The Baltimore Police Department has made “real progress” with reforms in the five years it’s been under a federal consent decree, but continued struggles to recruit and hire new officers could hurt those gains, officials said.
U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar expressed concerns about the department’s ability to hire more officers amid a nationwide shortage. He said he supported hiring more civilians for expanded roles, but emphasized the department must “exercise great care,” and make sure they are properly vetted.
Bredar’s comments came a day after Baltimore Police commissioner Michael Harrison announced the department had fired its new fiscal chief, a civilian, after a review found he had a prior gun charge and he was a person of interest in a homicide case.
“And, especially topical today, has the civilian employee been vetted with the same care and depth applied when screening new officers, so that the Department can be certain that the civilian employee is worthy of the trust needed for anyone performing police duties?” Bredar said at a quarterly hearing on the consent decree Thursday.
Harrison and Mayor Brandon Scott last week discussed plans to hire 35 civilian investigators in the coming year. Civilians positions might be more appealing than traditional sworn officer roles, and hiring can be made more quickly than a sworn officer that requires additional training.
Baltimore has 2,274 sworn officers, which is below the budgeted 2,640.
“In the face of the daunting challenges associated with recruiting more sworn officers, this looks like a smart move. Not every person involved in the investigation of criminal conduct need be a sworn police officer,” Bredar said.
Officials at the hearing largely spoke of the department’s progress in implementing reforms since the consent decree was reached with the U.S. Department of Justice five years ago. The process has faced an uphill battle, including turnover in city and department leadership, the sprawling Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal, and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Much has changed in the last five years,” said Timothy Mygatt, deputy chief in the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section, Civil Rights Division. “Much has changed at the Baltimore Police Department.”
Still, Mygatt cautioned during the hearing that the decree is not meant as a fix-all solution. The decree will not end all misconduct, but it will ensure the department is capable of “self-correcting,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2016 investigation into the police department following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody and subsequent unrest, and the Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal that first surfaced with federal indictments in 2017, provided “a very dim picture” of the Baltimore Police Department, said Kenneth Thompson, head of the court-appointed monitoring team.
The investigation found police routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of unlawful stops, searches and arrests, particularly of Black residents, and used excessive force, but lacked any sufficient internal accountability to address those issues, he said. The internal affairs unit was in disarray, and supervisors were not fully engaged, allowing the Gun Trace Task Force officers to do as they pleased, he said.
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But, Thompson said, Baltimore has made “significant progress” since then. He cited improvements to the internal affairs unit; technology; and training officers on stops, searches and arrests and when to use force.
As evidence of how the department has grown, Harrison cited the peaceful protests in the city following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which led to violence in some other cities. When Officer Keona Holley was fatally shot while on patrol, Harrison said the department worked quickly to track down leads to find and arrest two suspects — rather than locking down an entire neighborhood, as it did in Harlem Park after the death of Detective Sean Suiter in November 2017.
But Harrison also acknowledged that violent crime remains stubbornly high. Homicides have surpassed 300 every year since 2015.
He also cautioned that even with all the reforms, the department cannot guarantee there won’t be any future misconduct, but when incidents do arise, he said the department aims to be transparent and to take proper actions.
Referring to the recent hire of the person of interest in a homicide case, he said, “Once it was brought to our attention, we saw a swift and decisive action taken by terminating that individual.”
Bredar also expressed concerns about the public perception that the department is not progressing, noting an upcoming HBO show based on the Gun Trace Task Force scandal.
He called the media attention “an unfortunate blow” to what the department is working to accomplish. He said the department had hit “rock bottom” but has begun to reform itself and has made progress, but “that doesn’t get you a big TV show on HBO. … I hope the true story of 2022 and beyond breaks through.”