"I am begging you to work with this process, this is the only one we have," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings told a crowd of 200 at a town hall meeting on Wednesday. The meeting, one of several around the city, was an opportunity for Baltimore residents to weigh in on the Department of Justice's report about Baltimore police before the federal government hammers out a court-enforced plan for reform. Cummings said this was a "critical moment" for the city and the police department and urged the audience to "turn [this] into a movement" because "it can be done."
The period for commenting on the 163-page DOJ report, released Aug. 9, is rushing to a close on Sept. 9, and representatives from the federal agency said they wanted to hear from the community before hammering out a formal reform plan in the courts. So far, police have already entered into an agreement in principal on the heels of the damning DOJ report, which documented widespread systemic problems of race- and gender-based discrimination as well as constitutional violations by the police department.
"We need to continue to move forward together because we can't do this alone," said Tim Mygatt, an attorney for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, explaining the purpose of the town hall. He described the DOJ's function as a "catalyst" but said, "this is not something DOJ can fix, we need to work together."
The agreement in principal is simply BPD's promise to enter into a consent decree but it is the consent decree itself that will put the court's muscle behind reforms. The court will appoint a federal monitor to oversee the whole process. The deadline for the consent decree is Nov. 1. "We do not want the concerns we outlined in the report to exist one day longer than necessary," Mygatt said, explaining the narrow window for comments.
The town hall was sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., Rep. Cummings, and the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and its Black Law Students Association and Student Bar Association, and participants included most of city's prominent activists, including members of Baltimore Bloc, Duane "Shorty" Davis, and Tawanda Jones, whose brother, Tyrone West, died in police custody in 2013.
Most of the comments leaned toward reiterating the need for reforms—preaching to the choir, in this case—rather than outlining any specific suggestions about how those reforms might be manifested. But there were exceptions.
One audience member suggested that all police officers who draw their guns in any incident should immediately be tested for drugs and alcohol afterward as a matter of protocol. Another suggested extending police academy training by one year. Yet another suggested annual psychological evaluations for officers to at least temporarily sideline those who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. One man, if I understood him correctly, called for a police force of rotating citizens modeled on jury duty where people served as cops for nine-month stints.
An eloquent senior high school student from Mervo, Lewis Laury, drew applause when he spoke about school police. (School police, who are technically separate from BPD, drew criticism from DOJ investigators because of their overlapping roles with city police.)
"We have to look at root causes instead of just supporting prosecuting police for excessive use of force," Laury said.
He encouraged more school police to function like his favorite Mervo officer whom he referred to as "Miss Kenya." (Approached afterwards, he said he did not know "Miss Kenya's" full name. "We just call her Miss Kenya.") Laury said school police are typically young people's first contact with law enforcement and it is important for that relationship to be a good one. Miss Kenya is "an ear and you can always talk to her about anything," he said.
She also runs a group for girls at Mervo where they meet weekly to talk about things that are bothering them, he explained. He worried that BPD and a lot of school police are "looking at us as street thugs rather than students" and concluded, "that's not right."