Michael Berlin, a Coppin State criminal-justice professor who looks a little like Albert Einstein, came to Baltimore more than 40 years ago to study pre-med at Johns Hopkins University. He only lasted about three weeks in that program and eventually graduated with a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology, but it was a criminal-justice course which involved ride-alongs with police officers that most influenced his life. When he graduated—after he spent some time “bumming around Europe”—he joined the Baltimore Police Department.
He was a patrol officer for three years, working in Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, and Curtis Bay, and also worked in community affairs giving talks at grade schools and public assemblies. He says that the most memorable experience he had as a cop was the time he gave mouth-to-mouth and saved a woman’s life. “Neighbors helped me force entry into the apartment and prevent what was a suicide attempt in progress,” he says.
While working as a cop, he went to law school at night. When he finished, he took the bar exam and left the department to spend a year traveling around Asia. As it turned out, he only stayed a few months before returning to Baltimore, where he discovered he had passed the bar.
He started his own small law practice in Baltimore, at first doing work for other lawyers to get his footing. “I never made a lot of money, but I got by,” he says, chuckling.
After a decade of practicing law, he started itching for a change of pace and got a job teaching criminal justice at Baltimore City Community College while working on his doctorate in public policy from UMBC. It took about 13 years to finish the program, which eventually led to the job at Coppin State, where he has been working for the last seven years teaching criminal-justice courses, which he calls “a combo police and community justice management” with some sprinklings of community policing and constitutional law courses. “It’s a university where there’s an expectation of research and publication,” he says of Coppin State. “I like the challenge.”
Berlin worked with Bishop Robinson, the first African-American Baltimore City police commissioner, to form the Bishop Robinson Institute at the university, which combines liberal arts, public and mental health, and education components, and taught for a federal program for college graduates called The Police Corps.
“There’s been a shift [in recent years] from community policing to a crime-control model,” he says, referring to zero-tolerance programs such as the one started by Gov. Martin O’Malley when he was Baltimore’s mayor. “Now we are going back a little bit.”
But community policing is not new to Berlin. “My dissertation was on community policing in Richmond, Virginia and New Haven, Connecticut in the mid-’90s,” Berlin says. “It was still a new thing then.”
The problems with the alternative approach—zero tolerance—became painfully evident in the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. “Baltimore, like many cities, has focused on crime control for much of the past two decades,” says Berlin. “The mass arrests and excesses resulting from this approach have been well-documented. CompStat-driven crime statistics were allowed to take precedence over people. “
The Baltimore Uprising emphasized the need for policing that puts people over statistics. “The civil disturbances which followed [Freddie Gray’s death],” Berlin says, “reflect deep-seated anger and distrust of the police coupled with frustration and dissatisfaction over limited economic, employment, and life opportunities. Clearly, the police must do a better job engaging and working with the community.”
Now that the issue has come to a head in Baltimore, Berlin’s approach might gain some more traction.
“Political and police leadership need to promote and ensure fair and respectful treatment of all individuals with the same zeal that was focused on crime control,” he says. “Professional policing and community engagement can accomplish the twin goals of crime control and respect for civil rights and human dignity. This is no utopian pipe dream, I have seen it work in other cities.”
Still, he acknowledges that it’s not easy. “It takes committed leadership, management—and police officers,” he says. “Policing is not an easy job. Most officers want to do the right thing. They need guidance and proper supervision, training and equipment. The public has a right to expect and demand fair, just, respectful and responsive policing.”
In addition to an improved relationship between the police and the community, he hopes to see Baltimore recover from its post-industrial decline with “increased job opportunities to replace jobs lost to the global economy and information age.”
Though he loves Baltimore, Berlin continues to relish traveling, even though he broke his kneecap on a recent trip to San Francisco and had to wear a complicated brace for a while. He recalls a recent backpacking trip to Panama and says he still stays in touch with the people he met there. And though he is 60 years old, Berlin says he’ll still stay in hostels like a “true backpacker.”