Activist Leaders Say Baltimore County Police Reforms Are A Good Start, But Not Enough

While Baltimore County officials last week announced new police reforms as departments nationwide come under increasing scrutiny, some are skeptical about how effective the local measures will be in improving community and police relations.

Others say racial disparities within the police department need to first be resolved if the measures are to be effective outside the force, and say they should have been consulted before the announcement.

“We welcome any first step the county exec will take in addressing the disparities that exist within the Baltimore County Police Department,” said Tre Murphy, co-founder of Organizing Black, a Baltimore-based political advocacy group. “But these first steps are oftentimes used to pacify folks without any meaningful structural reforms attached to them.”

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. on June 12 was quick to announce the reforms as protests ignited across the country and the Baltimore region after the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The new measures include updating the police department’s use of force policy to require officers to report inappropriate or excessive use of force when they witness it. Those who do not could face penalization, including the possibility of a trial board hearing, a police spokeswoman said.

This is a really difficult time for our society. But when we look across the board at the 18,000 [U.S.] police departments, there are a very small percentage of officers that do things that fall in the category ... of the horrible death of George Floyd.

—  Melissa Hyatt, Baltimore County Police Chief

A public database of complaints and instances of use of force, more implicit bias training, the establishment of a watchdog group focused on racial disparities in policing, and a third-party analysis of hiring practices are also included in the set of reforms.

Olszewski consulted with Police Chief Melissa Hyatt and Troy Williams, the county’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, prior to the June 12 announcement, according to a county spokesman.

But stakeholders like Tony Fugett, president of the East Towson-based Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, and Sgt. Anthony Russell, president of the Blue Guardians, an association that represents minority police officers, said they were not approached about the measures.

“Usually if you’re gonna do something, you get some input from folks” who will be affected, Fugett said. “This seems like a knee-jerk reaction.”

Calling the announcement “an important step forward,” county spokesman Sean Naron said that as reforms are “expanded and implemented,” the county will work with “a diverse group of involved and impacted stakeholders.”

As part of the reform measures, the county signed the symbolic Obama Foundation pledge promising to further review the use of force policy with community input.

But policy change is not a catch-all for better policing practices, said Jacinta Gau, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida and an expert with the D.C.-based Crime and Justice Research Alliance. It has to “go hand in hand with a positive culture,” she said.

“If the culture of the department is one of secrecy, distrust of superiors, distrust of the community, a sense of social isolation of officers themselves, if there are negative aspects of the culture that promote silence among officers when they witness or hear about misconduct by other officers, then you can have all the policy in the world and have no impact,” Gau said. “Culture eats policy for lunch.”

We have to fix the inside of this department before we can even hit the tip of the iceberg for the outside of the department.

—  Sgt. Anthony Russell, president of Blue Guardians

Russell, who for years has voiced concern over hiring practices and the application process for county officers, said the lack of outreach from the county prior to the announcement demonstrates “a lack of respect for our knowledge and experience.”

One accountability measure, for instance, doesn’t go far enough in addressing potentially discriminatory hiring practices, Russell said.

The county intends to hire an independent organization to conduct an analysis of hiring and recruitment practices, including testing and background investigations of applicants.

While the analysis will look at “what we can do to improve” and “how we can implement best practices,” Russell said a robust investigation into the hiring process is needed, including whether or not African-American applicants are intentionally weeded out, if family members of white officers are given preferential treatment in the hiring process, and who may be complicit or providing inadequate oversight of who is hired.

“We have some real issues inside of the department, some real race issues,” Russell said.

The county police department already has been the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit filed in August alleging the test used to screen applicants at the department — a test that has since been discontinued — was unfairly biased against African-American candidates.

And despite the large pool of black applicants, the department still doesn’t reflect the increasingly diverse county constituency, an issue that plagues police departments across the U.S., and one that Hyatt has inherited.

“There’s a reason why the African-American community feels a certain way about Baltimore County police,” Russell said. “When people don’t see people that look like them, then they continue to have that feeling of, ‘Well, I’m not being represented.’”

Across the board, Baltimore area police departments are much whiter than the people they serve ]

Although 30% of the county’s 827,370 residents are black, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections for 2019, black officers account for just 15% of the county’s 1,890-member police force as of February 2020, according to police department statistics.

The numbers are “without question … not as diverse as we want it to be,” Hyatt said. When she was sworn in one year ago, Hyatt said diversity was — and continues to be, she said Monday — one of her main focuses.

“We certainly aspire for our [department] to reflect the community that we serve,” she said. “We want to have people across the community that are able to see themselves in our police department.”

I would give them credit for effort, for becoming aware of these problems and for trying to turn the Titanic. It was decades, generations in the making. And it’s gonna take a long time to fix.

—  Jacinta Gau, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida

Building community trust starts “at the very beginning with the process of selecting the people that are hired,” Gau said.

As part of that initiative, the police department’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer, Kelly Fenner, a retired captain for Maryland Transportation Authority Police, began her work at the department June 15.

