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Consent decree judge admonishes BPD but acknowledges progress

Posted at 12:54 PM, Jul 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-26 10:48:22-04

BALTIMORE — The federal judge overseeing the Consent Decree that governs changes mandated for the Baltimore Police Department admonished the agency and the city for tumultuous leadership that has left the municipality rudderless through a period of prolonged violence and turmoil, while also recognizing positive changes that have crept along under the stewardship of a new commissioner, during a court hearing Thursday.

“All is not well in the city of Baltimore,” said U.S. District Judge James Bredar as he began an 11-page statement to open Thursday’s court proceedings. He noted that since the last consent decree hearing, Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned, the pace of murders and shootings has increased significantly, a police officer was shot at a methadone clinic, and the deputy commissioner for the department largely in charge of implementing elements of the consent decree was robbed.

Bredar also acknowledged progress being made, giving particular credit to Commissioner Michael Harrison, who Bredar feels has a vision for how the department can change. The turnover of police commissioners, from Kevin Davis, to Daryl De Sousa, to Gary Tuggle, and now to Harrison, has slowed the process, though.

“It’s a long road, and more than two years after I signed the order, I still worry that the Baltimore Police lacks the capacity to do all that it must to fully recover. We are still so much slower to the beginning of this process than to the end,” Bredar said. “Commissioner Harrison, it’s a tall order, but you and your team have got to get us there.”

Of particular note to Bredar was the department’s lack of a leader for its Public Integrity Bureau, linking that absence to part of why the BPD has yet to produce a “credible, post-mortem report on how on earth the Gun Trace Task Force evolved and metastized as it did,” Bredar said. Harrison later concurred that a hire for the position was needed and imminent.

But Bredar pivoted from the GTTF scandal to another moment of police misconduct, only this time using the latter as a positive example of progress.

In early June, Sgt. Ethan Newberg was charged with assault and misconduct for a May 30 arrest police later said was unnecessary and unlawful. While Newberg conducting a warrant check on a person in the 2300 block of Ashton Street, another man walked by and challenged the validity of the arrest and commented that Newberg shouldn’t make the warrant check subject sit on pavement that was wet. Newberg proceeded to chase down the man who made the comment and arrest him for “not knowing how to act,” according to charging documents.

Another officer who was on that scene had told Newberg to “relax” in an attempt to de-escalate the situation, but body camera footage shows Newberg was indignant with that response, telling the younger officer to never question his actions and for others to shut their mouths.

Bredar said the younger officer’s interjection to try to cool the situation was a positive sign of potential change afoot in the department.

“It was a positive moment – for me, the first shoots of spring, a hint of how the leaders of this reform initiative imagine all officers will respond to similar drama in the better future,” Bredar said.

Harrison recently released his crime plan for the city, focusing on targeting specific areas known for violent crime, increasing community engagement, mandated more accountability, and relying on technology upgrades to track and interpret data better to increase departmental response and efficiency.

At the hearing, he reviewed that plan with Bredar. Of particular note, Harrison said the department’s plan to move the Police Academy from its current location on Northern Parkway to a building on the University of Baltimore campus no longer used by the school should take place on Oct. 1.

In an effort to curb costs and transition as many actual police personnel to active police roles, Harrison said the City Council has approved funding 62 civilian positions inside the BPD, which would put 62 more officers no the street, with 100 more doing the same over the next year.

Harrison also impressed the importance of technology upgrades. He expects officers could claim back 50 percent of their time with digital tools that make processing information and required forms more efficient. Going from the current paper-based system to a digital one will allow officers to engage more with the community, Harrison said.