The top half of an infographic for Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer’s survey of Baltimore police officers.
The top half of an infographic for Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer’s survey of Baltimore police officers.

It was frustration that prompted Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer to try and take the pulse of the Baltimore Police Department’s rank and file. The 5th District councilman says a few months ago, during a Baltimore City Council committee hearing, he asked BPD leadership for data showing whether a departmental move to deploy District Detective Unit officers to patrol spots had effectively reduced crime.

Leaders could not provide a data-backed answer, Schleifer said.

Desiring broader insight into what’s working and what’s not within BPD, Schleifer disseminated an anonymous survey to officers by email, asking them about hiring standards, whether they feel adequately trained, if they’re comfortable making self-initiated arrests—those not prompted by a 911 call or dispatch—and their understanding of the consent decree. He also offered an open-response format for several questions, letting officers respond in their own words.

“Far too often, unfortunately, [officers] haven’t been part of the conversation… on how we reduce crime,” Schleifer told Baltimore Fishbowl this morning, after the results had been shared. “And I feel, being that they’re where the rubber meets the road, it’s important that we as city leaders–and important that BPD leadership–hears directly from some of the officers on the challenges that are on their minds.”

Some of the results from the councilman’s DIY survey, to which 362 officers responded (also summed up in an infographic here):

  • Only 44 percent of officers say they “fully understand” the consent decree put in place by federal court order to spur department-wide reform for unconstitutional policing and improved BPD-community relations; and 74 percent of officers say they feel “restricted” by it
  • Just three in five officers feel “adequately trained”
  • Seventy-eight percent of officers feel BPD has lowered its hiring standards
  • Only 53 percent of officers feel comfortable making a self-initiated arrest
  • And only one in three officers feel “city leadership strongly supports its officers”

The graphics are accompanied by 10 pages of anonymous testimonials from officers, offering takes on how they would approach reducing crime, what they would tell the city’s new police commissioner, ideas for boosting morale and more.

“Stop ‘drafting’ patrol officers!” one wrote. “This is the main reason leading to low morale, increased medical usage and officers fleeing to other agencies.”

“Fairness above all,” another officer said they would tell the commissioner. “We don’t expect you to be a cheerleader for your police officers in every instance but if you can avoid making statements and administrative moods to condemn them wholesale, you’ll be more popular than your predecessors.”

“If we really want crime to go down, ALL City Officials have to be invested in the concept,” said another. “Don’t have crime walks with TV Cameras at 4pm on a school day, but 1130 PM on a Saturday Night in a violent neighborhood or where the homeless congregate.”

Schleifer characterized the testimonials as “in-depth, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of them.” That tells him, contrary to critical Baltimoreans who lament that officers “don’t care” about the city, that “officers on the street care, they want us to collectively do better, and they want us to be better at solving the crime issues in the city.”

The bottom half of an infographic for Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer’s survey of Baltimore police officers.
The bottom half of an infographic for Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer’s survey of Baltimore police officers.

But as with any survey results disseminated as statistically legit data, one expects a certain degree of refinement for the figures, not to mention the questions—particularly if it’s as reliable of a poll as has been presented in media reports.

The published results did include information about the ages, tenure of respondents and their basic roles within the department—sworn officer or administrative personnel—but didn’t say how the data compares with the overall demographic makeup of BPD’s rank and file, what districts officers work in and more.

Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, which publishes the staple Goucher Poll covering major issues affecting Marylanders, raised questions about the lack of a published methodology, how questions were posed—including their wording, and in what order—and more.

1. Questions as worded in the order in which they appear.
2. How respondents were selected to participate.
3. How long the survey was in the field.
4. Who sponsored/funded the survey.
5. Full demographics of respondents/target population
6. Response rate

— Mileah Kromer (@MileahKromer) February 15, 2019

I’ve seen an uptick of this sort of survey work done by various Balt City agencies. It’s potentially problematic. I also don’t think it’s better than “no information at all” as it has the possibility to create a distorted view of attitudes on important policy topics.

— Mileah Kromer (@MileahKromer) February 15, 2019

Put it another way: Do you think that studying the attitudes of an entire police force is as easy as emailing out a GoogleForm? FWIW, there are professional survey researchers that focus on personnel surveys for a living–asking BDP what they think is a worthy endeavor.

— Mileah Kromer (@MileahKromer) February 15, 2019

In an interview today, she also expressed concern that a simple emailed survey form could allow for an officer to answer multiple times, a problem she said she’s seen with other city-issued polls, including from the Department of Transportation recently on e-scooters.

Kromer was clear in saying she isn’t dismissing the impetus for the survey; she celebrated Schleifer’s initiative in conducting it, saying “it comes from a place of wanting to understand the public, which I’m on board with,” and, “I actually think he came at this from a position of really trying to find an answer to a question.”

However, the professional pollster offered “a word of caution before we start to say this is what 40 percent of Baltimore City police think.”

“It would not count as scientific to me,” she added.

The councilman this morning defended the quality of the data, noting the tally size of 362 respondents in a department that Mayor Catherine Pugh has said has “about 2,300 to 2,400 officers” is a “great sampling.” And, he noted, 15 percent of those who responded said they’ve been on the force for at least 15 years.

As for his methodology, Schleifer said it holds water: “Most people understand based on reading what I wrote… I did not go and stand on a street corner and ask officers these questions.”

He said he sent two emails to the department asking officers to voluntarily fill out the survey, and asked multiple people before sharing it if they felt his questions were “as clear and open as possible” in hopes of staying neutral and getting “the clearest and best feedback” possible. Some of his queries were informed by feedback from ride-alongs with officers, where he’d heard multiple officers say they felt restricted by the consent decree. And, as an example of the order, he said the question asking if officers “fully understand” the court-ordered agreement came directly after the one asking them if they do indeed feel restricted.

The councilman was particularly surprised by officers’ feedback on the consent decree. “What this tells me is that the implementation and the roll-out of the consent decree has failed the officers, because if they rolled it out and it was explained and they were trained on it appropriately, you would not have 44 percent saying they don’t fully understand it.”

Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he hasn’t spoken to his colleague about the methodology behind the survey, but deduced that the results suggest “a strong correlation for the lack of the department… having strong leadership with a clear plan and a clear vision.”

“It just shows that that’s why it’s so important that we, hopefully, have a great leader that’s coming to the department,” he said, nodding to Harrison’s arrival this week. “This to me speaks as a call-out for leadership, and hopefully we have that with [Acting] Commissioner Harrison.”

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...