*Dannick Kenon’s internship with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore occurred alongside a developing investigation into evidence tampering and corruption charges within the Gun Trace Task Force of the Baltimore Police Department. His reflections represent the complexities of antipoverty work in the midst of broken systems.
The Baltimore judicial system literally defines systematic oppression. I spent most of my time in Baltimore going from courtroom to courtroom while assisting the Maryland Office of the Public Defenders. I witnessed a broken judicial system where there were few winners and many losers. I saw first-hand the flaws of broken policing—an absurdly high number of arrests, the pettiness of the arrests made, and the distrust of law enforcement. While these flaws bother me, only one thing keeps me up at night and still bothers me about Baltimore to this day—the common knowledge and acceptance of the problems of the Baltimore police.
I remember before a trial started some detectives casually talking to each other. The conversation began with mundane topics—how hot it was, a sports event, and their favorite restaurant. Then, the conversation casually drifted to talk about a police officer planting drugs in a case and getting caught by the body camera. They did not sound disgusted or shocked. It was as if they were talking about a news story that did not directly affect their own city. They did not sound concerned how this action would further divide them from the people. There was no fear the same could happen to them. They talked neither about the victim of the crime or the repercussions it could have on the police. There was no mention of the distrust it brings to minorities and the police. It was just a normal conversation.
This was not the first time I heard someone in Baltimore nonchalantly talk about problematic policing. The public defenders constantly told us that people in the street openly admit such instances and even judges seemed to imply the police had many problems. Baltimoreans knew their police had problems and seemingly made peace with it. The police abuses were like bad weather. It just happens, and the only option is to deal with it and adjust to it.
Frustrated with what I had observed I began to think of solutions. First, I thought of body cameras—the small video recorders cops wear. They must turn them on before they make an arrest. They constantly record but continue footage for only 30 seconds after the officer clicks the button to shut them down. This solution seems flawless. With cops knowing they are constantly being watched, they are forced to follow procedure and respect people. If they do not, there will be video evidence of them failing to do their jobs and they will be reprimanded accordingly. This assumption was, however, proven wrong by the detectives’ conversation. The officer who planted drugs had a body camera on, and he still planted the drugs. The only reason he got caught was because he had forgotten the body camera records 30 seconds after he pressed the button. I did not know what to be more disgusted with, the fact that an officer felt the need to plant evidence to make an arrest or that he forgot how body cameras work! I asked one of the public defenders about this occurrence, and he told me the body camera not catching everything is not unusual. Some police just do not turn them on at all or move their body to cover the camera when they do not want people to see what they are doing. Since most arrests do not go to trial, the issues do not usually come up as they should.
Solutions like the body camera will not by themselves fix the police problem in Baltimore. They help, but they do not address the heart of the problem. The entire way policing is done must be systematically changed. Solutions like body cameras and more civilian oversight are insufficient. Police will find ways to get around them. The entire system must be redesigned. Police need better training. Police need to be more than law enforcement agents; they must also “protect and serve.” Officers must learn to respect the authority they have over the people. They should not focus on making arrests but on establishing relationships with the people they are supposed to protect. They should be taught this ethic above all else. Policing must become something people rely on rather than something they fear. I believe there should be a focus on fixing police in Baltimore, not just for the sake of Baltimore, but as an example for other policing in America as well. If the most notoriously bad police in America can change for the better then it is possible for all police to do the same.