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Baltimore Police union critical of upcoming federal probe

As Baltimore Police Department officials prepare for a Department of Justice probe into allegations of brutality, leaders of the local police union criticized the outside scrutiny and said it could make city streets less safe.

A host of reforms, along with a strategic plan unveiled last year, shows the department is serious about improving its relationship with the community, Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Cherry said Monday. The new federal scrutinty could make city officers fearful of being second-guessed and lead to ineffective policing, he added.

“We don’t need the federal government to tell us how to police Baltimore,” Cherry said. “We all need to do this together. I’m confident in our department.”

In an hourlong interview, Cherry and FOP Vice President Gene Ryan criticized the decision by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to ask the Department of Justice to help reform the police force.

While the mayor and Batts said Friday that they discussed the move weeks ago, the announcement came just days after The Baltimore Sun published results of a six-month investigation showing that residents have suffered battered faces and broken bones during arrests.

The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 cases since 2011, The Sun found, and nearly all of the people in the arrests leading to those lawsuits had their criminal charges dismissed.

Batts said Friday that he asked the Department of Justice to launch an investigation, and that the ball is “rolling” toward it. Officials in Washington have not returned calls seeking comment.

Ryan said the lack of support for officers from city leaders has a negative effect on policing the streets.

“It’s already happening,” he said about officers shying away from doing their job. “Why should they get out of the cars?”

While the union condemns what it calls the few “rogue cops” in the ranks, most of the city’s 2,800 officers are being criticized unfairly by the news media, Batts and the mayor, Cherry said. He noted that reforms triggered by the federal oversight could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not more — in a city already strapped for cash.

He also believes that public pressure resulting from The Sun’s investigation pushed Batts and Rawlings-Blake to seek federal oversight.

Cherry said The Sun investigation didn’t do enough to distinguish between brutality and the legitimate use of force, which sometimes is needed to subdue a combative suspect. He pointed to videos that surfaced in recent weeks.

One showed an officer beating a man on North Avenue in June; police leaders condemned the act and suspended the officer once they learned of it. Another video showed officers using batons and Tasers to arrest an unruly suspect outside a nightclub; those officers are working while the case is being reviewed.

He further questioned how any elected leaders can say they didn’t know about the scope of the brutality allegations, given the number of payouts. Cherry said city leaders could have better reacted to the article by showing how many lawsuits were deemed frivolous.

The city, however, doesn’t track the lawsuits, The Sun investigation found.

Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman, Kevin Harris, said Monday that seeking federal help is another way to make Baltimore a safer city. Other cities have seen “significant, positive reforms” after federal probes, he said, adding, “It makes community policing much better.”

He pointed out that the administration included many of the points from the union’s 2012 “blueprint for improved policing” in the department’s strategic plan.

Harris also noted one place the city could find funds to help pay for any reforms: the millions it is spending on settlements, court judgments and legal fees for all the lawsuits against police.

“Look at how much it has cost us so far,” Harris said. Seeking a federal probe, he said, “is a bold step for change.”

Some cities have paid $1 million or more a year to comply with Department of Justice recommendations following similar probes, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.

Amid a host of reforms started by Batts, including a team created to investigate use-of-force incidents, the agency is implementing recommendations from a strategic plan drafted by outside consultants in November 2013.

Cherry and Ryan said the rank and file has offered suggestions to improve the agency and pointed to the 2012 blueprint. The union conducted a study and issued its findings in a 15-page report.

The report called on leaders to make “education level a priority” in hiring, mirroring cities such as New York, where new officers need either military experience or two years of college. In addition to urging improved background checks on new hires, the union would like the Maryland Police Training Commission to audit recruitment and hiring standards. Other suggestions include improving front-line supervision on the streets.

The report was sent to Rawlings-Blake, City Council members and other top officials, Cherry said, adding: “We never heard a word from the mayor.”

Meanwhile, an email disseminated last weekend by the union’s vice president-elect encouraged younger officers to leave the force.

Lt. Victor Gearthart, who has 33 years experience in the department and is one of its longest-tenured members, said he has never recommended that officers leave — until now.

In his email to colleagues, he argued that federal oversight would upend the officers’ fight against crime.

“The amount of paperwork you will have to fill out is mind numbing. Crime-fighting will have to take a second seat to filling out reports on the reports that you filled out,” he said. “Reform means more criminals will have more time to prey on the public while you are stuck inside filling out reports for the feds.

“Any officer with less [than] 10 years on [the force] is a fool if they are not looking for a better police force to jump to. Youngsters, vote with your feet!”

In an interview, Gearhart said current problems within the department are overstated. “The number of uses of force compared to the number of citizen contacts we make is probably quite small. Calling in the feds is just so over the top. I think it’s going to bring more problems.”

Of his warning to younger officers, he said: “I don’t see why a person would come to Baltimore City to serve as police. I don’t see it.”

Cherry and Ryan disagreed, saying a mass exodus from the police force would hurt the city.

“‘We’re not encouraging it,” Ryan said. “I’m proud to be a Baltimore City police officer.”

mpuente@baltsun.com

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