The Long Road to Police Reform in Baltimore

After a scathing federal report on racism and callousness towards sexual assault victims among Baltimore cops, it didn't take long for activists to go after the local police union.

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Aug 16 2016, 4:00am

An anime fan gets caught up in a protest against Baltimore police (background) at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Sunday. Photos by J.M. Giordano

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

It was a strange scene at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Baltimore on Sunday, where hordes of cosplayers crossed paths with protesters enraged at the city's troubled police force. The Otakon anime convention featured men dressed as Kevin Smith characters and Kitana from Mortal Kombat passing under a giant "Black Lives Matter" banner hanging on an overpass outside the hotel. Meanwhile, hundreds of off-duty and retired cops checked in at the front-desk for the biannual gathering of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the state chapter of the largest police union in America.

Inside the hotel, a group of protestors wearing "Justice 4 Korryn Gaines" t-shirts chained themselves a set of stairs and tied their arms together through large black tubes to form a barrier. Gaines, a 23-year-old mother, was shot and killed and her young child wounded when she threatened to shoot cops serving her a warrant earlier this month, city cops claim. As protesters broke into call-and-response chants, the fire department arrived to cut them loose from their own chains and police began to put cuffs on them instead. Eventually, 12 people were arrested on trespassing charges.

At this blurred intersection of the real and the absurd, no one seemed less interested than the very people protestors were there to confront—FOP members arriving in Hawaiian shirts and flip flops for their four-day confab. Police unions have traditionally been an obstacle to reforming how cops do their jobs across the country, and with Baltimore still reeling from a scathing federal report documenting systemic racism and callousness toward sexual assault victims, the conference offered a preview of the long road ahead.

"I like the floor show," one retired sergeant remarked as he peered through the glass elevator doors to see on-duty cops scuffling with protestors.

At Bistro 300, the mezzanine bar overlooking the hotel lobby, cops were pre-gaming and enjoying bar snacks amid the echoing chants of protestors. ("This whole thing could be avoided if you just responded to our demands," shouted one protestor to cops cuffing her fellow activists.) The muted bar TV showed live CNN footage of burning cars in Milwaukee following more protests as yet another police killing rocked that city. A few tables away, two women dressed as matching Harajuku girls were munching away on cheeseburgers.

"This is the safest place in the city right now," the same retired officer joked, sipping a diet Pepsi and greeting friends. "We're all armed!"

By the time the FOP conference was in full swing, protesters had been dispersed and the BPD had issued a statement acknowledging the civil disobedience inspired by a "recent police officer involved incident in another district"—a vague reference to the killing of Gaines.

The scene offered a window into a particularly tense time in the nation's already-charged police accountability debate. And it highlighted a crucial piece of the puzzle in the months ahead: One of the biggest players in the local policing equation—the FOP, which Baltimore city officials will have to work with to implement federally-mandated reforms—is, predictably, less than thrilled with the Justice Department's conclusions about its own rank and file.

Activists tried to shut down the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) meeting at the Hyatt-Regency hotel Sunday.

FOP lobbying has proved instrumental in defending the police officers' Bill of Rights in Maryland, a 1970s law that gives cops accused of wrongdoing a ten-day window before they have to respond to the charges. Earlier this year, the union filed a lawsuit alleging that it is illegal for the Baltimore Police Department to share police records with the city's Civilian Review Board, asking that the body be prohibited from investigating FOP members or officers "in any manner."

The FOP is poised to "play a very significant disruptive role" in the reform process, according to Jonathan Smith, the former chief of special litigation at the DOJ's civil rights division who supervised the federal probe into Ferguson, Missouri's police force. Union pushback has caused trouble in other cities that have been subject to similar federally-enforced police reforms around the country, such as Portland Oregon, where, Smith says, union negotiations "slowed things down by over a year."

For his part, Jim Pasco, executive director of the FOP, does little to dispel the sense that making reforms work for the powerful union will be a fraught process.

"They've sent the foxes to guard the henhouse here," he said of Baltimore City officials being tasked with reforming the police force. Pasco doesn't defend Baltimore PD practices wholesale, but he does point his finger firmly at the local government and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in particular, insisting she "let Baltimore sink into the toxic abyss that it sits in today, but is now reforming the system as though she's Joan of Arc."

Pasco argues the FOP should get credit for raising many of the city police force's management issues well before the federal probe, which was launched in the wake of Freddie Gray's death in April 2015. "They need to revamp, root out the inefficient and cynically misguided managers," he said. "95 percent of the issues in there could be fixed by changes in management techniques. Police officers do what they're told or they get fired."

With the protesters out of the way, the mood at the Hyatt Regency was pretty light—lots of fist pumps and talk of an outing to an Orioles baseball game. Some cops brought their wives and grandkids and made a weekend of it. But the protestors will almost certainly be back, and while the union can ignore them—this isn't the first time the FOP and protesters have clashed in Baltimore—ignoring the feds isn't quite that easy.

Follow Annalies Winny on Twitter.

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