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Judge Urges the Baltimore Police Department To Fix Its Culture

Dominique Maria Bonessi

The federal judge overseeing major reforms of the Baltimore Police Department told officials Tuesday that changes in discipline policies, training and emergency responses are “only half” the issue. The other half is the police department’s culture, he said.

U.S. District Judge James Bredar called attention to Harlem Park, as he did in an earlier hearing. Harlem Park is the neighborhood where Detective Sean Suiter was shot dead almost a year ago.

The Independent Review Board that looked into Suiter’s death ruled it a suicide and released a report that condemned how the department handled the investigation immediately after the shooting.  The report describes how city police locked down several blocks in the neighborhood and kept it that way for six days. Residents were searched without probable cause as they tried to enter their homes, they were patted down without reasonable suspicion, and officers deactivated their body worn cameras.

The report said the department failed in its incident command system, which determines how it handles a dramatic or disturbing incident like the death of an on-duty police officer.

Bredar told members of the Baltimore Police Department, the monitoring team — which is helping the police department with reform efforts — lawyers from the Justice  Department , and the public that the response was “chaotic.”

“It should not be the police department against the city,” Bredar said.

Daniel Beck, the police department’s chief of legal affairs, told the judge that it was a failure of training — that the officers didn’t know what their duties were. He said the command staff will soon have an eight-hour training session and patrol officers will undergo a 20-minute training during roll call. Department training staff will also review manuals and revise the instructions for what to do in an emergency, he said.

But Justice Department lawyers said that amount of training doesn’t seem nearly enough, and Bredar wasn’t convinced that any amount of training would address the root of the problems he saw.

“There’s training, and then there’s culture,” he said. “Training is pulling out the manuals. Culture is when it’s ingrained in the brain. An incident happens and you need to react and you’re nowhere near the manual.”

He said the problems extended beyond the investigation in Harlem Park.

“The full cultural breakdown of the city was on display,” Bredar said.

Bredar is using the Harlem Park lockdown as a “crystal clear example of the way in which the department at the highest levels … was not respecting the people whom they are supposed to serve,” said David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Patrol officers need more than 20 minutes worth of training, he said, but it is appropriate to focus on command staff.

“What happened in Harlem Park was a command failure,” he said. “Much of what we’ve focused on in Baltimore appropriately is misconduct by individual officers, which is a real problem that needs to be addressed, but it is not the only problem, as Harlem Park demonstrates.”

Chuck Ramsey, the principal deputy monitor for the Baltimore Consent Decree, said in a recent interview that the years of unconstitutional policing, which were documented in a report by the Justice Department in 2016, have taken their toll.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t come back from it, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” said the retired Police Commissioner for Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. “Trust is a very fragile thing, particularly in communities that have a history where people aren’t going to just forget the things that may have occurred in the past.”

Meanwhile, the department has been struggling with leadership.

Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle withdrew his application for the permanent position.

Whoever takes the job, Ramsey said, needs to instill a respect for following procedure.

“You get paid to do this stuff and you get paid to do it a particular way. Period.  And you will do it a particular way,” he said, describing what the new leader needs to convey to the staff. ”If not, you need to find employment elsewhere.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh is expected to announce the new police commissioner by the end of the month.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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