By Diana Morris
With the number of Baltimore City homicides spiking to 274 so far this year, it is not a second too soon to change our approach to public safety in Baltimore. That’s why it was great news that newly appointed police commissioner Kevin Davis was among 130 national law enforcement leaders who made a joint call this week to reduce skyrocketing incarceration rates. “Too many people are behind bars that don’t belong there,” the group, called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, declared this week before meeting with President Obama at the White House.
Police, like prosecutors, have tremendous discretion, and they should use that discretion to take actions that truly advance public safety. Arrests for drug possession and even for intent to distribute drugs simply clog up the system and do not provide real protection to any of us. For years, people have observed that the “broken window theory,” which supports arrests for minor violations to create an atmosphere of law and order, not only contributes to distrust of police and citizen harassment but, more importantly, does not touch the violent crime that most needs attending. While it is satisfying to see that theory now discredited—a position that the Open Society Institute and our grantees have always held—the real challenge is to ensure that it is not just police leadership, but the rank and file, that recognizes what our priorities must be.
It is easy to see that a new paradigm is finally taking hold to replace the destructive and ineffective War on Drugs approach. As Commissioner Davis has said, legislators have an important responsibility now to amend laws that currently impose harsh sentences on low-level offenders, destroying chances of good employment, family stability and the city’s reputation in the process. But the police can use their discretion to make an immediate difference by adopting policies and practices that truly achieve public safety. There is a call from all directions—from Commissioner Davis, community members, advocates and OSI—for community policing. That is important, but only a first step—a statement of philosophy. What matters is how community policing will be implemented.
Using their discretion, police can choose to replace citizen harassment with respect, to refer people with behavioral health problems to treatment rather than to jail, and to show the community clearly that their first priority is to protect residents from true threats to public safety by focusing on crimes involving violence. Police Commissioner Davis has called for community policing to begin to repair the force’s broken relationships with the community. Moving from the self-image of being a “warrior” to being a “guardian” of community safety will require a concerted effort by the rank and file. And, it will require the resolve and full support of Commissioner Davis, precisely the kind of leadership the city needs to move forward. For our part, the Open Society Institute is willing to support police training that will accelerate this process.
As the press conference with police chiefs from around the country demonstrated, this approach has a groundswell of national support. What matters now is how the Baltimore police put this change into practice. The whole community is watching…and so is the Department of Justice.