A Baltimore police car rides by as supporters of Dashawn McGrier rally in East Baltimore. Photo by J.M. Giordano

The Baltimore Police Department is showing “encouraging” signs as it implements new policies and training required by an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, but compliance monitors say it is too soon to gauge success.

And staffing shortages are crimping efforts to build community policing and provide stronger management, according to the  sixth semiannual report of the Baltimore Consent Decree Monitoring Team.

Four years after a judge approved a consent decree, the police department and city government begin the “hard part”: proving that their changes to policies, training and departmental operations work, authors of the 96-page report wrote.

“With foundational reforms in policies, training and operations in place, achieving Consent Decree compliance is no longer merely aspirational, it is plausible, though the hard part of the process—transforming the foundational reforms into constitutional policing—is just beginning,” they wrote.

The monitoring team said the next 12 to 18 months will be “pivotal” in determining whether the department, its officers and other employees are following the new policies.

A “clearer picture of the difficulty and length of the road ahead—the road to full and effective compliance—should emerge,” the authors said.

Staffing shortages pose major challenges to progress, according to the report’s authors, who said the police department needs to add more than 170 patrol officers and more than 30 sergeants.

That shortage is hindering the department’s ability to satisfy the consent decree’s community policing objectives with more patrol officers; improve the effectiveness of supervision with more sergeants; and conduct thorough, timely investigations and eliminate case backlogs by adding more investigators to the Public Integrity Bureau.

The report says that the department must hire about 10 to 20 officers per month, while reducing attrition through incentives and improvements to workplace conditions.

By early June, the department will launch a program to divert some 9-1-1 calls to behavioral health specialists, which will free up officers to focus on violent crime, Mayor Brandon Scott announced May 17.

The monitoring team found that the integrity bureau is short on investigators. Supervisors do not review investigations promptly after their completion, and the bureau does not adequately collect and analyze data on the effectiveness of operations.

The Monitoring Team evaluated police accountability in September, and found that the challenges that the department faced in improving the quality of internal affairs and supervision functions have persisted, although BPD is moving forward.

The department completed training on conducting police internal investigations. It is also revising its outdated disciplinary policies and will be conducting supervisor training for all sergeants and lieutenants later this year.

The report called those steps “precursors to genuine reform.”

“There is also insufficient evidence to show that BPD has begun to erase [the integrity bureau’s] troubled legacy of permissiveness, which has emboldened officers not only to violate policy, but—as with the Gun Trace Task Force—to break the law,” they wrote.

The police department is rolling out a new records management system that will improve documentation of officers’ encounters with community members, allowing police and monitors to analyze stops, searches, arrests, and interactions with youth and residents with behavioral health problems.

“The work will require substantial additional resources and, given the magnitude of the reform that is envisioned, change is likely to be gradual. But the wheels have begun to turn,” the authors wrote.

They added that the department, after implementing the new system, will have to ensure that officers and supervisors consistently and properly use it.

The monitoring team said department is making “substantial progress” toward compliance with the general training requirements of the consent decree, but “still has significant work to do before it reaches sustained compliance.”

The monitoring team has not conducted a formal assessment of that progress because there is still much training that has not yet been developed and implemented. The team plans to conduct a formal assessment within a year.

As more officers and other personnel are trained on new and revised policies, the department’s training academy will be “at or near capacity,” the monitoring team said. While the team is confident that the academy will be able to accommodate that increased capacity, they said the department must be vigilant to sustain that training as the “new normal.”

The monitoring team found that the department adhered to its First Amendment policies during the racial justice protests in response to Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd in May 2020, and the police killings and mistreatment of other Black people.

The consent decree requires officers to de-escalate situations and avoid using force when possible, and the monitoring team is conducting its first comprehensive review of use of force incidents, reporting and supervisory review.

The team analyzed use of force data from 2018, 2019 and the summer of 2020, which they published in a January 2021 report. They found that use of force incidents decreased 15.5% from 2018 to 2019.

In approximately 20% of use of force incidents, the subject exhibited signs of mental illness or behavioral crisis. Subjects appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol in another approximately 20% of incidents.

The monitoring team said it will be important to compare use of force data from 2018-2020 to examine the effectiveness of new policies and training. 2020 is the first full year after officers underwent use of force training from May-October 2019. 2018 preceded the implementation of the consent decree-required use of force training.

The Maryland General Assembly this year also passed a package of police reform legislation, including a measure that imposed a penalty of 10 years in prison for an officer convicted of using excessive force that caused serious injury or death.

The department’s audit unit is increasing its internal assessments to make the police department into a “reflective, self-correcting agency that prioritizes policy compliance and best practices,” the report’s authors wrote.

The report cautioned that reaching compliance with the consent decree will take “several years or more.”

“Change that is rushed, haphazard and superficial is not sustainable and does not qualify as true reform,” it said.

Though the road is long, the department is moving forward and has remained “largely on track,” the monitoring team said.

“Even amid the pandemic and the constraints it has imposed, BPD and the City have kept pace,” they said.

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...