© 2020 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Baltimore Police Chief Wants To Reform Department

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So we just heard how Baltimore was upended by protests and marches back in 2015 after Freddie Gray's death. Many of those protests focused on the conduct of the Baltimore police. Over the past year, the department has enacted some changes, but some say more needs to be done. Mary Rose Madden of member station WYPR has a report that takes us back to April of last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Say we want freedom...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Want freedom...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) ...In Baltimore.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) ...In Baltimore.

MARY ROSE MADDEN, BYLINE: Even before the riots broke out in Baltimore, tensions were high near the Western District Police Station. The Western District is where Freddie Gray lived, where he was arrested. Hundreds chanted no justice, no peace. They were furious. They wanted answers. Shantrise Martin, who lives in Gray's neighborhood, says the way the cops treat them is humiliating.

SHANTRISE MARTIN: They hate us so much.

MADDEN: Protesters, many of whom from Baltimore's poorest African-American communities, recalled stories of police brutality, harassment or misconduct they'd experienced or witnessed. People said the city was slow to respond to the anger and the riots. Since the unrest, the Baltimore mayor, who is not running for reelection, has fired the police commissioner and hired Kevin Davis as the city's top cop. Davis openly criticizes the Baltimore Police Department's old policing strategy, one in which officers arrested first, asked questions later and left thousands with criminal records even when the cases were dropped.

KEVIN DAVIS: Some of things that we did in the past, like zero-tolerance policing, didn't work and arguably led in part to the unrest that we experienced in 2015.

MADDEN: Davis says he wants to stay tough on crime. But he wants to police smarter. He says he'll institute new training, best practices in recruiting and community policing. Cops will start wearing body cameras soon. And, he says, he wants to overhaul the traditional hiring process.

DAVIS: So the hiring practices really look at criminal backgrounds and they look at job references and they look at education and they look at your capacity to physically do this job. But we don't do enough in measuring someone's capacity for emotional intelligence.

MADDEN: Davis says he wants to change the culture of the Baltimore Police Department. The majority of Baltimore cops don't live in the city, so he's organized a Baltimore history speaker series to boost cultural sensitivity. There's also a push to get officers out of their cars. Davis wants them doing foot patrol when they can.

ZACHARY NOVAK: Twenty-three - I may be responding.

MADDEN: On a recent morning, we caught up with officer Zachary Novak, who has been on the Baltimore force for four years. He says walking foot helps fight crime and build relationships.

NOVAK: Notice all this stuff here?

MADDEN: He stops at a light post. Names and symbols are scribbled in black and blue sharpie pens on the metal.

NOVAK: See the nickname fathead? Her name was Katerra Drum, and she was killed right in front of Bill's Place. These are actually really good places to get intelligence 'cause everybody has a nickname.

MADDEN: We turn to go into a liquor store on the corner.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

NOVAK: How you doing, ma? Any problems today at all? All right, well, I'll be out and around if you need anything, OK? All right.

MADDEN: But many activists say there are systemic problems in the Baltimore Police Department that go much deeper. Adam Jackson says the way to change the culture of the force is by changing the way bad cops are investigated and disciplined.

ADAM JACKSON: So it doesn't matter if we have officer friendly on a foot patrol half of his shift and he knows people in the community if there are structural issues with how we hold police accountable.

MADDEN: Jackson is with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a political advocacy group that fought for police reforms in the Maryland State House. They want to put civilians on internal police trial boards. Activists say they'll keep screaming until they're heard. The police commissioner says fundamental change is coming. But right now he's trying to force officers to see themselves as guardians instead of warriors. For NPR News, I'm Mary Rose Madden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.