It's time for the Baltimore Police Department to start again naming its officers who shoot people and end this futile policy of withholding identities.
First off, the policy has failed. The names of seven officers who shot people this year have been revealed -- only one has not -- sometimes hours after the bullets were fired into city civilians. Their names have come from public court documents, police reports, leaks from secret sources and once even by the police commissioner himself.
Second, it's proved to be a giant distraction for a department that should be focusing on crime and not wasting it defending ill-conceived policies designed by a spokesman from Washington who has no background in urban policing and a proven disdain for openness and accountability on behalf of a law enforcement agency struggling for respect among the city's residents.
Third, the policy openly mocks the mayor's call for transparency in her police and her otherwise laudable push to get the community involved, a difficult task after years in which the police alienated the community by arresting more than a hundred thousand people, many on charges that couldn't even stand up to the review of a prosecutor at the booking center and had to be thrown out.
The only way the spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, and his followers can sustain this policy of secret
policing is through subterfuge -- they've mislead the city and the City Council on the types of threats officers receive, making shambles of their own arguments, blacking out portions of public documents to keep people from obtaining court records, failing to inform the public of an arrest at one shooting, which would have led to a court document with the name of the officer, and providing false information on an officer's previous shooting that made her look heroic when in fact her actions could be described as reckless.
At a City Council hearing last night, attended by Baltimore Sun police reporter Justin Fenton, members were angry at the department's explanations. They should have also been angry at themselves for the childish way they acted at a previous hearing when they blew their chance to ask Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III tough questions about this policy. Instead, they bought the department's line to the point where they fawned over the top cop and abdicated their roles as public watchdogs.
Yesterday, Councilman James B. Kraft, who last month told Bealefeld, "We don't want these guys names on the street," said: "I have a concern that if we don't ask the right questions, we don't get the right answers. I was very upset, and I expressed this privately, upset about our last hearing when we were talking about the policy that has been adopted dealing with the disclosure of the identity of officers involved in shootings."
In other words, Kraft is sorry for letting Bealefeld skate through a hearing. When Bealefeld testified that 23 officers had been threatened last year -- a number fed to him by his new spokesman, Guglielmi, who has been throwing the number around since January in the context of this new policy -- Kraft and others rightly assumed that those threats were the results of police-involved shootings.
Guglielmi claims he never meant to suggest that, which is a good thing since none of the 23 officers who were threatened last year had anything to do with police involved shootings. Most threats, numbers supplied by Guglielmi after a public records request by The Sun -- stemmed from arrests, and only a handful were deemed serious. One even involved an officer threatening another officer. But since nobody pressed Bealefeld at the February City Council hearing, he never had to come clean about the number.
And now the council feels misled: "And the 23 number; I believed myself that those 23 were officers who had been involved in shootings and therefore, they felt they were going to be threatened because of that," Kraft said. "I don't think the distinction was brought forth in the hearing. ... I feel that could've been more clearer."
The truth does tend to clear up such matters.
It seems that Kraft, at least, finally gets it: "We are constantly, constantly asking our citizens to come forward, and to be ready to stand up and identify criminals and to participate in the process ... and when a citizen sees that a police officer is afraid to have his or her name out there because they could be a victim, I think it creates the perception that, if the cops are afraid of retaliation, then why should the average citizen help out? The police department, they have vests, they have guns, they have their brothers and sisters in blue. The ordinary citizen doesn't have that. "
On the Marc Steiner show Monday, Guglielmi tried to say it doesn't matter whether the 23 threats involved police shootings, that he wants to be proactive, that he's not willing to wait for an officer to be gunned down after his name shows up in the newspaper. It matters a great deal when you use a number to justify a policy, then the number turns out to be bogus. Guglielmi is not serving his police commissioner well if he sets him up for that kind of failure at a public meeting. Not only does this policy give reason for people to further mistrust police, but the department is compounding the problem by giving us reason to mistrust the guy in charge.
Guglielmi has repeatedly said that the only redacting they are doing is of the officer's name; the citizens still have all the pertinent information needed to judge whether the shooting is justified. Trouble with this is we have to trust the department to tell us what is pertinent, and the track record in the last three months alone is not very comforting.
* After Officer Traci McKissick tussled with 61-year-old Joseph Forrest on Orleans Street on Feb. 18, it took reporters' questions to get Guglielmi to admit that she had been involved in a previous shooting in 2005 (he had promised that sort of information would be routinely divulged).
* At first, Guglielmi said only that she had been involved in a previous incident and that it had been ruled justified. Pressed by author and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, the spokesman said that in 2005 she had discharged her weapon after or while been dragged by a car.
* The Sun pressed Guglielmi for further details and demanded the 2005 police report. His office faxed a copy with both the name of the officer and the name of the suspect blacked out, done, one of the officers in public affairs told us, to prevent us from obtaining the four-year-old court document. Guglielmi later apologized for blacking out the name of the suspect, calling it an oversight, but did not apologize for blacking out the name of the officer.
* We obtained the court file anyway and it showed that McKissick had not been dragged behind a car but had jumped into a car when a suspect she and a sergeant had stopped for drugs tried to flee in a vehicle the cops had failed to secure. The driver and McKissick wrestled for her gun, which went off, a bullet striking a back seat, and the suspect got the weapon and threw it out the window. It has never been found. The shooting of Forrest also involved a fight in which the man tried to get her weapon, meaning that twice in four years, this officer had been involved in a fight over her weapon and had been overpowered, details the department tried very hard to hide.
