Op/Ed: DOJ Report: The Revolving Door of Mayoral Priorities and Police Practices by Sheila Dixon

sheila dixon16

Former Mayor of Baltimore Sheila Dixon

(BALTIMORE – September 2, 2016) – The eye-opening and jaw-dropping findings articulated in the Department of Justice (DOJ) report released a couple of weeks ago isn’t surprising for many of those who have witnessed and/or been subject to this kind of reality for decades. It is, however, a systemic issue that didn’t start overnight, or even in 2010 where the DOJ chose to begin their review.

In fact, the “patterns and practices” of the Baltimore City Police Department cited in this lengthy report, are merely a reflection of a racially dysfunctional department that has been subject to an ever-changing political structure that sought to prioritize policies instead of people while caring more about an election than an effective police force. And no political stakeholder in this city is exempt from bearing some sort of responsibility for these departmental deficiencies – including myself.

When reviewing the history of the city’s police force, one cannot help but notice an alarming difference in the culture and mindset of the majority of those officers sworn to protect and serve the interests of a community that they clearly don’t understand and/or are not at all sympathetic to the plight of the people in which they encounter on a daily basis. In fact, the recent comments by Lt. Victor Gearhart, a prominent member of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) leadership, only highlights that exact sentiment, showcasing officers who have a racially and culturally biased opinion towards those they have duty to serve.

However, when you look at the past fifty years in Baltimore, and the historical structure of a department where the average span of a police commissioner was roughly three years (not including Commissioner Donald Pomerleau, whose 15-year term between 1966 and 1981 is the longest tenure of any police commissioner in the history of the BCPD), you’ll see a politically polarizing position that led to a demoralized police force and a deeply skeptical community of African Americans.

Mayoral priorities are as much to blame for the current state of affairs witnessed in this report as those who have sacrificed their lives to make our streets safe each and every day. Pomerleau for example, served under three different mayors, each with varying political priorities and a different approach to public safety. Mayor William Donald Schaefer for instance focused his administration’s priorities on the development of the Inner Harbor at a time when crack cocaine began to erode communities of color. It wasn’t until 1984 and his third police commissioner, Bishop L. Robinson – the city’s first African American police commissioner; that Mayor Schaefer seemed to truly focus his attention on the black communities and the drug epidemic effecting these neighborhoods.

Commissioner Robinson only lasted three years before a new mayor came in with new political priorities and a different approach to public safety. Mayor Schmoke chose to focus his administration’s attention on a failing ‘War on Drugs’, while looking to improve the quality of education for inner city children, neither of which aligned with the policies of the outgoing Schaefer administration or that of the majority of his City Council colleagues.

Mayor Schmoke tried changing the course of a misguided police department by switching Police Commissioners, inheriting Edward Tilghman (2 years), to Ed Woods who served four years, to that of Commissioner Thomas Frazier, who served five; and we witnessed a homicide rate that exceeded 300 murders a year from ten of his twelve years in office. However, Commissioner Frazier’s plan to implement real change into a department that had historically ignored the social ills of Baltimore’s black communities began paying real dividends in both the reduction of homicides as well as quality of life crimes across the board. Yet, change doesn’t happen overnight, and despite the inroads being made by Commissioner Frazier and his community policing approach, his tenure was cut-short by an eager former councilman who became Mayor on the promise of a zero-tolerance policing strategy he witnessed in New York.

The Martin O’Malley administration chose to focus its public safety approach on numbers, known as COMSTAT, choosing instead to try and arrest their way out of an out-of-control annual homicide rate. However, this approach only deepened the distrust between communities of color and the police department, who were now mandated to lock up any and everybody without justification, so long as the numbers were reflective of what they were trying to accomplish. And while the homicide numbers dropped below 300 during the entire O’Malley’s administration, he never saw those numbers dip below the 250, a far cry from the 175 threshold he promised the voters his zero-tolerance plan would get us.

