Toward Trust

Grassroots Recommendations for Police Reform in Baltimore

A member of the Baltimore Police Department speaks with a protester during a march for Freddie Gray on April 23, 2015.

Endnotes and citations are available in the PDF and Scribd versions.

When Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died in the custody of Baltimore police officers, the incident brought to a head years of community anger and frustration with the city’s police department. The protests and violence that followed—sometimes referred to as the Baltimore Uprising—focused a national spotlight on the city. But Gray’s death was only the latest grievance against a police department that many local residents have long perceived as overly aggressive, out of touch with the community, and able to act with impunity.

The call for police reform is especially relevant at this moment. Baltimore is just one of a number of major U.S. cities that recently have experienced tensions between police and the communities they serve, particularly poor communities and communities of color. The deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and others at the hands of police sparked a national conversation on police violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged as a powerful voice calling for reform.

The federal government has also acknowledged the need for policing reform and accountability. Between 2009 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has opened more than 20 investigations into police departments, more than twice as many as the previous five years. Last year, the Department of Justice convened the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which released its recommendations in May 2015. In light of this national focus on policing, this report proposes a series of recommendations that the mayor of Baltimore, the Baltimore City Council, and the police commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, or BPD, can adopt to reform and improve the BPD.

In the weeks after Gray’s death, a coalition of local community organizations began holding regular meetings in Baltimore to come up with a plan to move forward. Called the Campaign for Justice, Safety, and Jobs, the coalition represents a wide range of grassroots, civic, and religious leadership in Baltimore, including countless organizations and institutions that have advocated for police reform for years. On June 8, 2015, the campaign released the following framework, which has informed the recommendations in this report:

Effective law enforcement upholds equal justice and protects public safety by ensuring community accessibility, transparency, and accountability. True community policing must include an intentional orientation in language, practice and policy of police as protectors, partners and fellow community members, rather than antagonists and occupiers of our neighborhoods, towns and cities.

Building off of that framework, this report focuses on ideas that, together, would make the BPD more accountable to residents, more transparent about its internal workings, and ultimately more effective at preventing and solving serious crimes.

The six recommendations are:

  1. Fire police officers who have demonstrated corruption or unnecessary violence
  2. Remove the gag order on victims of police misconduct
  3. Distribute body cameras to all police officers within one year and ensure that the public has access to footage
  4. Improve community policing by prioritizing, measuring, and incentivizing problem solving and community satisfaction
  5. Publish all Baltimore Police Department policies online
  6. Ensure that every police officer is trained in de-escalation techniques

As broad principles, these recommendations can serve as a model and be adapted and repurposed for other cities dealing with police-community tensions.

Ben Jealous is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the former president and CEO of the NAACP.