* Also in the shooting of Forrest, police neglected to tell reporters that an officer had arrested a relative of the dead man who they said tried to help wrest away McKissick's gun. She was actually fighting two people, not one, a detail that could help explain why she and the sergeant fired their weapons and how she was overpowered and pinned to the pavement. But releasing the name would have allowed the public to obtain the court document, which contains the names of the officers. Guglielmi told me he didn't know an arrest was made and wasn't trying to hide anything, but given his willingness to obliterate public records to further his policy, I no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. By the way, it was police union officials, who support Guglielmi's policy, who called this newspaper to complain that we weren't reporting the arrest and making McKissick look like she was fighting just one person.
* That brings us to the most recent shooting on Friday, in which Officer Jemell Rayam fatally shot a man who had struck another officer with his vehicle during a traffic stop in Northwest Baltimore. A police spokeswoman, on Friday night shortly after the shooting, revealed that the then-unnamed officer had been involved in two previous shootings that had been ruled justified. In Guglielmi's world, that's sufficient information for you to judge whether the department is being forthcoming.
* On Monday, after the man had died Sunday night, this newspaper again asked for a full accounting of the previous shootings and for the reports. That went on all day until Guglielmi appeared on the Marc Steiner show and at 5:30 p.m., in an effort to assure listeners that his department fully cooperates with the press and the public, said The Sun had asked for the reports and we had them in our hands.
* That simply was not true. The spokesman made it sound as if they had acted promptly to our request for the most basic public record, when in fact it took until 6 p.m. (and phone calls to both Guglielmi and another spokeswoman) to get one of reports, again with the name of the officer blacked out. Guglielmi's office said they had been given the wrong information, hence the delay; I can't help but note that it took the department more than six hours to answer the request and we were furnished with only half of it and after the courts had closed for the day -- meaning we could not pull court documents on the case until Tuesday.
* Do you find it as baffling and ironic as I do that the department, two days after working overtime to keep the public from learning Rayman's name and blacking his identity from a police report, honored him at a public awards ceremony yesterday for shooting someone in a gunfight two years ago (the very same incident covered by the blacked out report)? The agency gave out awards in connection with 24 incidents; all but six involved a police-involved shooting. The threats Guglielmi are so worried about must have suddenly disappeared. The very fact they had this public ceremony makes a mockery of their argument that these names must be kept secret.
* Topping it off, a lawyer for the police union is arguing that an officer indicted on a manslaughter charge for shooting a man last year was unfairly singled out as a bad cop, jeopardizing his right to a fair trial, because the new policy dictates that only officers found to have unjustly shot someone be named. Bealefeld had used this case at the City Council hearing to say his department is naming cops whose actions are found to be questionable.
There is a lot of effort being used to promote a public relations policy. Guglielmi says that the only thing the public is missing is the officer's name, but just three months since this new policy took effect, we learn time and time again there is a lot more information that the department can hide when it's not subject to outside review and scrutiny. Without the name, the public would still be unaware that McKissick had been overpowered four years earlier, and not dragged by a car.
We shouldn't tolerate secret policing in our cities. Robert Cherry, the president of the city police union, told me on Tuesday that he objected to Prince George's County officers working overtime at city bars -- city cops are now banned from such jobs -- because citizens here don't need someone from the outside "causing trouble and then leaving without us knowing who they are." By that logic, why should city cops be able to shoot people without their citizens knowing who they are? (Cherry later called to put his comments into greater context: he meant that with outside officers working overtime for private companies, even city police wouldn't know who they are; with a city cop involved in a shooting, city authorities would of course know who they are).
The policy dishonors the good cops who are willing and able to stand by their actions. It paints all cops and all shootings as questionable simply because we have no reason to believe what the department tells us. When the policy was first announced, Gugliemli tried to pass it off as a public affairs initiative, the new guy charging in and helping cops by altering a century-old policy -- and that Bealefeld could do as he pleases, but public affairs would not release the names. That rightly confused City Council members and the rest of as to whether Guglielmi was making his own policy and whether he really spoke for Bealefeld. City Council members told me those fears were put to rest when Bealefeld testified at the hearing last month and owned up to the new rules. I still have my doubts: if this is Bealefeld's policy, he should retract it, apologize and move on to fighting crime. If it's Guglielmi's policy, Bealefeld should order it redacted, admit he was ill-served and not allow a spokesman to form policy again.
Guglielmi's job is to speak for the department, to guide and advise the commissioner and to set his public agenda. But more than that, Guglielmi has a responsibility to the public to be honest, open, up front and to warn his boss when policies contradict the mayor's mission to restore trust in the department. If not, then Mayor Sheila Dixon needs to step in and order her commissioner to reverse a policy that flies in the face of what she's trying to accomplish. You can't ask the unarmed citizens of the city to stand up to criminals when the armed protectors want to hide.
Now, every single shooting by police will be questioned and receive far greater review than usual, until the media and the public are satisfied that the deadly actions were appropriate. Back when the names were released, usually within 24 hours of a shooting, that process was simple, easy and often led to no further coverage. Now, given the secrecy and the obfuscation, the actions of every single police officer who fires his or her weapon will be questioned, doubted and debated.
The commissioner's face should be plastered all over this city talking about ending violence, locking up criminals and restoring order. Bealefeld has served this city well over the past year but has big challenges ahead of him. He has to beat his own good numbers (homicides went down in 2008 but are up this year) with less money and fewer resources. He doesn't need additional headaches from the office he relies on to get his message out, but is instead wasting time misleading the public they are supposed to serve.