Baltimore leaders hope to rebuild trust with community as police reform progresses
The department has overhauled training and strengthened accountability, but trust from the community remains a challenge
By Lea Skene
BALTIMORE — Baltimore police leaders hope to show that crime reduction and police reform aren’t mutually exclusive as they push to overhaul the troubled department.
Praise for the city’s police has been hard to come by in recent years. Baltimore has a court-enforceable agreement with the federal government to reform its police department, known as a consent decree, which began in 2017 after the U.S. Justice Department discovered longstanding patterns of excessive force, unlawful arrests and discriminatory police practices.
But on Thursday, the federal judge overseeing the consent decree said it’s clear reform is possible.
“Now the question is: Will the job be completed here?” U.S. District Judge James Bredar said at a quarterly review hearing. “City and police leaders now know what to do, but will they find and allocate the necessary resources?”
The police department has already overhauled its training and technology, improved efficiency despite a deepening manpower shortage, and strengthened accountability measures to address officer misconduct, according to agency leaders.
Crime in Baltimore is also trending downward: Violent crime has decreased about 16% since 2018 and property crime about 26%, according to a report the department released this week.
“We’re demonstrating we can do it, both reform and crime fighting,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said during the court hearing. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Other law enforcement leaders from across the country are taking note and trying to emulate Baltimore’s accomplishments, Harrison said, calling his department “the greatest comeback story in America.”
The bigger challenge is rebuilding trust with Baltimore residents, whose deep-seated skepticism comes from decades of negative experiences with police. Harrison’s critics, including leadership of the city’s police union, also argue some reform efforts are hobbling officers’ ability to prevent crimes.
“The narrative is changing, but it is slow and it is hard,” Harrison said in an interview Wednesday.
The federal investigation that led to the consent decree was launched after Freddie Gray’s 2015 death from spinal injuries while in Baltimore police custody. Not long after the decree was announced, the Gun Trace Task Force scandal revealed abuse and corruption inside an elite plainclothes unit. Settlements from lawsuits connected to the task force have cost the city more than $22 million.
Harrison was appointed police commissioner in 2019, a tumultuous time for the department. He moved to Baltimore from New Orleans, where he also led a embattled police department implementing court-ordered reforms.
He highlighted a number of recent accomplishments to show how far the department has come, including decreased use of force, fewer complaints from civilians and more gun seizures. He also said the department is doing more to engage with the community.
One of the city’s flagship anti-violence programs, the Group Violence Reduction Strategy, offers services to people most at-risk of becoming involved with gun violence. It also uses law enforcement action to create what officials called a combination of positive and punitive consequences.
Keko Thompson, 36, said the program changed his life. He agreed to accept services not long after losing his cousin to gun violence. With support from a life coach and others, he started working in a warehouse six months ago and got his forklift certification — the longest he’s ever stayed at a job.
“I have given myself a chance, something I’d never done,” he said during a news conference alongside city and police leaders Wednesday.
Baltimore’s homicide rate is down about 17% compared to this time last year, according to police department statistics.
Still, the homicide rate remains among the highest in the nation and shootings of children and teens have increased within the past few months.
Harrison said the drivers of gun violence extend far beyond policing. Reducing violence in the long term will require a robust effort, he said, one that addresses underlying social challenges like poverty, addiction, mental illness, housing instability and struggling schools.