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Answering The Call: Modernizing Policing After The Death Of George Floyd

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Baltimore Metropolitan Council
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Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. and Police Chief Melissa Hyatt join The Chesapeake Connect Podcast to discuss police reform in Baltimore County and efforts to improve community-based public safety.

Transcript

Tom Hall: Welcome to the Chesapeake Connect Podcast, I'm Tom Hall. Chesapeake Connect is an annual learning trip that brings together leaders from around Baltimore to explore best practices and programs in a peer region. It's organized by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the council of governments serving Greater Baltimore. The council has organized trips to Cleveland, New Orleans and Nashville in recent years.

Today, for our third episode, we're looking at efforts to modernize and reform policing in the wake of last summer's nationwide protests after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African American victims of police violence. We're joined by Baltimore County Police Chief, Melissa Hyatt, and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. to talk about their visions for policing in our region. County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. has represented Baltimore County on the BMC board since 2018. He attended the 2019 Chesapeake Connect trip to Nashville. Mr. County Executive, welcome back to the pod.

John Olszewski, Jr.: Thanks Tom. Always a pleasure to be with you.

Tom Hall: And Baltimore County Police Chief, Melissa Hyatt, attended the 2018 trip to New Orleans. At that time, she was vice-president for security for Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine. Chief Hyatt, welcome to you as well.

Melissa Hyatt: Thanks for the invitation to be here.

Tom Hall: And Chief, let me begin with you. You have said on other occasions that law enforcement should be a continually evolving profession. So, as you reflect on the protests against police brutality that the country saw last summer, how do you think the profession of policing needs to evolve in this moment and moving forward?

Melissa Hyatt: So, I think that's a great question and look, the profession of policing, like any other profession, can never afford to rest on our laurels. We must be constantly evolving and constantly moving forward. Right now we are very focused as a profession on conversations surrounding police reform, something which is a priority for County Executive Olszewski across his administration, which is transparency. And for us and the Baltimore County Police Department, we are very focused on doing things that will improve public trust. And some of the things that we're doing internally right now, as it pertains to our focus on DEI, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or some of the national best practices and some of the training that we're looking at. These are some of the things that as a profession, we really need to focus on moving forward, and that's really what we're spending a lot of time doing right now.

Tom Hall: And County Executive Olszewski, police reform as a political matter is controversial. I mean, it's not, for many people in your position, a winning issue. Would you say that it has been a priority in your administration?

John Olszewski, Jr.: It absolutely has. And I want to thank the chief for being such a great partner and recognizing that the demonstrations and calls for change that came out after we saw the senseless murder of George Floyd really demanded action. It both presented opportunities for leaders, but it also demanded action. And I have to say, what I'm really proud of is, in Baltimore County, is we're taking a new way forward. We're doing things differently than what we're seeing across this country. This is often divisive and dividing people, but, at a time when people are more divided and more alone than ever, we've been able to come forward and push both meaningful legislation to improve policing as well as executive actions and administrative actions with the chief, but also bipartisan. And that's something very different than what we're seeing across the country, where people are divided but here we brought people together. And we both recognize that there was a need but we also took significant action in this space.

 

Tom Hall: And Chief Hyatt, as the County Executive mentioned, there's great polarization when it comes to police reform. How do you describe what you are trying to accomplish? Both personally as the chief, as well as a department.

So, I realized that a lot of people think that there is some polarization but I really do think that at the end of the day, we all really want the same things. Whether someone's in law enforcement or they're in the greater community, everybody wants to live in a safe community. And for our police officers, they want to work with other police officers that are doing a good job. And they are also very interested in being held accountable, holding their peers accountable. And again, going back to that same thing that I talked about before, public trust, it's something that we take pride in. When we build relationships and when our relationships, for example, for me, one of the things that I always focus on in looking at public trust is, how are we doing with our clearance rates? Are we clearing crimes? Is the community working with us when we're dealing with some of these challenges? And I am really pleased that our clearance rate remains above the national average in a lot of key categories.

