Former Baltimore Councilman: Police Reform Won’t Happen Until City Command Staff is Fired
Carl Stokes says the DOJ report highlights deep structural problems inside the BPD that cannot be addressed by the current leadership
SEAN YOES: Hello. My name is Sean Yoes, and I’m a reporter for The Real News Network in Baltimore.
Endeavored to be the mayor of Baltimore twice, a politician many think would have left a radically different legacy in Baltimore if he had won. I’m talking about recently retired Councilman Carl Stokes. Stokes has been a progressive outlier during his two decades of service in City Hall. He’s fought back against big tax breaks for developers, he’s advocated for more funding for city schools and he has sought to pay for it, by cutting back on our citywide addiction to policing as a solution for a variety of social ills.
And it is that topic we will address today, the future of police reform and accountability in a city that appears to be in dire need of both.
Councilman Stokes, thank you for joining us.
CARL STOKES: Ah, great to be with you, Sean. How are you today?
SEAN YOES: Doing all right. Doing all right.
CARL STOKES: Great. Great. Great.
SEAN YOES: Why don’t we start with an update on the Consent Decree connected to the Department of Justice report for Baltimore?
CARL STOKES: Sure. Well, it seems that we’re somewhat stalled, I guess there’s a negotiation going back and forth. In any sort of negotiation of this type, there are a lot of pressure points where the Department of Justice is saying, “You have to do this.” The city is saying, “Yuck. I don’t know if I can do quite all of that.” I think we have to get past all of that. I think we have to agree, for the most part, to accept what the Justice Department has said to us.
They’ve done this very expansive report to us, and now because of that we have to go with the decree that, more or less they say… now I understand the city is saying, “Well, we have to make sure that we can do these things you want us to do.” But the report was very clear, Sean, that these weren’t minor incidents, these weren’t little incidents of foot soldiers acting out of control or acting differently.
SEAN YOES: Well, it said specifically that the department had systematically violated the civil and constitutional rights of the citizens of Baltimore.
CARL STOKES: It absolutely did. And it said that it is Command who is enforcing this. It is Command who is saying to the foot soldiers, “This is the way we’re going to operate, illegally, unconstitutionally, immorally, unethically. This is the way we’re going to operate this police department.” So, if it is Command who’s giving the orders, then actually, we almost are close to the point of Camden, New Jersey, which dismantled it’s entire police department and rebuilt it from the ground up.
Now, they did that. Democratic female mayor said to the Republican male governor, “This isn’t working for my city.” He said, “Okay, what do you want to do?” She said, “I want to dismantle the whole police force. Would you send in the state troopers to stay and work and be police officers here until we rebuild our system?” Is that dramatic? Is that radical? Well, if the culture that we have is so pervasive, and seems to override whatever new commander we bring on board, then maybe that’s the way we have to go.
It seems ingrained, this culture of brutalizing citizens and being, not just all citizens, let’s be clear, black citizens.
SEAN YOES: Well, you brought up the Command staff. What, in your mind, especially in the wake of all the years that you’ve been a public servant, in your mind, how do you begin to affect the authority, if you will, and change the mindset, the culture of the Command staff in the Baltimore Police Department?
CARL STOKES: Well, I think it’s really tough, and I’ve said that you can’t train or retrain a bigot. In other words, you can’t change someone’s mind because you put him in a room for six hours and say, “We’re going to do it differently.” It doesn’t work. You’ve got to hire the people whose mindset is not of that nature, from day one. Day one. So, it seems to me, reading the DOJ report, that we have a number of people who need to be ejected, for lack of a better word, from the police department. We’re not going to change their mindset.
SEAN YOES: Well, to that point, after the DOJ report came out, one of the most critical, most devastating, in really the history of the Department of Justice as far as reporting on a major police department, nobody walked out of police headquarters with boxes.
CARL STOKES: Right.
SEAN YOES: There seemed to be very little, if any, change in wake of what happened. What do you think about that?
CARL STOKES: I don’t think much of it, quite frankly. I think that this is a part of the problem that city hall and the police department are working hand in glove in denying citizens their rights. You know, we had a mayor, some three mayors ago, who insisted that hundreds of thousands of black young males be arrested for no reason other than they were black, young males. No other reason. No other reason.
And so, I think that not firing people is a bad thing. And sends the message of, “We’re hand in glove. We’re not going to fire anybody because, for us, it’s not bad enough. Or, it’s not a different mindset from ourselves.” And so yes, people should lose their jobs. Often people go out on suspension with pay, for obvious things. Or, we allow civil suits to come through that we, the citizens, pay millions of dollars to police officers who have broken the law, who have broken the law.
And this also damages morale, because this is a small percentage of officers who are this way. Except, it’s so pervasive when Command sends it down, and it becomes even more pervasive when that small percentage of officers, not only are not chastised or there aren’t consequences for their actions, they’re actually held up as heroes somewhat, by their actions.
Like, “This is the good ‘ole cowboy way of doing it. This is how we stop crime.” But it doesn’t work at all, at all. All it does is brutalizes some citizens, crime is what it is, and the criminals are in blue, as well as not in blue.
SEAN YOES: You alluded to the fact that you can’t change a bigot, right?
CARL STOKES: Right.
SEAN YOES: My question to you is, if police officers aren’t hired, or people who are candidates to be police officers, are not hired from Baltimore City. Where, from your experience, are the majority coming from? Where are these men and women coming from?
CARL STOKES: Yeah. Most of them are coming from New York, Boston, from the northeast region. Where you have, interestingly enough — in Boston and New York — you cannot be a police officer unless you live in the city, in the jurisdiction in which you want to be a police officer. In Boston, particularly, you have to live in Boston for six months prior to even applying to be a police officer.
So, you don’t even know if you’re going to be selected as a police officer, but you have to move into the city six months before. New York has that rule, Los Angeles has that rule, other cities around the country has that rule, that you must live in the city in which you want to be an officer. So, many of our officers come from the northeast corridor, New York and Boston particularly.
I remember going to one graduation about a year and a half ago, where every member of the class was a New York citizen, every member of the class was a New York citizen. So, these are the officers who flood us, and many of these officers don’t move into the city. Eighty-five percent of our police force right now, do not live in Baltimore City; somewhere around that 85% do not live in Baltimore City. There’s a percentage as high as 15% who don’t even live in the State of Maryland. They live in Pennsylvania, for the most part. But they don’t live in, even in the State of Maryland.
So, they’ve never indoctrinated themselves, and never felt strongly enough about living in the city and among people. If these officers had spouses and children who lived in city neighborhoods, I think they would think much differently about the public safety aspect of the citizens of our city.
SEAN YOES: One more question about the DOJ report. How important in your mind is it, that we have a resolution before the next attorney general. Who is most likely going to be Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, how important is it for us to get it done before that happens?
CARL STOKES: Well, it’s important to get it done immediately. Because two things. I believe, one, the new Department of Justice is not going to work hard to get this done. They’ve already announced from the President-elect, you know, what their feeling is about police brutality and police and community relations.
Not only won’t they work to get it done, I’m also afraid that even if we get the DOJ consent decree signed soon, that there won’t be anybody to enforce that. So, I want to see it signed so that we, the local government, know exactly what we should be doing. And so with or without the federal enforcement — that we do what we sign off on. And I think we should appoint a commission in Baltimore, to make sure that independent of the government that we follow, and enforce what we sign off on.
So, with or without city government, with or without the federal government, there is an independent commission that looks at city government and says, “This is what you agreed to, and this is what you must follow, and that we have public hearings on this.”
SEAN YOES: Sean Yoes reporting for The Real News Network.