Fenner is tasked with implementing a strategic diversity and inclusion plan within the department, creating plans to recruit and retain diverse candidates and developing education and training programs on implicit bias and cultural competency.

Hyatt has initiated conversations about race relations among officers within the department, “and that is needed,” Russell said. “We have to fix the inside of this department before we can even hit the tip of the iceberg for the outside of the department.”

The most important thing, Hyatt said, is that “we’re bringing a lot of people to the table ... when we’re having these conversations about changes and improvements — everyone from police officers that are out there doing the job, to our unions, to legislators, to advocacy groups.”

Calling Floyd’s killing “inexcusable” and “a stain on our profession,” David Rose, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Police Lodge #4, said the union is “ready to assist and engage in those conversations.”

In the Wilkens police precinct that covers western Baltimore County south of Baltimore National Pike, including many predominantly African-American neighborhoods, relationships between precinct officers and residents are broadly “pretty good,” and supportive, said Otis Collins, president of the Wilkens Police and Community Relations Organization.

One of the bigger issues, Collins said, is that the group’s monthly meetings are attended mostly by white residents.

“If you have an opportunity to sit down at the table and say, ‘How can we best resolve this?’ and you don’t show up, that’s like saying you don’t care, in a sense,” Collins said.

Democratic state Sen. Charles Sydnor, whose district encompasses western parts of Baltimore County and Baltimore City, said police community officers in the Wilkens, Pikesville and Woodlawn precincts “do a great job” making themselves available to community associations, but high-profile incidents, like one in January in which a Gwynn Oak woman was tackled by police, are problematic.

Based on various incidents between county police and civilians in recent years, Fugett said he is “not convinced” community relationships are positive. Fugett, who sits on the county’s work group to examine the disproportionate number of black drivers pulled over by county police during traffic stops, expects that he will continue to serve on the committee as it expands into a permanent advisory group focused more broadly on racial disparities in policing, per the set of reforms.

In March, the NAACP and Murphy were among groups in a coalition calling for an independent investigation into the shooting of 48-year-old Eric Sopp, a white man shot and killed during a traffic stop on Interstate 83 after his mother reported he had made suicidal threats.

The county State’s Attorney’s Office declined to press charges against the officer and said his actions were justified.

Police and prosecutors have strong relationships, said Jennifer Cobbina, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice atMichigan State University. “Court reform needs to be a part of this conversation.”

“I think the whole process needs to be looked at,” said Sydnor, who sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The committee chairman has proposed a sweeping set of police reforms.

Sydnor, an attorney who works on community development issues, has in the past said state’s attorney’s offices “need to be examined.”

“Police are just one part of this,” he said.

Sopp’s killing follows what Roland Patterson Jr., an attorney with the county’s NAACP chapter, previously called “a pattern of excessive force” within the department.

The police union pushed back on what its Rose called a false narrative of excessive use of force. Between 2010 and 2019, the police union said, use of force — which it defined as any execution of a physical act to control another person — was reported 2,934 times.

County police shot seven people last year and four people in 2018, according to a department spokeswoman. Six people were shot in 2017, five in 2016 and eight in 2015.

The county has contracted with Fair & Impartial Policing, LLC, to provide implicit bias awareness training for all officers and staff. The police union in a statement said the agency already has been “ahead of the curve” on de-escalation and implicit bias training and training to intervene when officers use excessive force.

Hyatt has brought in David Anderson, former assistant chief for Montgomery County police, as executive director of the department’s training, which she said needs to continue to evolve.

Anderson also has been tasked with bolstering accountability within the department, to “look at everything from our complaints process to our entire investigative process,” Hyatt said.

Gau said training sends a message to officers about the agency’s priorities. If a department is emphasizing firearms training, for instance, over de-escalation or procedural justice training, “then the department is, whether it means to or not, sending a message” that “we don’t really care if you can effectively de-escalate a situation.”

And while the reforms include publishing a dashboard tracking the number and disposition of complaints made against officers, instances of use of force and traffic stop data broken down by race, Murphy said publishing statistics does little to hold officers accountable.

“We are talking about people who are publicly funded with taxpayer dollars,” Murphy said.

That’s where the growing national conversation about defunding the police comes into play, Cobbina said.

Depending on the police to solve social problems such as abandonment, abuse, homelessness, domestic disputes, school disruption and unemployment is a problem, she said.

Reinvesting in job opportunities and education in marginalized communities will allow “them to flourish rather than trying to prevent bad things from happening, she said.

The police department is funded at $268.2 million in 2021, $28.4 million more than in 2020, according to budget documents.

Hyatt said the majority of police officers are dedicated to serving their communities “and without thinking would lay down their life to protect them.”

She added: “This is a really difficult time for our society. But when we look across the board at the 18,000 [U.S.] police departments, there are a very small percentage of officers that do things that fall in the category ... of the horrible death of George Floyd.”

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