New faces will soon appear on the Baltimore City Council, bringing with them their own experiences, views, and ideas on how to grow and protect Charm City.
Baltimore police officers routinely discriminate against Blacks, repeatedly use excessive force and are not adequately held accountable for misconduct, according to a harshly critical Justice Department report. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Winners of the April 26 Democratic primary election spoke with the AFRO about possible solutions to the police brutality, discrimination and repeated constitutional violations by the Baltimore Police Department recently identified by the Department of Justice. While the election is on Nov. 8, the last time a Republican was on the City Council was in 1942.
The DOJ report found that hundreds of thousands of unconstitutional stops, illegal and publicly degrading strip searches, tasings, and physical assaults have eroded the public trust- especially in the Black communities that have been targeted.
The findings weave an intricate picture of how these encounters turn into thousands of arrests with no probable cause, thus creating thousands of dismissed cases that clog the criminal justice system.
“Folks in this town have been living under a deeply oppressive regime of zerotolerance policing for a long time,” said Zeke Cohen, who won the primary as a Democratic nominee for the first district. “Part of this has to do with the deep legacy of racism and White supremacy that has shaped the city’s history and remains with us today.”
Cohen said the City needs to “completely overhaul what it means to be a police officer in Baltimore in 2016- starting with how we recruit” – even if that means hiring reputable members of the community with distant marijuana convictions. New Maryland police officers are not allowed to have ever used drugs.
“Policing needs to come from within our communities,” said Cohen, a former teacher in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. “Officers policing communities they don’t feel are their own is deeply problematic.”
Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who is poised to represent the fifth district, said when citizens have officers who live in their neighborhood responding to calls for service “they have a different interaction because they are looked at as a friend or a neighbor.”
Both Schleifer and Cohen said the failed war on drugs and mental health crisis in Baltimore should also be addressed with better servicesnot aggressive policing.
“We have to stop trying to arrest our way out of the drug problem and focus like a laser on repeat offenders that are wreaking havoc on our communities,” said Cohen, who believed there should be “a larger framework to deal with mental illness and homelessness in Baltimore.”
John Bullock, who won the primary in the ninth district, agreed with the report and other tentative council members on the issue of better training for officers.
“Part of it is de-escalation. When someone is having a mental health crisis dealing with force and a lack of understanding exacerbates the problem,” said Bullock. “There has to be training in terms of cultural sensitivity in the neighborhoods -but also training in dealing with problems in a more sensitive way.”
According to the report, “Until July 2016, BPD policies on force failed to encourage any deescalation strategies.” These instances of excessive force have left hundreds of Baltimoreans injured and in some instances, dead.
Both Bullock and District Eight’s primary winner, Kristerfer Burnett, agreed the lack of accountability highlighted by the report is a major problem.
“Who’s running the show here?” asked Burnett. “If officers are committing crimes they need to be terminated or arrested. We have a report on our hands that shows a lack of accountability-nothing happens at all and investigations are going nowhere.”
Burnett wants to see more done in the civilian review board process, and Bullock told the AFRO he wants to see officers held personally accountable for their actions.
“It’s a challenge when the Board of Estimates has to pay these settlements out,” said Bullock, referencing the millions of dollars the City has paid in settlements for excessive force and deaths in custody. “It would be interesting if we were able to have officers start paying restitution.”
Both the Baltimore Police Department and the Department of Justice have agreed to work together with the community to increase accountability through “policies, training, and data collection and analysis.”
Cohen, Schleifer, Bullock, and Burnett all agreed that the city is moving in the right direction.
“There is a lot of work that has to be done,” said Bullock. “It is going to require a huge lift by the city’s public officials and the police department to ensure that everyone will be treated in a fair manner and have justice in Baltimore City.”
Community input into the broad reforms that must be addressed with the consent decree should be directed to Community.Baltimore@usdoj.gov.