Policing the police

April 17, 2006

On a day when 19 Baltimore police officers were recognized for their performance on duty, another officer made headlines for allegedly stealing tire rims from a seized Cadillac. The juxtaposition of the two stories illustrates an often-forgotten fact - good cops vastly outnumber bad ones. But someone reading the newspaper recently wouldn't necessarily see it that way. The accused rim thief was the latest in a series of city officers who have been charged with crimes. They represent less than 1 percent of Baltimore's 3,300-member force, but their alleged crimes reflect an abuse of power that undermines every cop who's trying honestly to do his or her job. That should concern every police supervisor, from the squad room sergeant on up.

Consider those tire rims - flashy accents meant to be noticed. They were found on a Cadillac parked in the Northwestern District lot. That sounds like a thief none too worried about getting caught. In the past year, half a dozen officers have been charged with shaking down drug dealers, demanding sex for favored treatment, accepting bribes. They reinforce every stereotype of bad cops - and exacerbate the fears of a citizenry wary of the police.

A department's impact depends on its credibility and reputation in the community. If citizens don't trust that police are doing their job, they won't report crimes. Without witnesses, police would have a hard time arresting suspects and solving crimes. If juries don't believe police who testify, they won't convict. That's been a problem in Baltimore, illustrated by the number of serious city criminal cases being tried in federal court.

A department's public image is critical to its efforts to draft and retain competent recruits. That corrupt police have been turned in by victims and informants, found out by police investigators and federal agents, charged and prosecuted shows that the criminal justice system is policing itself. But vigilance is the key.

Police commanders and trainers can't emphasize enough the importance of character. "People who do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons and when no one is watching" - that's how Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm defines character. At in-service training every week, he reinforces that ideal with his officers: "Don't abuse your powers. Do what's right. Don't embarrass yourself. Don't embarrass your family. Don't embarrass your agency."

The message can't be his alone.

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