The Baltimore Police Department (BPD), like many across the U.S., has been beset with a crisis in public confidence in the wake of both high-profile abuses of force and corruption. A recent report by the team tasked with monitoring a 2016 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Baltimore Police Department says the BPD has not done enough to hold officers accountable for such misconduct, leading to calls for more resources and training for the BPD’s internal affairs unit and a beefing up of the Civilian Review Board. Unfortunately, even if implemented, more police oversight and training are unlikely to solve the problem.
I’ve been a police researcher for over 20 years and I’m incredibly pessimistic about the ability of either internal or external oversight and accountability mechanisms to fix policing. The problems are baked into the missions we have given them. When we turn every social problem in poor communities of color over to police to manage, we are going to get violence, unnecessary incarcerations and corruption.
In 2015, Freddie Gray died while in the BPD’s custody. In 2016, the DOJ found that the BPD was abusive, corrupt and engaged in constant civil rights violations. In 2017, eight officers in the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force were indicted on federal racketeering charges and later admitted to thefts, drug dealing, excessive use of force and illegal searches.
In the face of these crises and a federal DOJ intervention, the BPD has attempted to reform its internal oversight process by promulgating new rules and training procedures. But the consent decree monitor’s report suggests that little of substance has changed. Reports from the public are not adequately investigated, some complaints languish until after the statute of limitations has passed, and ultimately, little has changed in the way the city is policed.
In addition to the reforms carried out by the BPD, Baltimore also has a Civilian Review Board that investigates public allegations of police misconduct. But that board does not have subpoena power, is inadequately funded, and can only make recommendations to the department in “substantiated” cases, meaning that the police department still has the final say in whether an officer receives any discipline.
There is no question that adequate mechanisms of police oversight are sorely lacking in Baltimore and many other cities. But would more vigorous oversight processes really help to transform policing in Baltimore or elsewhere? Robert Kane and Michael White, in their groundbreaking study of 20 years’ worth of New York Police Department personnel actions, showed that complaints about excessive force by on-duty officers almost never result in meaningful consequences. Despite a large body of writing about why civilian oversight is needed and how it should be implemented, there is no evidence that it works. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón recently told me that he has a room full of reports on civilian oversight of police and they all say the same thing: It doesn’t make policing better.
Recent efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to strengthen the civilian review process in places like Newark, New Jersey, and New Haven, Connecticut, should be watched closely, but real police reform is unlikely to come from such mechanisms. In part, this is because they rely on a logic of deterrence, assuming that if more oversight mechanisms are in place, police officers will be less likely to commit acts of violence. This logic misunderstands the powerful institutional pressures that drive so much of the problematic policing we see today. When our elected officials ask police to wage simultaneous wars on drugs, gangs, disorder, terror and crime, they are going to be discourteous and aggressive, at best. They will continue to violate people’s rights and use excessive force because that is how wars are waged. It is also built into the deep history of American policing, which has always been a tool for criminalizing people of color. In the words of Baltimore-born author Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It’s avoidance. It’s a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of a system.”
Using police to manage issues related to drugs and sex work has always led to corruption and abuse, partly because of the huge amounts of money and the vulnerability of many of those involved. Instead of giving narcotics and vice units anti-bias training, we need to look to regimes of legalization and decriminalization backed up with public health interventions and strategic community investments.
Turning school discipline over to police invariably results in more suspension, expulsions, arrests and violence directed at the most high-needs students. We should not be trying to “fix” school policing; we should be working to replace it with more counselors, restorative justice programs, and comprehensive services for students and their families so that they come to school ready and able to focus on learning.
Baltimore’s now-notorious Gun Trace Task Force was created to reduce shootings by getting guns off the streets through intensive policing of communities of color. But by turning the problem over to police with a political mandate to get the job done, the city invited the kind of insularity and hubris that leads to the abuses that have recently been uncovered. Similar units across the country have come to similar ends. The Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-gang violence CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit was at the heart of the Rampart corruption scandal that exposed many of the exact same practices: officers using excessive force, selling drugs and coercing confessions. A similar unit in Chicago was accused of torturing suspects, faking evidence and using excessive force, resulting in overturned convictions, a multimillion-dollar settlement, and a plan for reparations to the communities subjected to its practices. New York’s Street Crimes Unit had to be shut down after its officers killed an unarmed immigrant in a hail of bullets. Their unofficial unit slogan was, “We own the night.”
Instead of imagining that police are the only or even best-suited tool for managing violence problems, we could look to new modalities of community empowerment to break the cycle of violence. Baltimore already has some of the tools they need, but they are underfunded by the city and undermined by aggressive policing.
For example, Restorative Response Baltimore works with young people, in schools and in the community, to get to the root of community conflicts that can escalate to violence. The group uses structured dialogue and restorative justice practices to allow communities to resolve their problems without the threat of violence and incarceration. The newly formed Safe Streets Baltimore is utilizing public health and “credible messenger” strategies to reduce neighborhood violence. The program hires adults from the community with a history of street involvement to work with young people at risk of violence as either victims or offenders. They provide trauma counseling, perform street mediation and try to steer young people into pro-social activities. A review of a similar initiative in 2014 showed very positive results, as has a recent study of similar programs in New York City.
No particular program can overcome hundreds of years of discrimination and inequality at the heart of so many of the problems that plague Baltimore and so much of the U.S. We must also look to build up resources like education, housing and social services in the communities where violence is most pervasive. Lawrence Brown, associate professor in the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University, calls on Baltimore city officials to undertake a reparations program that would channel 10 percent of the city’s budget into those communities most hard hit by formal discrimination, such as segregation laws and redlining practices. These funds could go to build affordable housing and schools, provide employment, and give families the kinds of support services they need to lead more stable and productive lives. According to Brown, “The Baltimore reparations package would function as actually changing our city budget, because right now, we spend more on city police than we do on health, housing, arts, parks, community development, workforce development, and civil rights combined. That’s changing from an apartheid budget to a freedom budget.”
We can’t produce healthy and stable communities by relying solely on police, no matter how much training and oversight they receive. Policing is an inherently coercive and violent tool.