On Police Reform, Rhetoric Without Action is Meaningless

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Advocates say efforts to reform the troubled Baltimore Police department are flailing because the city is not implementing real change

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Story Transcript

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham, reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.

A series of meetings have brought up a critical issue: Can one of our country’s most troubled police departments be reformed?

SPEAKER: Number one, the perimeter was held for too long. The threat of an armed and dangerous suspect was dispelled within 36 hours.

TAYA GRAHAM: It was another blow for the reputation of the Baltimore City Police Department, already beset by high rates of violent crime.

SPEAKER: That perimeter was held for an extra three days. And during those three days, people’s freedom to travel was restricted.

TAYA GRAHAM: A scathing assessment from the oversight group tasked with monitoring the consent decree between the Baltimore City Police and the Department of Justice. The decree was intended to ensure reforms were implemented after a Justice Department investigation found that the police department practiced unconstitutional and racist policing. But even under the decree, the monitor found that when Detective Sean Suiter suffered a fatal gunshot wound in a West Baltimore alley, the department used unconstitutional tactics to lock down the Harlem Park neighborhood where the shooting occurred for over a week.

SPEAKER: In addition, by stopping people during the course of, as the perimeter was being held, and taking people’s liberty away even for a few minutes was inappropriate, because they had no reasonable suspicion these people were committing crimes. They weren’t asking these people if they had knowledge about the Suiter shooting. They were simply stopping them in order to protect a crime scene that was a small vacant lot, but they were saying that they needed an area that was six square blocks, really almost an entire residential neighborhood to do it.

TAYA GRAHAM: Their assessment was damning. But their report was not the only recent criticism of Baltimore police that raises questions about reform.

DAVID ROCAH: And until the action matches the rhetoric, rhetoric is utterly and completely meaningless.

TAYA GRAHAM: Inside the federal courthouse, Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the consent decree, also expressed concerns about a culture resistant to oversight.

STEPHEN JANIS: The judge seemed skeptical about the culture inside the department; said, you know, the culture had to change, and he was asking about it. Can you change the culture?

Absolutely. There has to be, and I’ve said it before, there has to be a cultural shift at some point. You know, you talk about cultural change, or turning it around. I don’t believe in turning it around, because to me that sort of implies that you’re going to be, you’re making a 360. You’ll be going back in the same direction.

TAYA GRAHAM: Telling city officials he felt the department had to change from within. But he also emphasized the need to increase civilian oversight of police, including a recent controversy involving the civilian review board, when the city solicitor Andre Davis asked members to sign a nondisclosure agreement. The ACLU says it was an affront to transparency the department has lacked, and a misinterpretation of the law.

Here again we see a disconnect between rhetoric and action. It’s wonderful to hear the city solicitor say that laws need to be changed to increase transparency. We agree. And we have been working for years to change them, unlike the city of Baltimore.

TAYA GRAHAM: But Davis says he’s actually complying with it, and that the board needs real power to succeed.

STEPHEN JANIS: There’s been a lot of criticism of that nondisclosure agreement with the civilian review board. How do you respond to that? Because people are saying it’s kind of cracking down when you should be opening up the process.

ANDRE DAVIS: You know, I don’t know where this agitation came from, but the nondisclosure requirements are in the law. They’re right there in the law. And so there’s some frustration. And I appreciate the frustration. But as I said in court, and as I said to the board the other night, the way they do their work is completely consistent with the requirements of non-disclosure.

TAYA GRAHAM: An unlikely prospect in a legislature that this year added mandatory sentences for gun possession and beat back efforts to add civilians to the internal police disciplinary board.

STEPHEN JANIS: Do you feel like you can make those changes, legislative changes in Annapolis, that the judge was asking you to? I mean, I watched it last year. It was tough. But do you have any, do you have any better sense that maybe this time they’ll allow the civilians, in terms of negotiation?

ANDRE DAVIS: You know, if Speaker Bush president and President Mike miller see the needs that Baltimore City feel so deeply, they’ll make change. They’ll see that change happen.

TAYA GRAHAM: For now, Commissioner Tuggle says he can change the city police.

COMMISSIONER TUGGLE: And ensure that the tone, that philosophical tone that I talked about earlier, has to permeate at all times- not just in good times, but in times of crisis.

TAYA GRAHAM: But many who attended the hearing say the question is how.

DAVID ROCAH: Well, the mayor has said she is committed to implementing civilians on hearing boards. That’s wonderful. But let’s not forget that the so-called final offer that she submitted to the FOP for a new contract did not have civilians on trial boards.

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.