incidents leading to those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.

The investigation also showed that some officers have been sued multiple times over allegations of brutality, and that the city did not track those lawsuits in a comprehensive way until this year.

Batts said public trust is vital to keep the city safe and that the department is moving in the right direction. Many agency policies were outdated or needed major changes, he said.

Although many of the recommendations in the report had already been detailed, Batts said the reforms are "a guidepost for where we are headed" under his leadership.

"These are hard-hitting recommendations," he said.

Among the biggest obstacles is a 40-year-old state law that guarantees certain legal protections for officers. For example, all internal discipline goes through a review board. Batts said that if the board finds an officer innocent of misconduct, he has no power to impose punishment.

"If I'm going to turn around an organization, I have to have accountability for all conduct," he said.

Batts said the law prevents him from taking swift action when officers commit egregious misconduct. He noted a recent incident in which a surveillance video showed a Baltimore officer repeatedly striking a man at a bus shelter. The officer has been suspended with pay.

Police leaders cannot suspend an officer without pay until he is charged with a felony. That needs to change, Batts said. The city's contract with the police union calls for back pay if suspended officers are later exonerated.

"It could have been my sons on that bus stop the night of that event where excessive force was used," he said. "It's unacceptable. It will not be tolerated within this organization. We can never let that happen again in our city."

The Fraternal Order of Police declined to comment on the report.

The plan detailed new types of outreach, including a citizen's police academy. Officers will learn de-escalation techniques so they do not take things personally on the street when interacting with the public. And Batts wants more officers equipped with Tasers to avoid the use of lethal force. The city's Board of Estimates is set to approve Wednesday $1.1 million more for Taser purchases.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young recently introduced legislation that would require all Baltimore officers to wear body cameras; the bill is pending in a council committee.

Rawlings-Blake said she is close to announcing a panel of residents who will study the best way to implement a body camera program.

Baltimore attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., who is frequently involved in civil rights issues, said such a task force could slow the use of body cameras. He backs Young's plans to require them immediately.

"There's no argument against it," Murphy said. "It is the most effective tool we have to reduce police brutality. It will change what's going on for both sides. It will be all 'sir' and 'madam.' Both sides will be on their best behavior."

In 2006, Murphy helped persuade a city jury to award $44 million to his client, Albert Mosley, after a 2003 incident in a city jail left him a quadriplegic. City Solicitor George Nilson said the city refused to pay the multimillion-dollar judgment in the case and eventually agreed to a $1 million payout.

Murphy said body cameras could help reduce such payouts. "Any talk that we can't afford it doesn't make sense," he said.

Late last week, Rawlings-Blake and Batts called for a federal review of the Baltimore Police Department.

Kevin Lewis, a Justice Department spokesman, said the federal government has agreed to perform a "collaborative review."

"Police Commissioner Batts reached out to us. They recognize they could use the help," Lewis said, adding that the probe will include "a review of their practices and recommendations for improvement to increase trust within the community and avoid use of excessive force."

He said the review would take six months and is similar to ongoing investigations in Philadelphia, Spokane, Wash., and Ferguson, Mo., where the police shooting of an unarmed teen sparked a national outcry.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, emphasized the importance of the commissioner's having wide authority to discipline officers.

"We expect the union to criticize that, just as they criticized our call for a federal review," Harris said. On Monday, local officials of the Fraternal Order of Police said a federal review is unnecessary and could lead officers to fear they will be second-guessed in policing the streets.

The city's report says Batts wants to develop an "early-warning system" for brutal cops, to overhaul training in the use of force, and get better recording equipment for officers who investigate wrongdoing within the agency.

Other plans call for increasing transparency by looking "for ways to publish more information" on use-of-force incidents and holding nine town hall forums beginning in 2015.

Much of the report focuses on actions already taken by the city to reduce brutality. The report states that Baltimore spends less money on police lawsuits per resident than Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia or Chicago. It says lawsuits against the Baltimore department are at their lowest rate in at least three years, and complaints against city police are down.

In discussing a rift in relations between police and city residents, the report blames "zero-tolerance" police policies instituted by a previous administration, under which as many as one in six Baltimoreans was arrested in a given year. The report does not mention him by name, but the policies were implemented under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, now Maryland's governor.

"I've been very clear that under my watch the days of mass arrests are over," Rawlings-Blake said. "And our focus remains on arresting the most violent repeat offenders responsible for the majority of the crime."

(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun