Baltimore mayor: 'I don't have the luxury of being in the dark' [Commentary]

October 07, 2014|By Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

In Dan Rodricks' recent column ("Mayor Should Have Seen Troubling Brutality Trend," Oct. 4) Mr. Rodricks asks a fair question. Noting that I have been a member of the Board of Estimates for the past seven years — both as mayor and City Council president — he asks if I recognized the troubling trend in excessive force court judgments before an article citing years-old cases appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

Mr. Rodricks is forgiven for, perhaps, confusing me with other elected leaders who credited The Sun with informing them of this ongoing problem. As the city's top executive, I don't have the luxury of being in the dark about much of anything. My job requires that I read all information pertaining to our city's agencies, remain abreast of the latest developments, and make the hard decisions when necessary.

It's my job to lead — and, going back to my days on the City Council, I've always worked to build coalitions between government and the community in order to make progress on excessive force issues. As both council president and mayor, I have had a clear understanding that, while overall crime was declining, far too many residents felt disrespected, neglected and abused by the men and women sworn to protect them.

I knew then, as I know now, that in order to achieve the bold change Baltimore City residents deserve, we had to operate differently. As council president, I worked to develop and implement better police training through "teachable moments," a policy still in place that identifies areas where officers can improve, based on prior allegations of excessive force, in an effort to avoid future complaints for similar incidents.

As mayor, I have continued to keep my finger on the pulse on this problem, advocating for a series of reforms to change the culture of the police department, well before The Sun decided to investigate. For the first time in a generation, my administration has taken the necessary steps to update the Baltimore Police Department's practices to meet national standards.

We have been doing the hard work of reforming the internal discipline process, so that officers operating outside of the law are punished to the fullest extent possible. With these improvements in place, we have already seen the conviction rate for trial boards — which are the only way police can be disciplined under state law — increase from 57 percent in 2012 to 89 percent (year-to-date) in 2014.

Additionally, we disbanded the plain-clothed officer unit that was responsible for many of the excessive force complaints and lawsuits filed against the city, and I have been clear that under my watch, the days of mass arrests are over. Today, complaints against officers for misconduct are down significantly, as are lawsuits filed against the city.

Meanwhile, as we make internal reforms, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts has appointed outside evaluators to review every death in custody and worked to implement their recommendations about how to prevent such deaths in the future.

I'm committed to working with the community for change, which is why I personally visited every police district earlier this year and hosted public safety forums. More than 2,000 Baltimore City residents joined me for honest and frank conversations about improving the relationship between police and the community.

I am utilizing the feedback we received from residents as we develop additional reforms — one of which the commissioner announced last week when he spoke about our request to have the Department of Justice work in partnership with BPD to continue adopting national best practices for good community policing.

Today, we took another next step with the release of our report: "Preventing Harm." This new analysis builds upon previously commissioned reports and offers a comprehensive strategy to regain community trust, prevent abuse, and increase enforcement transparency.

While these reforms might not garner big headlines, the facts show that they have considerably improved policing in Baltimore City.

My record as mayor shows that I don't practice reactionary leadership. I didn't need to see another city go bankrupt before setting Baltimore on a sound fiscal path with the administration's 10-year financial plan, nor did I wait for news reports before acting to secure a historic billion-dollar investment in construction funds to improve crumbling schools.

The community and I are on the same page — we both want to see more change and to ultimately see a safer city with better community-police relationships.

Together, we can, and we will, achieve the reforms necessary to repair the disconnect between police and the communities we all serve.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is mayor of the City of Baltimore; her email is mayor@baltimorecity.gov.


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