Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other mayors put together a January set of guidelines for cities on improving police-community relations. She's followed few of them herself.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake couldn't have known in January that a citywide standoff between protesters and police was coming. But she was thinking about it.
Back in the winter, she and several other mayors assembled to write a set of city guidelines for improving the relationship between police and the public. That working-group report—compiled by seven mayors and seven police chiefs of 10 different cities for the U.S. Conference of Mayors—outlines six areas for improvement.
So how did Baltimore do, based on the advice of Mayor Rawlings-Blake and leaders of Houston, Philadelphia, Little Rock, and other cities? Here's a highly selective rundown of all six categories of recommendations—and where Baltimore succeeded or failed.
Building Trust Between Police and Community
Police officers should practice procedural justice, treating all people fairly and openly.
That's point 1-B in the U.S. Conference of Mayors working-group report. Now, according to the investigation outlined by Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, police officers did not treat Freddie Gray fairly and openly—not by a long shot. The state's attorney alleges that their malpractice killed him.
Mosby also said that their conduct should not be read as an indictment of law enforcement on the whole or the Baltimore Police Department in particular. So it might be helpful to focus on Baltimore's overall response to its current policing crisis, noting without hesitation that Freddie Gray's death represents a certain absolute failure on behalf of Baltimore City.
[I-C] Police departments should provide a consistent message that the police have a responsibility to protect protestors and their constitutional rights.
The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 isn't beholden to Baltimore residents. But when the chief of the local police union describes the mostly black protesters of a mostly black city as a "lynch mob," it's a sign that trust between police and community is pretty strained. (Note that union chief Gene S. Ryan made this ghastly comparison before the violence of Monday night.)
"While we appreciate the right of our citizens to protest and applaud the fact that, to date, the protests have been peaceful, we are very concerned about the rhetoric of the protests," the police-union statement reads. Concerned though they may be, police officers have an obligation and a responsibility that comes first. And for what it's worth, Maryland state law is extraordinarily deferential to police officers suspected of committing crimes.
File the Baltimore police-union response—lifting the blue shield with one hand and raising a middle finger with the other—under "unhelpful."
It is important to recognize that there can be mixed feelings about the relationship that exists between the police and the communities they serve, and that mayors can play a critically important role in working to improve those relationships.
In this particular regard, Mayor Rawlings-Blake failed the city by referring to demonstrators as "thugs,"—an historically racially charged epithet that no one should use, even with reference to the juveniles who looted shops and set street fires on Monday night.
Improving Police Department Practices
[II-A-1] The chief’s leadership, direction, focus and credibility are critical to the department’s success and to how it is viewed by the community.
[II-A-2] It is generally appropriate for the chief to take the lead, independent of the mayor, when serious incidents occur.
"There is a sense of rage and rightly so," Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told USA TODAY as press and protesters near the scenes of looting on Thursday night. "The Constitution says you should have the right to protest in the street and walk to get your point across. So that's what we facilitate."
Commissioner Batts has certainly said the right things. Yet it wasn't Batts or Mayor Rawlings-Blake who led folks on the streets so much as it was Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), who stood out among Baltimore leaders over the course of a tense week.
[II-C-1] Training should cover more than the procedures of policing. It should help police officers understand their role in a democratic society—how to engage in constitutional policing.
[II-C-2] Training must concentrate on preventing unwarranted use of force, offer officers alternatives to the use of lethal weapons, and clarify when use of lethal weapons is appropriate.
Expect to hear a lot more about training and equipment. This is the subtle point that police-union chief Ryan hammered home in a second open letter calling for a special independent prosecutor in the case against the six officers charged with Gray's death. (Expect to hear more about a special prosecutor, too.)
[II-D-2] Body-worn cameras can be an important tool, and funding to assist in purchasing cameras, providing training in and standards for their use, and appropriately storing data collected via cameras is essential if more departments are to be camera-equipped.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake vetoed a bill in December that would have required police to wear body cameras but said in February that police would have body cameras by year's end. This would be a bold experiment in improving police-community relations—and one that could expose the city to privacy liability.
The mayor is right in her reservations about how the city should enact a policy on body cameras. But the city can't afford to hold up progress on this front any longer for the sake of petty infighting over task-force personnel.
Ensuring Timely and Accurate Communications
[III-A] Departments should have procedures in place to ensure that communications will be timely, transparent, honest, and as accurate as possible.
[III-B] It is important to take into account optics—how things look.
To be sure. And police leaking a document to The Washington Post saying that Gray somehow severed his own spine while handcuffed and shackled in the back of a police wagon sounds inaccurate, misleading, and obscurantist.
Conducting Independent Investigations of Deaths Relating to Police Encounters
[IV-A] To increase public confidence, police departments should call on independent or outside investigators and agencies when a death occurs during an encounter with an officer. While the exercise of deadly force by an officer does not necessarily constitute a federal crime, federal authorities should be available to any city needing additional help to ensure consistent, independent and transparent investigations of deaths that occur during an encounter with a police officer.
By Mosby's account, the Baltimore Police Department has cooperated with the state attorney's office in its investigation.
Addressing Racial and Economic Disparities and Community Frustration With and Distrust of Governmental Institutions
[V-F] Concerted efforts must be made to change the dynamics of the anger focused on, and the fear of cooperating with, law enforcement that too often exist in communities. The police clearly have a role to play, along with the full range of public and private agencies, in neighborhood improvement efforts.
The "Stop Snitching" movement was born in Baltimore; among the many bullet points concerned with school attendance, study circles, and town-hall meetings, point V-F might have been addressed especially to Baltimore.
It's impossible to uncouple V-F from points III-A and III-B. How things look matter. "The irony has not been lost on those within the city who see the mystery surrounding Gray’s death as a product of a police department unwilling to pronounce its own wrongdoing," writes Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker.
Providing National Leadership
[VI-B] The federal government should provide sensitivity, cultural, and ethnicity training, as well as training in how to defuse incidents, through the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service and other appropriate federal agencies.
[VI-C] The federal government must increase its financial support to local police departments that can be used for hiring officers, providing them needed training and equipment, and improving practices.
Every city's individual contribution to the Black Lives Matters protests—which have sadly come after the death of unarmed black men, for the most part—points to the need for federal action and national leadership on the matter.
Whose job will that be? For now, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and others are right: It's city leaders who have to do the heavy lifting.