Last week, Darryl De Sousa former deputy commissioner and command staff veteran of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), replaced Kevin Davis, who was fired by Mayor Catherine Pugh, as BPD Commissioner.
After more than 1,000 homicides in the last three years, with Davis officially at the helm for the vast majority of that time, perhaps the move was inevitable.
“I’m impatient, we need violence reduction, we need the numbers to go down faster than they are,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said during last week’s press conference announcing De Sousa’s ascension to the commissioner’s chair.
Notwithstanding Mayor Pugh’s seemingly callous reference to “numbers,” all of us want to see violence, homicides and crime in general reduced dramatically in Baltimore.
Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)
However, De Sousa is Baltimore’s eighth police commissioner in 18 years; he will preside over a department reeling from scandal, seemingly rife with corruption and decidedly demoralized after suffering a series of catastrophic blows. Despite De Sousa’s sterling reputation, should we expect a holistic transformation of the BPD because of a change at the top?
Perhaps, an even more cogent question is, should we continue to sink nearly a half billion dollars of the city’s treasure into a department many believe to be broken?
A radical solution has been bandied about more frequently over the last few years in the midst of historic levels of murder and mayhem; a total reconstruction of the Baltimore Police Department. It is a remedy I suspect will never be realized for a myriad of reasons, most of them political. However, in New Jersey the radical became reality in 2013, and the results are eye-popping.
That’s when the Camden, New Jersey Police Department disbanded; the police union was broken, fewer officers were hired at lower wages to fill the ranks of the new department, which focused on a community policing strategy. (In 2013, the City of Camden agreed to pay $3.5 million in damages to 88 people whose convictions were overturned because of pervasive corruption within the Camden Police Department, including cases of evidence planting, false police reports and perjury, similar to the current climate of corruption within the BPD).
Camden is significantly smaller than Baltimore in area and population (about 77, 000 people compared to roughly 600,000), still, many of that city’s ills mirror our own; rampant poverty, drug addiction, high unemployment in communities of color and substandard public school education, among them.
And despite the disparity in size between Baltimore and Camden, Camden’s turnaround is more than noteworthy. There were 22 homicides in Camden in 2017, half of 2016’s total of 44, and less than one third of the 2012 total of 67. Robberies, aggravated assaults, violent crimes, property crimes, and non-fatal shootings are also all down significantly since the restructuring of the department.
“The old police mantra was make it home safely. Now we’re being taught not only should we make it home safely, but so should the victim and suspect,” said Camden police officer Tyrell Bagby to the New York Times, last April, discussing Camden’s emphasis on community policing.
Reconstruction is working in Camden. But, it will most likely never happen in Baltimore because of Baltimore’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and a seminal moment in the city’s history.
In July 1974 the Baltimore City Police Department went on strike for less than one week, from July 11, 1974 to July 17, 1974. And when I say the police went on strike, I mean officers literally stopped their cars in the middle of the street, got out and left them there. It scared the hell out of Baltimore from top to bottom. That same year the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), the first and strongest set of legal protections for law enforcement officers in the nation was forged in Maryland.
The specter of the summer of 1974 probably haunts many of the city’s more venerable power brokers to this day (at least the ones who are still around), giving the Baltimore FOP perhaps unprecedented power.
Imagine Baltimore police getting out of their cars en masse and leaving them in the middle of the streets of the city in 2018. Scary thought. And that fear has permeated politicians (and most residents) since that strike in 1974 and probably made radical law enforcement reform in Baltimore impossible.
Sean Yoes is Baltimore editor of the AFRO and host and executive producer of the AFRO First Edition video podcast, which airs Monday and Friday on the AFRO’s Facebook page.