Residents, police air sensitive issues

New weekly program part of effort to revitalize city's community policing

January 26, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The group of 15 Baltimore police officers and city residents sitting in a department classroom last week had just finished watching a videotape showing a make-believe car stop that quickly escalated into an angry encounter after the officer gave sharp and conflicting orders to the driver.

Most of the officers in the classroom felt the stop was reasonable but should have been handled with more tact. "He could polish his approach," said Officer Robert Brown Jr.

For the most part, the residents nodded in agreement. "It could have been handled better," one said.

That exchange between police and residents was just one moment during a new weekly training session - known as the Uniform Sensitivity in Action program - in which city police and residents gather to discuss such contentious issues as racial profiling and stereotyping.

All of the department's 3,300 officers will undergo training in the sessions, which police officials hope will give the force a better sense of residents' concerns and help improve the image of police in the community.

The program, officials said, is a major part of Commissioner Kevin P. Clark's efforts to revitalize community policing in a department that has long been focused on zero-tolerance tactics.

"This gives officers something to sink their teeth into," said Joel Francis, chief of special projects, who is spearheading the department's initiative. "It's not just sitting in a classroom."

Wednesday's training session began with about 200 officers and residents gathering at department headquarters to mingle and enjoy snacks, sodas and coffee. It was hard to distinguish the police from the residents - the officers were all wearing civilian clothes in an effort to break down barriers and help residents see them as regular people, Francis said.

Lowering barriers

Soon, the party broke up into small groups - divided by the officer's assignments and districts - to watch and discuss a videotape produced by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

The situations included one in which officers went "hunting" for traffic stops and pulled over a black man driving a Corvette and another in which two white officers approached a black couple checking out a house for sale.

In one small group of officers mostly from the Northeastern District, the videotape sparked mild discussions - until the session briefly drifted into real-life experiences. At one point, residents asked pointedly why officers do not always approach loiterers and drug dealers after receiving a complaint from residents.

"We feel we're not getting the help from officers when we are getting involved," said Malik Mosley, 38, president of the Loch Raven Improvement Association. "We call time and time again and nothing is being done. The officer doesn't even get out of the car. ... Some citizens don't call because, they say, nothing is being done."

Police responded that they have complicated jobs and some officers have dozens of calls to handle and don't always have enough information to check someone out for standing in a public space.

The residents seemed to accept that answer and turned their attention to the final situation on the tape, a young black boy watching his father get ordered out of his car during a traffic stop.

Positive response

In the end, officers and residents said they found the session to be helpful, especially by giving police a setting to chat with residents without worrying about responding to calls.

Both groups said the sessions would be improved with more-realistic videotaped situations and more discussion about specific community issues. Police officials said the sessions will get better with time.

"I think it went well," said Sgt. Alonzo Moreland, who led the session for the Northeastern District officers. "I was hoping for a little more passion. But I just wanted to get some ideas out there, get an idea how people felt, in general, about the police and how the police felt about the citizens. It takes time."

For more information on the Uniformed Sensitivity in Action program - which is usually held on Tuesday evenings at city police headquarters - call 410-396-2372 or 410-961-8277, or e-mail richard.hite@baltimorepolice.org.

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