Melissa Hyatt: So that's one of the things that I focus on personally, that our department focuses on. Every week, I speak to our inservice training and we talk about really what our priorities are for the police department. And we discuss community engagement every week and community engagement means a lot of different things, but at the end of the day, it's us working very closely with people in the community, making sure that the first interaction that they have with our officers isn't either some contentious interaction or when that person is having that most terrible day of their life and has to call 911. We're trying to build those relationships in advance of that. And we know that for so many reasons, that helps us with recruitment, that helps us with building relationships, and those are the things that we're very focused on.

Tom Hall: And Chief, do you also think that community engagement helps with things as basic as the clearance rate? Have you found that the clearance rate has improved as your efforts towards community engagement have expanded? Is there a direct lineage?

Melissa Hyatt: There is certainly a link to whether it's clearance rates or some other things that we're involved in, that when we have those strong relationships with the community. And again, just because we have strong relationships in some communities doesn't mean that there's not still plenty of work for us to do in those communities and in so many others. Our work is never done in building public trust and strengthening relationships. But it really is a symbol that we're getting assistance from our communities. And the assistance comes in so many different ways. But when we look at those clearance rates, that's something that's very important. And the big picture with that, we did a series prior to the pandemic, which was a community conversation series. And it's about really us in law enforcement and the Baltimore County Police Department not just talking but listening to the community and listening to what their concerns are, working collaboratively with them. We can't just police our way out of every issue that we have or every concern, we have to work together with the community. Public safety is not just about the police department, it's about a lot of other partners.

 

Tom Hall: And County Executive Olszewski, the rhetoric around policing, particularly since last summer, has really become quite heated on both sides of this issues that we have, defunding the police as a catchphrase and as a cause celebre, we have abolishing the police in some quarters, we have the Blue Lives Matter Movement as ancillary to the Black Lives Matter Movement. When it comes to the term public safety, what does that mean to you? Is public safety simply a matter of keeping people safe or is it more than that?

John Olszewski, Jr.: Well, let me first say, I think what I'm proud of and what we did with reform to date and what we'll keep doing is that we listened to our constituents. We've heard from students demanding change, we've heard from police officers who are doing good work and don't want the actions of a few to tarnish what is a distinguished profession. We've heard from neighbors of all races and creeds in this conversation. And for me, as we talk about public safety, it really, I think, demands and asks that we speak to the larger issues about, how do we keep our communities safe? What does safety mean?

Safety is more than law enforcement. And in my estimation, it's about the upstream investments that sustain and grow our communities and prevent crime in the first place. They're the PAL centers and the community centers, they're the investments in early childhood education and schools generally. It's investing in workforce training and economic development opportunities so that people have access to jobs and the resources to provide for their families, it's about health and health disparities. And I think if we think about this more holistically, we'll see the numbers go in the direction that we want. And, I got to say, I'm really grateful that in Baltimore County we have a police chief that sort of understands that intersection of those other investments alongside policing itself as in, it's certainly an important segment and part of the public safety equation but not the only thing. And I think it really has made a difference and will continue to do so for us in Baltimore County and for this region for years to come.

Melissa Hyatt: So I just wanted to add to, one of the things that the County Executive started was public safety walks that we did before the pandemic hit. And when I was just listening to him speak about public safety being really a collaboration, and we had all of the Baltimore County Department heads were out there, I could list a bunch of them. We were all out there together, walking through neighborhoods, talking to community members, business owners, looking at things that we needed to look at collaboratively, maybe vehicles that needed to be towed, code issues, sanitation, so many things. And, it really was wonderful to have everyone together really collaborating on all of these issues, it wasn't just about the police.

Tom Hall: And County Executive Olszewski, when you went on those walking tours, did you find common themes from neighborhood to neighborhood or did you find that different areas of the county had very specific and sometimes different challenges from other areas?

John Olszewski, Jr.: Yeah. It was a little bit of both. I think the thing to remember is that we do have a lot in common regardless of where we come from or our community where we live. So, there were lots of generic issues, but just about code enforcement or public works investments and infrastructure sort of speaking to that interdisciplinary approach that we're taking here in the county. And then also there are different concerns, certain communities in Baltimore County want to really emphasize the relationship with the police department. And again, the chief is really making community oriented policing a priority. But yeah, there are certainly both, I think specific concerns and areas within the community that individuals point out to us but by and large, there also is a lot more that is consistent and that unites our communities and neighborhoods across the county as well.

