“That accountability ultimately led to reform, and because of that reform, we had a spotlight on the entrenched police corruption in one of the largest police agencies in the country,” Mosby told CNN.
As a result of the case, officers are now mandated to seatbelt those in custody, call a medic when it’s requested, and intervene when fellow officers cross the line, Mosby said. Additionally, all police vans must be equipped with cameras.
Department underwent a ‘total makeover’
Baltimore now has “probably the most robust” use-of-force policy in the country, which emphasizes the “sanctity of life” and de-escalation strategies, Harrison told CNN. The department has also revised policies on stops, searches and arrests, fair and impartial policing, youth engagement, peer intervention, responding to lesser offenses, and behavioral health awareness and crisis intervention.
In 2016, Baltimore was already ahead of many other big city police agencies in assigning body-worn cameras to every sworn member of the department. Officers are using less force and are receiving fewer complaints, a sign that the city is “turning the corner,” Harrison said, but the department still has a “long way to go” in becoming more responsive and respectful to the community.
A national reckoning over policing, however, has prompted many agencies to regard Baltimore as a model, looking at its reform policies as they revise their own, Commissioner Harrison said. This comes as the Justice Department has begun ramping up efforts to hold police accountable for misconduct and constitutional violations.
Even as Baltimore approaches the fifth year of its consent decree, the department is not in compliance with “any component” of the mandated reforms, nor have there been any significant changes at the street level, said Ray Kelly.
Consent decree about ‘constitutional policing’
“We don’t know how long it’s going to take to undo the embedded corruption and racism in the Baltimore Police Department,” Kelly said.
The most recent report by the Independent Monitoring Team indicated that the city is on the right track. The report says that Baltimore’s compliance with the consent decree is “no longer merely aspirational, it is plausible,” with foundational reforms in “policies, training and operations in place.”
“Reform is now moving off the drawing board and into practice and performance,” the report says. The agency’s training academy has been leading a rigorous program of in-person and virtual courses on revised policies that the monitoring team praised as its “greatest accomplishment so far.”
The department has designed and completed training on new policies such as stops, searches, and arrests, behavioral health awareness, peer intervention and misconduct investigations.
“We have the blueprint the country wants for police reform, but police reform is in no way the definition of public safety,” said Ray Kelly. “If you’re investing in the root causes of crime and violence, you diminish the need for so much aggressive policing in communities. This consent decree is not about public safety, it’s about constitutional policing.”
Commissioner Harrison echoed the same sentiment, arguing that government leaders must address issues such as poverty, lack of education and opportunities, and substandard housing that either “pull or push people into a life of crime for survival.”
“What was the most beneficial and caused the most hope for me is having a president that understands we have to start investing in community-based leaders who run a violence intervention and prevention program,” Mayor Scott told CNN.
Gray’s death set precedent for accountability
On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray encountered police officers in a high-crime area that was notorious for drug dealing. Gray, after making eye contact with police, ran. The officers arrested him on a weapons charge after finding a knife in his pocket, according to prosecutors.
Gray was put into the back of a police van without cameras, “handcuffed, shackled by his feet and unrestrained.” He was found unresponsive 40 minutes later upon arriving at the police station, prosecutors said. After slipping into a coma, Gray died one week later from a spinal cord injury. The medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide.
Baltimore recorded 342 homicides that year, a 62% increase over 2014. More than 90% of the victims were Black men. Community-police relations were further strained in 2017 when authorities indicted eight members of an elite plainclothes unit known as the Gun Trace Task Force who were accused of extensive corruption — planting evidence, taking drug dealers’ money and selling seized drugs for their personal profit.
After the case in Gray’s death was closed, then-mayor Rawlings-Blake criticized Mosby for announcing charges too quickly and “bowing to political pressure.” Prosecutors had to rely on “circumstantial evidence” because the van was not equipped with cameras to determine when and how Gray was injured, Mosby told CNN.
Many criminal justice advocates were not surprised by the outcome, while others felt like one of their biggest champions gave up on the fight, Kelly said.
But Mosby’s decision to prosecute the officers “set the precedent to actually indict and arrest officers for their wrongdoing,” Kelly said. “Just creating that conversation that made people feel empowered enough to pursue police accountability was a big deal.”
Even though the officers in the Gray case were not convicted, “every single police officer is now being held accountable for the actions of a few,” Mosby said. Mosby’s office has prosecuted 34 officers since Gray’s death, 27 of whom have been convicted, she said.
Baltimore has had five police commissioners since 2015, including Darryl De Sousa in 2018, who was convicted on federal tax evasion charges and sentenced to 10 months in prison. In 2019, Commissioner Harrison was selected to head the agency given his well-regarded experience leading the New Orleans police department under a consent decree.
“Every agency has an organizational culture and behavior that grows and is cultivated because things are not addressed in the appropriate way,” Harrison said. “I’m here to help create the culture that builds a department that people pay for, deserve and respect.”
