Representatives of the Baltimore Police Department on Monday told members of a state panel charged with review and oversight of relations between police and the communities they serve that officer tensions over a consent decree implemented in 2017 and other departmental changes have begun to dissipate.
“I think overall folks are feeling as though things are changing,” Michelle Wirzberger, an attorney who serves as director of government affairs at the Baltimore Police Department, told the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing.
Wirzberger said meetings with officers were tense during the first year of decree implementation.
“We would go there with the intent of talking about new policies that we’re working on. And we couldn’t even talk about the policies because officers…were so angry, they were so beaten down and frustrated. And they didn’t want to talk about the consent decree. They didn’t want to talk about anything that was coming down the pike, including new computers, new technology – because they frankly had heard it time and time again.”
Wirzberger said she was forced to leave one meeting.
“At one particularly lively session, I actually got cursed out of the room because they were frustrated and they did not want to hear about what was gonna come down the pike. Lots of people were angry about that.”
Nevertheless, Wirzberger said the feedback was necessary.
“My perspective always was: If they’re angry, there’s a reason they’re angry. And we need to hear what they had to say.”
Wirzberger attributed the progress to collaboration between members of the consent decree team and the rest of the department. She said the shift began when Commissioner Michael Harrison reorganized the department. He became commissioner on March 12, 2019.
“One of the really important changes that he made was to bring in a deputy commissioner who was in charge of consent decree items and put together some real key tasks. So not only did he have the consent decree implementation unit that has compliance mangers, policy writers and the like – but he also has the training academy. He has the IT department. He has audits and inspections.”
Wirzberger said that since the changes there has been “a lot of very positive feedback.”
Paul Mincarelli, an administrative policy analyst and policy writer with the police department, attributed past problems to lack of understanding about the consent decree. He said new training methods have alleviated many of those problems.
“When they saw what the consent decree was going to do for them in terms of training, and then all the technology the consent degree requires – I think perceptions have changed. And I think they’re going to continue to change once new technology starts to roll out, and once new training rolls out, and they can have opportunities to work through things critically.”
Baltimore entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice Department in April 2017. Under the agreement, the department is obligated to try and remedy policing practices DoJ said it believed violated constitutional rights.
Alexander Williams Jr., a former judge who chairs the commission, inquired at Monday’s meeting in Annapolis about how the department’s progress would be evaluated.
“I’d also be interested in whether there’s a decrease in the number of excessive-force complaints as well as litigation … maybe they’ll be some stats and data we can collect during the course of the next few months that will assist us in whatever assessment we are making about this process.”
Wirzberger said the data will be made available.
Ashiah Parker, a Baltimore City resident and commission member, said she is concerned that some officers still do not understand the consent decree.
“I’m seeing a lot of that still in the community – that police don’t know how to effectively communicate it to the community.”
Wirzberger said the solution to the problem lies in training.
“That’s a common theme that we hear about. But again it’s all about training.”
Wirzberger said the department is working to address the past practice where officers were given plenty of instruction about what they are not allowed to do but little instruction about what they are allowed to do.
The commission was established in May 2018 and has seven members. In addition to Williams and Parker, they are: Gary McLhinney, Alicia Wilson, James Robey, Sean Malone and Inez Robb.