A citywide crisis
Baltimore ended 2017 with 343 homicides, the third straight year the city experienced more than 300. Police also reported a significant rise in robberies and aggravated assault.
“I can tell you that violence in the city is out of control,” Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said in early November, when she announced that heads of 30 city agencies would meet daily at police headquarters to coordinate on crime-reduction efforts.
No federal funds were provided for complying with the Justice Department’s consent decree, which the city and the Justice Department signed in January 2017 and which was announced at a press conference in Baltimore attended by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch. A federal judge approved the agreement in April.
“The police department in Baltimore is not even close to being in the 21st century yet,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in an interview with Capital News Service. “The reason why is we’re a poor city. We have budgetary restraints. This consent decree compels elected officials to put money into reforms.”
Without direct federal aid, the department is relying on city funds and state grants. According to the consent decree, Baltimore’s police department must develop a “reasonable and cost-effective plan” to identify and buy the technology the department needs to comply with the agreement.
The police department’s budget for the 2018 fiscal year is $497 million, with more than $10 million earmarked for compliance efforts.
At 227 pages, the decree is 70 percent bigger by page count than the next largest, the one created for Ferguson, Missouri, which ran 133 pages. Baltimore’s consent decree unfurls across more than 500 paragraphs, many of which contain elements that require compliance before the decree will be lifted.
The initial term is five years, subject to indefinite renewals at the discretion of a federal judge who, along with a 20 plus-member monitoring team, oversees its implementation. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund released a letter to the monitoring team in November asking for focus on 20 key areas of the consent decree as well transparency throughout the process.
New Orleans, which agreed to a then-monstrous 129-page consent decree in 2013 following years of questionable policing, quickly learned that compliance is complicated.
“We have 492 paragraphs [in our consent decree],” said Danny Murphy, deputy superintendent of New Orleans Police Department’s compliance bureau. “For each one we had to do a deep dive, work with monitors to make sure we were on the same page. What is the compliance expected? How are we going to measure it?”
For Baltimore’s police, it would be quicker to describe what they don’t have to change than what they do.
The Baltimore consent decree includes long, detailed sections that redefine the department’s overall style of policing, how stops, searches and arrests will be conducted and measured, as well as intricate new directives on the use of force, officer accountability, data collection and implementation of new technologies.
Despite the enormity of the task, Chief Ganesha Martin, who heads the police department’s efforts to comply with the consent decree, is undaunted.
“We started working on consent decree reform before there was a consent decree [in place]” Martin said. “I have been told that no other jurisdiction has been as prepared as we were and done as much pre-work on the consent decree without really having the mandate to do any of it.”
The legacy of zero-tolerance
Martin will oversee a sea change in the way policing happens in Baltimore. That means rewiring more than just police culture, but the culture around the police.
“After the [Freddie Gray] unrest, the attitude on the streets towards policed changed,” said Mike Hilliard, a 27-year-veteran of the Baltimore Police Department who retired in 2003. “People seemed to be less respectful and less afraid of them. The bad guys didn’t fear them anymore.”
For some, the issue that led to the violence after Freddie Gray’s death was not about fear or respect, but the legacy of so-called “broken windows,” or zero-tolerance, policing, where aggressive enforcement of small crimes is believed to deter bigger ones.
The policy, its detractors say, can ruin the relationship between the police and communities, as noted in the Justice Department’s investigation that preceded the consent decree.
In response to the prosecutions of the officers involved in the Freddie Gray arrest, some observers believe the police also began backing off some enforcement, frightened they’d be brought up on charges if they ended up in a similar situation.
Baltimore used the zero-tolerance approach most notably from 1999 to 2006, under the mayoral administration of Martin O’Malley, who went on to serve two terms as Maryland’s governor.
“What we did here [in Baltimore] was just zero-tolerance all the time and that didn’t work,” Hilliard said. “It’ll drive down crime short term, but it kicks the crap out of the community, so you start losing your relationship with them that you had before, and that’s a problem between the community and the police.”
O’Malley has been widely criticized since Freddie Gray’s death for championing zero-tolerance policing as Baltimore’s mayor, an approach many believe added to tensions between police and residents.
O’Malley disagrees, pointing to what’s written into the consent decree that he said were already policies implemented while he was in office, such as transparency on data.
“This is a 350-year legacy of race and injustice intertwined with law enforcement in our country,” O’Malley said in a Capital News Service interview, “and none of us is so good as a city so that we can escape that in three or four or five years of trying. You got to go out everyday and you actually got to do the work and embrace openness and transparency in policing.”
The Justice Department investigation that preceded the consent decree detailed widespread distrust of police among Baltimore’s black residents, including the city’s youngest.