During Harrison’s four-year term as New Orleans’ police chief, the department’s relationship with the community and approval rating improved, and the city’s homicide rate was the lowest in decades, according to the city’s former mayor Mitch Landrieu, who selected Harrison for the job in 2014.
“He was the perfect fit to take what was a very difficult task of getting police officers to conform to a new way of doing things and he had enough stature in the community where he was able to bridge that gap,” Landrieu told CNN. “And he was spectacular.”
As chief, Harrison said he “embraced and accepted” New Orleans’ consent decree, which brought him credibility with the community and led to more progress in the department each year.
“We were able to build relationships and we were able to show the community that we can self-police ourselves and provide policing services that are fair and equitable across the city,” he said.
Progress is not resonating with some
Baltimore’s community policing plan, which was approved by the Independent Monitoring Team last year after extensive public feedback, focuses on improving community relations and partnering with leaders to reduce crime. Residents have the chance to work with police to address their needs and build relationships, Commissioner Harrison said.
But the city’s police force faces significant challenges ahead in building trust with the communities it serves and sharing information about reforms being implemented under the consent decree. The progress in changing the department’s culture and practices is not resonating among residents of neighborhoods most affected by violent crime, according to Kelly.
“There wouldn’t be such an outcry for help from the communities if there was so much change,” Long said. “Last month, I had to wrestle a young man down because he tried to shoot someone in the head. There were four officers standing on the corner who walked in the opposite direction.”
Commissioner Harrison said the incident was not brought to his attention. “We’re still changing the culture in the police department to a professional culture where officers respond appropriately, and they can get past their fears or perceptions about what they think will happen to them if they make a mistake,” he said.
Similarly, former two-term mayor and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who as mayor initiated the now much-criticized “zero tolerance policy” for violent offenders, is more critical of the touted progress.
“The implementation of body cameras and the updating of use-of-force policies are positive things, but there are many steps the police department has to take but hasn’t,” he said. O’Malley noted that Baltimore is one of the cities that leads the nation in the number of young Black men who meet violent deaths on its streets.
After the 2015 protests, Briscoe realized the police department couldn’t make fundamental changes on its own. Building relationships with communities, other law enforcement agencies, government leaders, and organizations is critical to help “uplift the strategies that we are working on now,” she said.
Violence as a ‘public health issue’
The city experienced mostly peaceful demonstrations last summer after Floyd was killed, with officers exhibiting a level of restraint and solidarity with protesters. Commissioner Harrison said he was able to keep a strong police presence in communities to combat crime, while other cities shifted resources to respond to moments of unrest and looting.
Community advocates have criticized the budget increase and have raised concerns over consent decree funding, arguing the money could be better spent on youth programs, affordable housing, and mental health services.
Mayor Scott, a Baltimore native who previously served as president of the City Council, assumed office in December 2020, after campaigning on a platform to defund the police. “We are in a unique place under a consent decree that we asked for and have to fund. We fought for police reform,” Scott told CNN.
Scott said he has long advocated for a “reimagining of public safety.”
“We cannot continue to say to the police that they have to do everything,” Scott said. “They’re not mental health clinicians. They’re not substance abuse workers. They’re not child case managers. We have to rethink how we do the system in its entirety.”
While Baltimore is “ahead of the game” in revamping the culture and practices of the police department, said Mayor Scott, “this is not time to celebrate for me. This is time to dig our heels in and do the even tougher work of continuing our reimagining of public safety.”
Meaningful change could take years
It’s a balancing act, said Harrison, in making sure officers are trained on revised policies to meet deadlines required by the consent decree while at the same time keeping a strong police presence on the streets to combat crime.
The agency, however, is already falling short in reaching staffing levels required by the consent decree with 2,398 sworn officers, 387 less than what’s needed, according to a recent independent monitor report. Nationally, departments have been struggling with recruitment and retention as they face an anti-police climate. But in 2020, Baltimore still saw the largest number of hires in 12 years, Deputy Commissioner Briscoe said.
The department has been steering its recruitment efforts toward women and minority residents to better reflect the communities it serves, Briscoe said. As of June, racial and ethnic minority groups make up almost 60% of the department’s workforce and women account for roughly 15%. Around 40% of the city’s officers are Black, according to agency data.
Since 2015, the agency has implemented an examination in the screening process of applicants that includes a psychological assessment, a comprehensive background investigation, and a social sensitivity and cultural competency test.
“A major challenge is getting officers to change the way they think about how we deliver policing services and help them stay proactive and positive,” said Commissioner Harrison.
Under federal oversight, the department is required to conduct assessments and audits of its performance and arrests. This includes tracking when officers act out of policy and detailing how they were disciplined and retrained following the incident, according to Harrison.
At this stage, there are “plenty of things we can read, but nothing we can see yet,” Kelly said. Communities in Baltimore and nationally have been “demanding change for so long,” he said, but they are realizing that meaningful change could take years.