Tom Hall: And Chief Hyatt, I wonder if he could step back for a bit and just learn a little bit more about your background. How did you get into the profession of policing?

Melissa Hyatt: So, I consider myself very lucky. I grew up in a police household. My father was in the Baltimore City Police Department for over 30 years. And really growing up, I just always had a heart for service. When I was younger, I volunteered in everything from nursing homes, special Olympics, animal shelters, just always wanted to try to make things better. So, this was an ideal fit for me as a profession. And even as I transitioned in and out of law enforcement when I retired from the Baltimore City Police Department a few years ago, I just really missed that sense of service. So, I think it was my calling ever since I was a child.

Tom Hall: And County Executive Olszewski obviously is, as you both discussed, distrust between particularly communities of color and the police is something that many police departments across the country are struggling with. How would you personally assess that challenge in Baltimore County? What metrics do you use to gauge success when you're trying to think about modernizing and reforming policing and how do you know what's working and what isn't?

It's hard to put a hard and fast metric around a measure of trust, but I do look at what we are doing and some of the work that's underway in Baltimore County, whether it's in both the police department as well as Baltimore County having a Diversity and Inclusion officer, one for the entire county enterprise, another one specifically for the police department. We've established an equitable policing taskforce. We've started up community engagement with town halls that started around these issues pre-COVID and that will pick back up. We created the county's first ever body-worn camera policy and we're releasing body-worn camera footage. We are standing up policing and public safety dashboards so that people can track and monitor what we're doing. We're going to start monitoring and reporting across our hiring practices in Baltimore County, including our public safety department.

John Olszewski, Jr.: So it's not one thing, but it is about engaging the community, putting information out there, holding ourselves accountable. And then also just the work that we did more recently with the reform, working with Chief Hyatt to implement implicit bias in deescalation trainings. That's now codified in law and won't be undone by our future administration, it's the dashboarding. It's not hiring officers who have disciplinary records or were terminated from other departments because of those concerns. It's the duty to intervene, it's the banning of choke holds. I think things that we were able to come together on and I don't think it's a one shot answer. I think these are all building blocks towards trust, and they're all very important and we're going to keep building on what we've done because there's always more work to be done.

Tom Hall: And Chief Hyatt, as you mentioned, you grew up in a police household. And so long before you became yourself a law enforcement professional, you've been paying attention to what's been going on in the law enforcement profession. What do you count among the most significant changes that you've seen in law enforcement, particularly in the local area here in the Baltimore metropolitan region over the last decades?

Melissa Hyatt: I think some of the changes that I've seen the most, probably two things. The first is how we work with our regional partners. It is absolutely abundant that despite the fact that we are in different jurisdictions, the issues that we have we all share and fairly frequently if we're dealing with a particular crime problem or something else, we all need to rely on each other and that's local, state, and federal. So, there is just constant communication and collaboration, which I really enjoy. And the longer that I've been in this profession the more that I see that.

The other thing that I would say is, looking at policing over the years that I can remember, it reminds me of something long ago that I learned from some training that I did with the United Nations, that we in law enforcement are no longer just policing communities in the way that we feel that they should be policed, we're working with them to see what they feel they need, and then figuring out the best way to keep their community safe but doing it in collaboration with them. So we're part of that community, we don't want to be folks that are just coming in to do our jobs and then we're trying to become more of the community. And I think that success comes with that.

And probably the last thing is we're doing much more in terms of data-driven policing. When I first started this job, we didn't use data as much. And now we make our decisions based on data and we spend a lot of focus during our crime meeting every week, our constant meeting, talking about data and what the data shows us for our deployment.

Tom Hall: And, Mr County Executive, the chief mentions the importance of collaboration, communication, data, consensus, however, about how to proceed can be elusive sometimes. I mean, way before the events of last summer, there were calls for police reform. When you have some people saying they want to defund or even abolish the police altogether, how do you chat a path with so many competing visions for changing policing and reforming it? How do you go about building consensus?

