Baltimore City continues to engage its citizens in dialogue about the civil treatment of it residents.  Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake has taken some bold steps to elevate the distrust of citizens of the police.  The recent curfew statute that went into effect in the City this year was rolled out with a great deal of community input and awareness.   In every councilmatic district, community forums were held to enlighten members of the community of its impact.

With the recent national events involving law enforcement and their negligence pertaining to the protection of citizens and their rights, it is important that Baltimore City bands together to put an end to such unfortunate circumstances in our city.  With this, we must work as a unit to ensure that our citizens are aware of the rights they are entitled to and we must hold law enforcement to high standards trusting that they are here to protect and serve while still holding them accountable for their actions knowing that they have received adequate training to deal with the most challenging circumstances.

The Issue:

  1. Overall lack of legal transparency on the part of law enforcement in these cases.
  • This results in difficulty finding legal and just responses to arrest-related deaths.
  • According to a Supreme Court Ruling of 1989 the test of excessive legal force is whether the police officer “reasonably” believed that the force used was “necessary.” These terms are clearly subjective and in fact each of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S set their own standards of what they considered “reasonable and necessary.”
  • Additionally, the exact statistics on arrest-related deaths is unclear because it is self- reported by law enforcement agencies. The FBI reports that there are about 400 deaths per year nationwide while private researchers and journalists report closer to 1000 per year nationwide. In fact the Department of Justice stopped publicly releasing statistics on arrest-related deaths after 2009. In addition, While Congress required in 1994 the Attorney General to acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and publish it yearly, this has not happened regularly.


  • One proposed solution is the use of body cams on police officers. In the town of Rialto, Calif., body cams were introduced in February 2012 and in the first year complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent and the use of force fell by 60 percent. We know that Baltimore is a much more populous city; however, body cams are still a preventative and legal tool. Some opponents of body cams have cited cost as a concern; however, when taking the total cost of lawsuits and legal fees into consideration cameras will pay for themselves in about two years. Baltimore City citizens have paid $11.5 million (from 102 civil suits) over the past four years on lawsuits and legal fees for law enforcement; that is an average of $2.8 million a year. In addition to the $11.5 million from taxpayers’ funds, the police department paid $285,000 to a consultant who ultimately recommended that Commissioner Anthony Batts begin a body cam trial here in Baltimore City. When adding actual figures, the body cams will cost $2.7 million for all officers (that’s $900 per cam for 3000 officers); with that the body cams will pay for themselves rapidly.
  • Another solution is additional quality police training through partnerships with organizations outside of BCPD. An example of this is Behavioral Emergency Service Team (BEST), which was incorporated into Police Academy Training in 2010, and recently expanded its services to precincts and additional law enforcement this year. BEST trains officers to respond accordingly and appropriately to individuals with mental health issues and refer them to appropriate extensive services after initial intervention with law enforcement. This will in turn decrease the likelihood of an unfortunate incident because these police are trained to be compassionate and resourceful to a certain group rather than generalize them and act out of reflex. This is a primarily new program that should be impactful in the long run if efficiently operated.
  • Overall a solution that will be very impactful is to update and implement policies and laws that mandate the transparency and accountability of law enforcement. The citizen review board needs to have more powers to enforce its mandate. It has become apparent that while there are laws demanding police be responsible and honest by asking they report incidents and allowing them to self-report, it is obviously not fulfilled regularly.

Baltimore we can do better and must; the civil rights of all our citizens are to be protected.  We are still a nation of laws even if we are not at the point of a post racial society.

J. Howard Henderson is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Urban League.