Angst among Baltimore police: ‘Ready to throw officers under the bus’

Jessica Anderson
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Many Baltimore Police officers say making an arrest can be nerve-wracking because they feel overburdened by documenting even necessary force, they worry they will be harshly punished for their actions and they don’t feel supported by commanders, according to a recent report.

“I don’t feel pride for having 20 uses of force,” one officer said, describing how using necessary techniques against an arrestee who tries to “wiggle” out of handcuffs must be documented. “Now, I am afraid to arrest anyone because I don’t want to have so many uses of force (documented) against me.”

The unnamed officer was among 68 surveyed who expressed low morale and confusion about new reforms required under a consent decree.

“Feedback from the Field: A Summary of Focus Groups with Baltimore Police Officers” was prepared by The Crime and Justice Institute for the Baltimore Police Department Monitoring Team, which is helping the department implement the reforms required by the consent decree, and released last month.

The report was based on eight focus groups of sworn personnel from all three shifts over a three-day period in May. They comprised 40 patrol officers, nine detectives, 10 sergeants and nine lieutenants. The officers were asked about community relations, use of force, the consent decree, leadership and staffing, and areas for improvement.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said Friday he’s heard similar concerns directly from officers.

“They expressed their challenges with morale and working conditions,” he said.

“Some are reluctant (on the job) for fear of getting hurt or getting in trouble for making mistakes,” he said. Others have told him the consent decree is restricting them, he said.

Addressing concerns: Harrison said he has to tell officers “that the law hasn’t changed.” Rather, the expectations are raised and officers will now be held accountable, he said.

Harrison said he’s been speaking with officers while attending roll calls to meet with rank-and-file officers to hear their concerns but also to express his support. He said he’s recently started monthly roundtable events with about 15 officers — the first was a breakfast at the Center Club.

Harrison said he felt the discussion was positive. He said he’s also working to address their concerns, including hiring more officers and implementing technology that will help alleviate their workload and give them more time to interact with the community and be more proactive.

The report echoes some of the concerns expressed by Baltimore Police union leadership. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Sgt. Mike Mancuso did not respond to a request for comment about the report.

Discipline: The report said officers have changed how they police for fear that they will be disciplined for using force, even when it’s necessary.

“We don’t get out of our patrol cars like we used to, because we are afraid that if we do, then we might have to level up,” one officer was quoted saying in the report.

Some officers expressed concerns about using force “when it is necessary and appropriate,” a hesitation that “has the potential to create a dangerous situation,” the report said.

Officers said they feared their actions would not be supported.

“Particularly, officers felt that as the Department has been scrutinized by the media and community over the past several years, the command staff and the City have become more concerned with the Department’s image than supporting officers and boosting staff morale,” the report said.

“They’re ready to throw police officers under the bus to appease the media and don’t support us even when our actions are appropriate,” one officer was quoted as saying.

Freddie Gray case: Many said they are also less likely to make an arrest since the arrest and death of Freddie Gray in 2015 that later resulted in unrest. Six officers were charged in Gray’s death, but none were convicted.

In 2016, a U.S. Justice Department report found city officers regularly violated residents’ constitutional rights, especially in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The investigation ultimately resulted in the city and the Justice Department reaching the consent decree in April 2017. The consent decree requires the department to overhaul policies and training, and ultimately reform the department’s practices — though it is expected to take years to fully implement. Over the past two years, the department has been working to reform policies, such as use of force, how officers interact with youth and how officers conduct stops, searches and arrests.

As the department is tasked with implementing reforms, it is also facing increased levels of violence. Since 2015, more than 300 people have been murdered in the city each year. More than 200 people have been killed in the city so far this year, 17% more than at the same time last year. Nonfatal shootings are also up 30%, with more than 600 people injured in shootings.

Harrison and U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who is enforcing the consent decree, have continued to defend the consent decree, as leaders of the Baltimore Police union and Gov. Larry Hogan have expressed concerns that the reforms might be too burdensome on already overworked officers as crime rates remain high.

“There’s been a whole lot of focus on the consent decree,” Hogan said earlier this year. “I think it’s out of balance. We’re going to focus on getting the criminals off the street.”

Bredar has said in a past court hearing on reforms that, “The twin objectives of constitutional policing and effective policing are intrinsically interwoven.”

Questioning: The report said many officers felt the consent decree restricts their work and is only about compliance.

“For example, some officers attribute the Department’s stance that it is unconstitutional to ‘sweep’ corners and sidewalks of loiterers through arrests or threats of arrest to the Consent Decree, with some expressing the belief that this is an effective practice to maintain public order and safety,” the report said.

It went on to quote one officer: “The things that the Department of Justice calls unconstitutional used to work for us.”

Kenneth Thompson, who heads the monitoring team, said he was not surprised by the responses, saying that many departments undergoing the reform process also begin with officers who have misunderstandings or question the ability to reduce crime and make changes.

“I would be surprised two years from now if we don’t get better responses,” he said.

The consent decree is designed to make their jobs better, he said. He attributed some of the frustration expressed by officers to the lack of stability in the department. Harrison is the fifth leader since 2015. He has a five-year contract with the city.

In spite of the low morale expressed by officers in the survey, they also expressed pride in their work.

“Despite the challenges discussed throughout this report, many officers consider it an honor to serve the City of Baltimore,” the report said. “Officers reported that the best part of their jobs and motivation for joining BPD were to positively impact people’s lives by helping them in difficult situations and contributing to the public good and safety of the City.”