This approach failed to address the social and economic disparities that separated the white and black communities that these officers were patrolling, ignoring the multi-layered issues facing our city as a whole, not to mention the discriminatory practices of a department that consistently overlooked the promotion of highly qualified black officers for less than qualified whites. But most disturbing by Mayor O’Malley’s approach to public safety was the lack of consistent leadership at the top, having five different police commissioners within the seven years of his tenure as mayor – almost one commissioner per year. In fact, no other mayor in the history of Baltimore had as many commissioners in such a short period of time, other than Mayor James H. Preston, who had five commissioners during his eight years as Mayor from 1911-1919.

It was clear that his appointments became hyper-political, which even led to one of those commissioners being led out of police headquarters with an armed escort. And while many will point to my time as City Council President during the O’Malley administration, the Mayor of Baltimore has complete autonomy and control over the selection of their police commissioner with the City Council only having the power to vote on their approval. Nonetheless, in hindsight, I believe I may have been able to do more to address the inconsistent and inconceivable police practices that led to hundreds of thousands of innocent African Americans being arrested yearly through no fault of their own, and for that I apologize.

But I learned from his mistakes, and when I became mayor in 2007, the first thing I did was move away from the irresponsible approach of zero tolerance and began focusing on a strategy that the entire rank and file understood – community policing. I chose a police commissioner that was brought up through the ranks, Fred Bealefeld, not some outsider without historical context of the city and its communities; and we began to focus our attention on the most violent repeat offenders, targeting gun arrests and bringing outside resources to the table that systematically dealt with the systemic issues plaguing our city as a whole. From the creation of Safe Streets and the re-opening of PAL centers across the city to the creation of the gun registry and our efforts to ‘ban the box’ for city government jobs; we knew that it took more than a lock’em up and sort of the details later approach to solve the issues effecting Baltimore.

And while those efforts led to the lowest annual homicides in the past thirty years, since the days of Commissioner Pomerleau, it was all dismantled by the Rawlings-Blake administration – which chose to turn their attention to hosting Grand Prix races and building up downtown while throwing out every policy and government official that I had put in place. These efforts weren’t to implement some new, intriguing, solution oriented plan to make Baltimore safer; instead, they were rooted in petty politics that witnessed the rise of our homicide rate that led to historical highs in murders over the past few years, and deepened the distrust between the community and the police when cases such as the deaths of Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson and Officer William Torbit all but got swept under the rug with no one bearing responsibility for their unjust homicides.

Therefore, knowing all this and putting it into a context of historical understanding for those who may not know how deeply rooted these issues are, we must ensure that moving forward with the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Justice Department and the City of Baltimore should not be a top-down approach filled with politicians who have served as a catalyst for these issues to arise in the first place, and instead be filled with members of the communities most affected by these systematic and structural issues that were highlighted in their report. Change never came from the top down; it only happens from the bottom-up; therefore, politicians looking to get in front of this issue, and all of a sudden offer solutions to problems that have existed throughout their entire political term – and lifetime – should take a backseat to the community stakeholders who have to endure such racially divisive policies on a daily basis. We should also be apologizing to those citizens and communities adversely affected by these actions, as we haven’t served as the leaders we were elected to be for this population of people. As our very fine Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, has eloquently stated: “The bonds of trust have been broken,” but not just between the police department and the communities of color in which they serve, but also between those communities and their elected representatives.

The MOU must identify those officers responsible for such inexcusable behavior, and those of them that are still a part of the BCPD should be held responsible and their cases turned over to the civil and criminal divisions, including Internal Affairs, and dealt with accordingly. The Justice Department needs to also provide financial relief and support to not only the city, but the families and victims of these brutalities, as the validation of their accounts from a 156-report isn’t an adequate vindication based on the amount of pain and suffering these folks have endured over the past few years and decades.

However, no amount of finger-pointing and blame will change a historically systematic and deeply rooted racially biased department, that must begin with us – the stakeholders of a city that clearly has a long history of abuse and a politically driven police force which has ultimately led the failure of the citizens of this great city. We must do better, and that begins with all of us, not just the officers who wake up each and every day looking to put their lives on the line to protect ours, or the commanders who are taking their direction from whoever serves on the second floor of City Hall during that time period. It must be a proactive, long-term strategy that serves all the people of this city, regardless of who’s Mayor of Baltimore at the time and what their political priorities may be.


Sheila Dixon

The writer is the former mayor of Baltimore City