Three-plus hours at the City Council Public Safety Committee hearing on police procedures

City Paper

There are two, maybe three, important things to take from the three-plus-hour hearing on police procedures the City Council’s Public Safety Committee held last Tuesday.

 1. Police stop citizens on the street thousands of times a year, but they do not have any usable data about those stops.

2. Police are skeptical of anyone who complains about them. But they really, really want to earn your trust, so they check every complaint.

There might be a third item: These hearings are useful for seeing the state of affairs, and they also reveal a troubling dichotomy between the way the council treats police witnesses and citizens.

“Since I’ve been chairman of this committee, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on the police department,” City Councilman Warren Branch (13th District) said, interrupting ShaiVaughn Crawley’s testimony to the committee. Crawley, 19 years old, moved to Baltimore last fall. He says he has tried to become active, and even spoke at a budget hearing, but had not yet been to a Public Safety Committee hearing. “You’ve not been here,” Branch scolded. “So don’t come in here casting stones.”

Crawley, who had just waited patiently through about two hours of top police officials delivering boilerplate and talking points, sat down. He had been the second non-police speaker, and he had asked the councilmembers—Brandon Scott (2nd District), Nick Mosby (7th District), and Eric Costello (11th District), along with Branch—to please print out the statistics the police were giving them, because the projected slides, high on the far wall, were impossible to read. Rhetorically and pointedly, he asked, “Who is going to keep you all accountable?”

Branch continued to lecture Crawley after he sat down, saying the police had been working with his committee to improve police-community relations. Crawley finally stood up and walked out.

“That’s not right,” he told a reporter outside the hearing room, as he neared the fourth-floor elevator. “I should have been able to give my testimony.”

Just then, Scott and Costello approached Crawley to try to smooth things over. “It drives me nuts,” Scott told a reporter as Crawley got on the elevator to leave. “You don’t talk to children like that.”

City Council informational hearings can get emotional. Branch has held a series of these on “The Anatomy of a Car Stop.” He directs the police to explain their policies and procedures for interacting with people on the street or in a vehicle, and sometimes asks them to address concerns about incidents that he witnessed—or that constituents told him about.

The police avoid specifics.

“I think I’m going to answer your question in a different way,” Commissioner Anthony Batts said at the beginning of the hearing, “by providing the facts about what we can and cannot do.”

The police commanders then talked mostly about the ideals taught in the police academy. They explained “reasonable suspicion,” as defined by the landmark Supreme Court case titled Terry v. Ohio.

Over and over again, the police told the council and assembled audience that they absolutely must have “reasonable, articulable suspicion” to conduct a “stop,” and that they never, ever stop anyone without it.

Over and over again, non-police who were there to testify muttered “liar” and other things.

“We understand that this is a hypothetical,” said Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez, who Batts put in charge of a new Bureau of Professional Standards two years ago. Rodriguez oversees the Internal Affairs Division, plus audits and the writing of police procedures. “The alleged public strip-search is not the kind of conduct that we teach.”

This allegation is not hypothetical: Jermaine Lyons is suing the department for $2 million for stripping and cavity-searching him in public, according to his complaint.

“We will deal with that,” Rodriguez tells the City Council.

The department has put its “Use of Force Investigations” online. But the tiny maps and confusing matrix appear designed to thwart clarity and accountability. The names of the officers supposedly under investigation are not published here, for example. And of the 34 cases (all of 2014) on the table, only five feature downloadable PDF reports of the findings.

Those reports likewise do not identify the officers or any suspects or victims. None of them found any wrongdoing by any police officers, although one case was not fully investigated because the York, Pennsylvania police have charged the officer—John Torres—with attempted murder for allegedly shooting a man whose wife Torres was in a relationship with. The Baltimore police investigation ended when Torres resigned from the department.

The “Force Investigation Team” (FIT) is investigating 11 shootings of people by police, three fewer than the total reported number of such incidents last year.

Batts notes that police shootings are down in recent years from a high of 45 in 2007. He says deploying new digital Tasers is a big part of that.

“I’m a big proponent of Tasers and I have been for the last 10 years,” Batts says. “The more that you use Tasers, the less that you have serious injuries and officer-involved shootings.”

Another high-ranking officer told the council that the department does not train officers to have a time limit for how long they deploy the Taser, saying the new machines—X26p models—turn off automatically after five minutes. After that, “if they’re still combative, then you have to Tase them again.”

Rodriguez added: “We rely on our own departmentally trained experts to make policy” regarding Taser use.

This drew a rebuke later from Kim Trueheart, an activist who comes to many of these hearings. “Don’t you sit there and tell me that’s not crap!” she told the councilmembers, noting that Taser International, the device’s manufacturer, recommends a much shorter shock duration. But the police expert had misspoken. Taser says the shocks last only five seconds—not five minutes. Taser recommends no more than five seconds of continuous shock before the situation is reassessed.

Trueheart bore down on the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which many experts think impedes departments from disciplining violent officers. “It needs to be changed,” she said. “If [Batts] cannot discipline his officers, he should not have the authority to give them weapons.”

Councilman Scott asked for data on use-of-force complaints, plus Taser deployments going back two decades.

Rodriguez said data “is fuzzy going that far back.” He and others said the police now have an “early warning system” tracking police officers with a propensity to overuse violence. He says it is getting violent cops out of the department: “Termination for the past two years is quite a bit higher than it’s ever been before.”

The data was not apparent.

A lot of complaints against police are vague, Rodriguez said. But his investigators follow up: “We’ll go as far as showing pictures of officers in the district.”

In a later exchange, Batts acknowledged that 450 cases of misconduct were heard last year. Asked if 450 had been sustained, he said, “No. One hundred percent of those cases have not been found sustained. One hundred percent are investigated.” He did not answer how many had been sustained. An investigation by The Sun published last fall found 3,048 complaints of police misconduct between 2012 and mid 2014, of which 1,203 were “sustained”—or found to be true.

Col. Garnell Green, who heads the Office of Internal Oversight (under Rodriguez), showed slides and explained that all stops of people by officers require completion of a citizen-police contact report. He said the department had 117 such reports of “investigational stops” from 2014 in its database.

“We know that there’s more stops being conducted,” Rodriguez said. There are thousands of these stops conducted each year, he said. But the records are kept on paper at the district offices and brought to headquarters in boxes every month or so.

There is no one to key these paper forms into the department’s computer system.

Despite all of the “CompStat” implemented over the past decade and a half, keeping track of who is stopped, frisked, or encountered has not been a priority for the department.

As the absurd lack of data came clear to the council, Commissioner Batts stepped to the mic. “We have thousands of stop tickets,” Batts said. “They’ve been stored. I need that data. I need it to know who we’re stopping, how often, where.” He says he’ll ask the council for money to hire data entry and analysis people “and,” he says, “we’re gonna publish it.”

At one point, Branch asked about the data that police have been collecting for years during stops of people on the street. “We had police officers jotting down data—where they lived, where they worked, like for a database,” he said. “Nobody knew what it was for.”

And still, nobody does. “That’s really not the direction we’ve been heading for the last two and a half years,” Rodriguez replied. “We don’t want the public to think they’re under martial law.”

 

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