Police community relations have been a nationwide discussion throughout the summer. Dundalkians gathered together during the unofficial end of summer in support of Baltimore County police officers.

We Back Blue, a nonprofit organization that raises support for law enforcement through rallies, marches and other organized large group activities, came to Dundalk on Sept. 6 for a rally and motorcycle ride. We Back Blue’s founder, Melissa Robey, connected with local conservative activist Tim Fazenbaker to make the rally happen in Dundalk.

The rally, which took place at The New Green Room Billiards, was paired with a motorcycle ride, which was a trip around the Interstate-695 beltway. Nearly 200 motorcycles showed up to the rally and ride. The purpose of the ride was to remember Amy Caprio, a Baltimore County police officer who was killed in the line of duty two years ago.

The rally was originally planned to end with a live performance by Trapt, a modern rock band from California. Trapt was unable to perform due to county restrictions, according to Fazenbaker.

The efforts from We Back Blue and other pro-law enforcement organizations come at a time when national discourse is centered around law enforcement in America and its treatment of communities across the nation – particularly people of color. This round of national discourse was sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black Minnesota man who died while in custody of the Minneapolis Police Department. That happened on May 25, sparking protests, and some rioting, in cities across the country.

The ripple effect from Floyd’s death, which is one of many over the past several years, reached Dundalk. Turner Station residents held a Black Lives Matter march to demand police reform and equal treatment toward those they are sworn to protect. The march, held in June, began at Turner Station Park and ended in downtown Dundalk.

Black Lives Matter, a decentralized movement advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality and all racially-motivated violence against black people, is the rallying cry of those demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality. It has also become, however, a polarizing phrase in social and political discourse.

What also has become a polarizing topic is the perception of law enforcement officers – if they are public servants who put their lives at risk to protect their communities, or if they have fallen short of that expectation by way aggressive law enforcement techniques and a lack of accountability. The negative perception of law enforcement pushed Robey to start We Back Blue, according to her.

“My sister is in law enforcement, and I just got really tired of seeing police officers treated poorly while doing the job they do every single day,” Robey told the Eagle.

“They are out there saving lives.”

The topic of police reform

Reforming local police departments has been a hotly-debated topic in communities across the country. Dundalk, and Baltimore County, have not been any different. Earlier this year, Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones, D-4, introduced a bill that contained a series of reforms, including banning chokeholds, creating civilian oversight positions and requiring officers to intervene when another officer is using unnecessary force.

That bill was tabled after a legislative work session. The effort to bring police reform to Baltimore County hasn’t stopped there. This week, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. introduced a series of police reform bills, all packaged together in what is called the Strengthening Modernization, Accountability, Reform, and Transparency (SMART) Policing Act. You can read about the SMART Policing Act on the Front Page of this newspaper.

This is the second package of initiatives announced by the county over the past four months. In June, Olszewski announced an unprecedented series of executive actions regarding policing in Baltimore County, including changing the use of deadly force policy, increasing transparency and establishing independent oversight of hiring and recruitment practices.

The reactions to these initiatives have been mixed. Some Dundalkians, like Fazenbaker, have held rallies showing support of law enforcement. Others have praised these executive actions, saying they are long overdue.

Is police reform needed?

That question has yet to find a definite answer. Discussions have taken place around Baltimore County pertaining to police community relations, as well as race relations in communities. Earlier this year, Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) held a first-of-its-kind virtual open discussion about racial and cultural relations inside Baltimore County schools.

Last month, the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) hosted a virtual discussion on police community relations. An archived stream of the live discussion can be found on the BCPL Youtube Channel.

The debate was moderated by Faraji Muhammad, a radio personality who is the host of “For the Culture with Faraji,” which airs on WEAA 88.9 FM. The 90-plus minute discussion featured several panelists, including Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt; Anthony Fugett, president of the NAACP of Baltimore County; and David Rose, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 4.

The discussion took place a few days after an incident in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a Black man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha police officers. The incident was captured on video, which quickly went viral, leading to ongoing protests in the city.

Muhammad asked Hyatt about the lack of progress behind structural changes in police departments. Hyatt said she could answer from the perspective of BCPD, saying that change in large organizations takes time.

“I started in June of 2019, and in that time we have made a lot of internal progression,” Hyatt said.

“These things take time. For us, whether it’s law enforcement or anything else, for us to have sustainable change we have to create solutions that will stand the test of time.”

Hyatt gave examples of the internal progress BCPD has made under her watch. A director of accountability and compliance has been established, who is tasked with reviewing internal components within BCPD, she said. A director of diversity and inclusion was also created since she assumed her role as police chief 14 months ago. Hyatt said that BCPD is one of “not many” police departments that have someone assuming that role within the department.

Hyatt said that society works in a way that people take a moment to put their attention on an issue before moving on, adding that it will take commitment to bring more progress.

“Where we are right now in society, we are at a different place,” Hyatt said. “From the police department’s perspective, our commitment is to listening and to being a part of building sustainable solutions, and that takes time to do properly and effectively.”

Muhammad then brought Rose into the discussion of structural change within police departments, beginning by asking Rose to address a public view that police unions aim to only protect the interests of officers as opposed to improving relations between police officers and communities. Rose responded by saying that the Baltimore County FOP takes on a different role from other police unions across the country.

“We’re more of a ‘how can we work together to make the police department better, and how can we work together to make relationships between the police department and the community,’” Rose said. “We think the citizens are better served if the union and the police department work together, collaboratively, on those issues as best as we can.”

“Sometimes, we have some adversarial situations just because of both play, between management and employees. We try not to take those personally, and be constructive and have a dialogue.”

Muhammad responded to Rose by saying that there are concerns about the influence unions have on policing policies, and that there is a perception that unions have a greater amount of lobbying power that can interfere with justice. Rose responded by saying that FOP Lodge No. 4 only represents officers when it feels they have done something wrong or if they have been found to have violated a department policy.

“As far as policing policy, it has always been our point of view that the police department makes the policy, but the union represents the employees who should have a say and some input in constructing the policy,” Rose said. “If you have input from the people who the policy is going to be placed upon, sometimes they have the best information and experience to help draft policy.”

Adam Jackson, Chief Operating Officer of a Baltimore City-based grassroots organization called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, responded to Rose by saying that the historical relationship between law enforcement and community has “almost always been one of oppression and social control.”

Jackson used several examples to back up his claim. One example was “COINTELPRO,” a series of covert projects conducted by the FBI to target political organizations, including the civil rights movement, the Nation of Islam, leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party, etc. Practices included disruption, intimidation, surveillance and intimidation. He used two local examples – Christopher Brown and Korryn Gaines.

Gaines was killed inside her home by Baltimore County police officers in Randallstown in 2016. Officers were serving warrant for an unpaid traffic violation. Gaines sat inside her home with a shotgun, which she told officers she was using to protect her son, according to media reports. Officers eventually entered her home. She was killed by police soon after.

Brown died in 2012 after an altercation with an off-duty Baltimore County police officer. His death was ruled by asphyxiation.

Jackson claimed that the FOP, both the state chapter and local chapter, are willing to make concessions when it comes to police community relations, but that there is always friction when it comes to civilian oversight.

“What changes the culture of policing is the level of oversight that civilians and residents have in the department,”

The entire debate can be found on the BCPL Youtube channel.

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