John Olszewski, Jr.: Yeah, it's what we do in county government generally here in Baltimore County, we bring people to the table and we let everyone have a say in the conversation. just by way of example, we think about our budgeting practices here in Baltimore County. And we went from a jurisdiction that had literally two people testify on a, over $3 billion budget, almost a $4 billion budget, two people in the two years prior to my arrival as County Executive. And even during COVID, in this pandemic season, we've now engaged hundreds and thousands of residents who are coming out, submitting testimony and attending our town hall forums, where we're having one in each council district. We apply that same logic to even these more complicated issues about police reform. And that's how we've seen Republicans and Democrats be supportive of the efforts that we're doing. We're being open and transparent about the work as we continue. And I think that that's what people should expect at least out of their government. So it's the only path forward, I think, particularly at a time when our nation is more divided than ever.

And so really, Baltimore County, in my humble opinion, is a national model for what's happening, and we're taking this conversation to the state. We think what we did with the SMART Policing Act can be a model for statewide reform. Again, we know that there's more conversation and work to be done, for example, we're supporting changes to the MPIA, the Maryland Public Information Act, so that we can have a little bit more insight into what's happening for the disposition of use of force cases. But, leaders regardless of party have responsibilities to act in these moments, and if we act in a way that is inclusive and that includes all of the voices, I think we've shown that we can have success and that we will have success moving forward.

Tom Hall: And Chief Hyatt, let's talk about the value of the Chesapeake Connect trips. As I mentioned earlier, in 2018, you went to New Orleans. At that time you met with Michael Harrison on that visit. He was the then Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department. Can you articulate what some of the lessons you learned on that trip that you found valuable and how they've informed your work as the chief of police in Baltimore County?

Melissa Hyatt: So, first of all, I had a truly incredible trip and met so many wonderful people. Ironically, Commissioner Harrison, I had already taken a trip to New Orleans with the Baltimore City Police Department when we were getting ready to embark on our consent decree. Well, it was wonderful to be back there and have conversations, that actually wasn't the most impactful thing for me on that trip.

For me, the most impactful thing was when we went to the charter school. And I don't recall what the name of the school was, but it was so impactful for me to have the opportunity to go to a city that honestly, the theme of resiliency went through every part of that visit and to see how the city had just adapted and excelled post Katrina was very impactful. And thankfully, somebody just elbowed me with the Andrew H. Wilson Charter School, that was the name of the school that we visited. And just the fact that this school was able to provide wraparound support to students, and so many of them were living in poverty and yet they were able to take these underperforming schools and literally improve every aspect of their education. Being in that school and seeing the creativity that was encouraged among the staff and just walking through the halls, you could literally feel just a culture there and a level of pride that I had never seen before in a school.

And, for me, it was just such a touching and impactful experience that it really struck me as a model, whether you're talking about schools and education or other things that it really is about looking at something and reframing it and being brave enough to step out of that, "We've always done it this way," mindset, in order to accomplish something great. And when we're talking about police reform and really modernizing police departments, it's really the exact same concept. And that just really resonated with me.

Tom Hall: Yeah. And County Executive, that's really striking that here's Chief Hyatt, a law enforcement professional, and one of her big searing memories is something she learned in a school talking about the holistic approach to public safety. As a County Executive, on your trips that you've taken or the trip that you took with Chesapeake Connect, what do you cite as the thing that sticks with you the most, and are there specific lessons about policing and public safety that you have garnered on the Chesapeake Connect trips or just lessons in general?

John Olszewski, Jr.: Yeah. Tom, thanks for pointing out the fact that these trips do point out the holistic nature of how the challenges and opportunities we're tackling are interrelated. And again, this is why I think Chief Hyatt is doing such a good job because she recognizes that. I think one of the benefits of our Deputy Administrative Officer, who made it to the New Orleans trip with Chief Hyatt, was that we made a connection with Mr Vetter and the chief to have a relationship as she was applying for the position here. For me, I did not make that trip, I was, as you mentioned, on last year's trip to Nashville.

And that really reignited my energy around ensuring that Music City, Maryland, became our county's first arts and entertainment district over in Catonsville, and it since has. And with vaccines beginning, I'm really looking forward to really amplifying that in our arts and culture and tourism generally, getting back to live performances and how we sort of grow our economy back stronger being rooted in those lessons there. Now, there wasn't really a specific policing focus to that particular trip. But again, I think to the point of all of these issues are interrelated and interconnected. And so, we're doing great work here and these trips help do that.

