By Jasmine Byrd
After another unarmed black man was added to the numerous list of those gunned down by a police officer across the nation, a conversation between a Baltimore City police chief and the Morgan State University community about improving community-police relations was right on time.
A video went viral depicting a South Carolina police officer shooting at military veteran, Walter Scott Young, eight times. Eventually, the officer shot Young down and he died on the scene. Then a week later, a video surfaced on the Internet of an Oklahoma police officer shooting another black man during an arrest.
Chief Rodney Hill of the Internal Affairs Division of the Baltimore City Police Department acknowledges there is a long-standing mistrust between the public and police. During his lecture in the Earl S. Richardson Library to a portion of the Morgan populace last Wednesday, Hill emphasized a couple of poignant moments in history that facilitated the social unrest the country is seeing now: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Rodney King incident in 1991. In addition, he noted that misunderstandings and miscommunication stand between the police and the people.
Moments after the lecture, Hill sat down to talk further about Walter Scott Young, the U.S Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department and bettering the exchange between law enforcement and citizens.
The MSU Spokesman: Walter Scott Young was stopped for a broken tail light, what is the normal procedure for police in this case?
Chief Hill: You approach the vehicle just like you have been taught. The police car is angled a certain way in the event there is a fire fight and you may have to take cover. If it is at night, you shine your flashlight in the vehicle. You look to see the person’s hands. Simply ask for the license and registration. The courts will say you just deal with that [reason for the] encounter, unless there is probable cause for something else. If I smell marijuana or see a gun, then there is something else. But, if there isn’t, you just deal with that traffic stop and end it there.
Do you think that the city of Charleston responded to the incident that happened with Walter Scott Young appropriately?
Yeah. In South Carolina, there’s no police union. They don’t have restrictions. Here in Maryland, we have a very strict law which is called Law Enforcement Bill of Rights that governs how police discipline is handled. The incident occurred Friday. The video footage came out Sunday. He was charged on Monday. He was fired Thursday. That’s pretty dog-on impressive. That would never happen like that here in Maryland because state laws govern how police officers’ discipline is handled. I would love to have that ability to make the quick call in certain cases. My caveat is that I didn’t see the whole . From what I saw, I didn’t see any reason to justify that force.
What can citizens do when they are being stopped to eliminate any tension between them and the police? How do you keep the situation from being escalated?
It’s tough depending on the reason you are being stopped. If you know that you have been speeding or whatever, there’s no reason to argue back and forth. The biggest problem comes when you don’t know why you are being stopped. I’ve stopped hundreds of people in my career [who] had no idea why I was stopping them. There’s an armed robbery that occurred down the street. You kind of fit the description, so I am going to stop you and see if you had anything to do with it. Those are the ones that lead to stuff. The most important thing I tell people is recognize your boundaries. On the street, that is a lose-lose encounter for you. I’ve seen attorneys tell people to pull out your cellphone. If you’re going to do that, my recommendation is to do that way before the officer gets closer. You’re reaching into your pocket and I’m stopping you for an armed robbery. Now, I’m thinking you’re going for a gun.
I had a young lady come in yesterday to make a complaint. [She said,]“Police stopped us and I got it on my cellphone.” I’m listening to it and the young lady is cursing more than the police officer. Know that you can elevate the situation and you can lower it. Take [the officer’s] name and if you are not treated properly make a complaint. Most [officers] don’t want to be investigated because this is their job, their livelihood; and, depending on what it is, they could go to jail.
So, take the high road and realize there is a forum in which you can win. It’s the court room, not down the street.
In the lecture, you mentioned that cops develop an “us versus them” mentality. Can you explain that?
What I’ve found, especially with the younger officers, you come on the job excited and you want to catch the bad guys. You see negative all the time. You don’t get one positive call for service. I remember what used to bother me is that I would see an old black woman that reminded me of my grandmother cursing like a sailor. I would think, “‘My grandmother doesn’t act like that.”’ So everyone you deal with as an officer, you start to think acts like that. That’s how the “us versus them” starts to develop. You start to think that they [the public] don’t respect police. Then, at a certain point, you grow up. I used to be scared to tell people I was a police officer. But, now, I tell people because I think that people have more of a respect for police than police realize.
Recently, the Department of Justice released a report about the Ferguson Police Department revealing about 90 percent of police encounter using force were on blacks and all encounters involving canine attacks were on blacks. Ferguson is roughly 67 percent black, which is a similar make-up to Baltimore City, so in the time that you have been police chief of Internal Affairs, have you seen the same statistics?
I would say the statistics have definitely gone down. For example, I would say maybe three or four years ago, the numbers of cases involving [police] shootings were I would say about 24. I think last year [that] we ended with 13. So you’re talking a 50 percent reduction; and a lot of that is we just started holding officers more accountable. This is where it gets funny. The shooting itself may have been justified. But, then what we look at [is], what happened prior to the shooting. So, we will say, when you shot the person you may have had the legal right to do it, but you[police officer] did this to put yourself in this situation. We have been looking at these situations more closely because it is very subjective.
Since three or four years ago, the number of complaints have seen a downwards trajectory. Excessive force complaints have gone down. Police-involved shootings have gone down. What I attribute that to is Commissioner [Anthony] Batts. He is very serious about professionalizing the agency and holding officers accountable. I’m trying to think of one case where the officer fired at a vehicle. In years past, all across the country where a police fires at a vehicle, he will say well the vehicle was coming at me. In one particular case we found out the officer placed himself in front of the car.
What are the pros and cons of body cameras?
The biggest pro is this: The entire encounter is caught on camera. I think it will reduce the number of complaints. The two biggest cons are the money to purchase software and data storage. And then, the privacy issues. Who gets to see the footage? An attorney can ask to see the footage for all encounters with black males. Some of those encounters are very private. You call the police into your house because you want to tell me about something that happened to you that is very private— then it’s right there on film. Where does that film go? In the cloud somewhere. Who’s got access to it? Those are the questions we have not been able to figure out.
So that we are not always calling on police for negatives, should we start inviting police to our wedding anniversaries and cookouts?
Laughs. Maybe not the wedding anniversary. But, the cookouts. Sure. It can only make a difference.