The road to justice and equality in Baltimore does not begin or end with the Baltimore Police Department. The conduct of Baltimore police, however, is front of mind for people who care about Baltimore. Thus, how to improve policing in Baltimore is a logical focus at this time.
The role of any police department should be to protect residents from real threats through the use of policies and practices that honor and preserve the human and civil rights of individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or income. To achieve this mission, police departments must work in tandem with the communities they serve. Too often, however, Baltimore police operate as an entity apart from certain communities. This separation sets up a deadly “us” versus “them” dynamic and makes it easier for officers to treat residents with disrespect, and vice versa.
Here are three actions the Mayor and Commissioner can take immediately to begin to shift the culture that undergirds thinking and practice within the Baltimore Police Department:
First, publicly denounce and operationally exorcise any remnants of Baltimore’s failed zero tolerance policing strategy. This discriminatory policy resulted in the baseless arrests of tens of thousands of Baltimore residents and saddled them with criminal records that are barriers to opportunity. This failed policy also produced a perverse incentive for officers to target, harass and arrest scores of African American men who, ultimately, were never prosecuted for an offense. While these types of arrests have abated somewhat, the damage done is still evident. Taking public steps to move away from this policy and repair the damage done will go a long way to restore communities’ confidence in the police and make it easier for police to work with communities to improve safety.
Second, acknowledge the role of structural racism and implicit bias within the Baltimore Police Department—and do what’s necessary to dismantle it. Contrary to popular belief, the issue is not a handful of “bad apples” who make other officers look bad. Rather, the issue is a set of formal and informal policies and practices, driven by internal beliefs and stereotypes, which lead to a culture that discriminates against certain people and communities. Transforming this culture will require department-wide training and changes in policies and practices designed to prevent discriminatory treatment and improve police-citizen interactions. An OSI-Baltimore grant to the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA allows the Baltimore Police Department to begin this training.
Third, establish and strengthen external institutions to hold police accountable. Officers who don’t feel the threat of real accountability and aggrieved residents who have no place to go for redress make for a combustible situation. We’ve seen the result of this accountability void in living color, and may see more unless officers and residents alike are fully persuaded that there are very real and appropriately severe punishments for officers who abuse their power and authority and thereby fail to protect the residents of Baltimore. Such accountability measures should include an office wholly independent of the police department and fully empowered to investigate and discipline officers who violate the human and civil rights of residents.
Baltimore police will not be able to do their jobs effectively unless and until community residents have confidence that they and their children will not be unfairly targeted and harassed in the name of public safety. Transforming the culture of institutions is hard but doable work. The work begins with acknowledging the depth of change that needs to occur and with committing the time, resources and political capital to do it.