Tom Hall: Yeah. And those interconnections, I think, are really quite obvious and directly applicable to public safety. When you talk about the music city model, if you've got increased foot traffic, if you've got a thriving economy, if you've got people showing up for these nice events, that's going to impact positively towards public safety. Chief Hyatt, how about the effect of the pandemic, both on the logistics of what you do on a day-to-day basis as a police department, as well as on efforts for reform, how would you assess the impact of the pandemic?

Melissa Hyatt: Well, I would begin by saying for us in the Baltimore County Police Department, the pandemic really changed really all of our operations. And I know that's the same case for so many others. We had to make a complete adjustment in our operations while we were dealing with making sure that our personnel could safely respond to calls for service and interact with the public. But during that same period of time, we were also dealing with demonstrations, our own members are out sick or in quarantine, along with the privilege of being able to support food distribution sites, testing sites, vaccination sites, and just really being able to engage with our community at a time that many people are struggling and need help.

In terms of how the pandemic has impacted reform, certainly, there are many challenges that we've faced, but I am happy to say that a lot of the things that we have been working on, for example, we were able to move a lot of different things online, thankfully. We are very fortunate in Baltimore County that our director of OIT, Rob O'Connor, is a genius and he really helped us quickly move a lot of operations online. So, a lot of the training that we needed to do, we were able to transition to online. Some of it we haven't done online, we've just had to be really smart with how we do it, make sure that we are being socially distant and very hygienic.

Some of the things that we've brought in ABLE training, which is active bystandership training for law enforcement or fair and impartial policing which is implicit bias training. We were able to, although things got delayed a little bit, we were still able to implement these things. My director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, who was doing a candid conversation series, was able to transition that to an online platform. And she was really able to continue her work, just doing it a little bit differently. We built a professional standards bureau during the summer to increase accountability and to put more of our focus on the work that was being done in internal affairs. And throughout the pandemic, that's really when we've gotten most of our work done in that realm. So, although it has definitely been a difficult time, there's also been a lot of positivity that's come out of it.

Tom Hall: And County Executive Olszewski, let's finish up with you, if I might. Baltimore County of course shares a border with Baltimore City, as well as four other counties, and even another state. Talk about the regional perspective on public safety, how does that regional perspective inform what you're doing in terms of police reform?

John Olszewski, Jr.: Yeah. We know that our residents don't live their lives based on a map and public safety issues don't stop at artificial lines either, so we remain committed fully to being partners on all the regional opportunities, economic development, transportation and certainly public safety. We have a few, I think, really good examples of what that looks like already, whether it's the Warrant Apprehension Task Force or the Regional Auto Theft Task Force that are out there that we're collaborating with our partners in the city. Now, those are programs that have shown really strong successes, and we'll keep pushing for additional resources to expand on partnerships like that.

I've made it a point to spend a lot of time with Mayor Scott on these multitude of issues including public safety to say, how can we work together to keep all of our communities safer? I know Chief Hyatt and Commissioner Harrison talk regularly as well. And so, our fates are interconnected and every time there's an opportunity to share information or collaborate on these joint task forces, we're going to step up and be part of those conversations because what's good for one jurisdiction is good for all of us, and I think everyone in this region recognizes that. And I think that's a really positive thing.

 

Tom Hall: John Olszewski, Jr. is the County Executive of Baltimore County. Mr Olszewski, thank you so much, I appreciate your time.

John Olszewski, Jr.: Thanks again.

Tom Hall: And Melissa Hyatt is the County Police Chief in Baltimore County. Chief Hyatt, thank you to you as well.

Melissa Hyatt: Thank you.

Tom Hall: The Chesapeake Connect Podcast is produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council with assistance from WYPR. The Baltimore Metropolitan Council works collaboratively with our region's collected executives to identify mutual interest and develop collaborative strategies, plans and programs that improve our quality of life and economic vitality. BMC's member jurisdictions include Baltimore City and Anne Arundle, Baltimore, Carrol, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's counties. For more information, please visit baltometro.org. Our producer is Mark Gunnery. Our next episode of the Chesapeake Connect Podcast, we will be joined by Anne Arundle County Executive Steuart Pittman and Greg Fitchitt, regional president for the Howard Hughes Corporation in Columbia, for a conversation about re-imagining suburban development in our region. Till then, I'm Tom Hall, thanks for connecting.