Police secrecy won't foster trust

CRIME BEAT

January 08, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

On Oct. 20, a city police officer shot and wounded a man near an elementary school after chasing him to a breezeway, where he was found crouched with his hands under a black jacket. He threw the jacket at the officer, who shot him in the leg.

If this shooting happened the way police said it did, it will probably be ruled justified by department investigators.

Perhaps it already has been found "within policy." Chances are, you and I will never know much more about the case.

The department's new public affairs director, Anthony Guglielmi, has decided that identities of officers who shoot people will no longer be made public, at least until after all reviews are completed and then only if the officers' actions are deemed unjustified.

Trust us, the police say.

The problem is that many city residents don't trust the cops. In fact, it's the cops who complain that mistrust runs so deep that jurors don't believe them when they testify in court.

Residents in high-crime areas think the cops are out to get them and cover for their own, and this new policy will only reinforce those opinions.

Residents in more affluent parts of town think the cops are purposely not reporting crime to make the city appear safer than it is, and hiding even more information will only reinforce those opinions.

Guglielmi points out that some other jurisdictions have policies like the one he is adopting. But Baltimore police and the mayor should do what is right for this city, and this city needs to build trust, not blue walls. Since 2004, Baltimore police officers have shot 89 people, killing 31. Last year alone, city officers shot 21 people, killing 13. One officer was indicted on manslaughter charges in the shooting of an unarmed man during a scuffle.

We have a new police commissioner, a new director of public information, a new strategy to combat crime and less information than we've had before about how the department is run and about the officers hired to protect our lives and enforce the law.

Access to the Baltimore Police Department - by the news media and, by extension, the public - is dwindling, not increasing, which runs counter to the mayor's pledge to partner with the community and be accountable.

Requests to spend time with officers have been repeatedly denied, and attempts to obtain data for a crime map and a schedule of public disciplinary hearings have been futile, to name just a few frustrations. Police have stopped releasing personnel orders that record discipline, firings, hirings and transfers.

Gary McLhinney, the former chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police and former head of the city police union, notes that names of officers who use deadly force are not "being redacted from reports. They're just not being publicly announced the minute the bad guy hits the pavement. ... What needs to happen is that everyone needs to calm down to ensure a thorough and fair investigation is completed."

The problem is that city police don't release the outcomes of any internal investigation, regardless of how it turns out.

Police officers are given the legal authority to kill people in appropriate circumstances. There's a reason officers wear name tags and don't wear masks. Municipal peace officers should not be allowed to arrest, interview, stop, search, detain, shoot and kill people in secret.

Here is why it is important: In 1997, Baltimore Officer Charles M. Smothers II shot and killed a man armed with a knife outside Lexington Market.

At the time, Smothers was on probation for shooting at his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, and the revelation prompted a review of how he returned to the force with his gun and badge while still under the supervision of state prison officials, and while his own department was trying to fire him. Police then discovered that Smothers was not an anomaly - 35 other officers had similar circumstances and were promptly re-suspended.

The city's top prosecutor ruled the market shooting justified, but the city fired Smothers for violating domestic violence guidelines and paid the family of the man he killed $500,000.

Would we have known any of this if Smothers' name was never released?

From now on, it's a matter of trust.

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