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National

Changing How We Police Is Going To Be A Journey, Baltimore Chief Says

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Freddie Gray died a year ago this week after suffering injuries when he was arrested by Baltimore police officers. The city exploded in riots and protests over allegations of the excessive use of force. In the aftermath, the mayor hired a new police chief Kevin Davis to reform the police department. We reached him in Baltimore to talk about how it's going.

Police Chief Davis, thank you so much for joining us.

KEVIN DAVIS: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to start with one number - homicides.

DAVIS: Sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the first three months of this year, there were 56 homicides. That's higher than in the same period last year. What are you going to do to address this?

DAVIS: So it's numerically higher by a few homicides. But, you know, as we look at the pace of violence, that trajectory has slowed. We have made, year-to-date, over 430 gun arrests. That's an astronomical accomplishment. But that's not coinciding, necessarily, with a decrease in violence.

So what that tells me is that more bad guys are choosing to illegally carry a firearm on our streets. And that's why I spent so much time in Annapolis during this legislative session practically begging our elected officials to make that illegal possession of a firearm in Maryland a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are confident, you say, that the pace of these homicides will slow. Summer's coming, though. We have the trials for the police officers charged in Freddie Gray's murder. What are you doing to prepare for that?

DAVIS: Well, our preparation has been ongoing since last year. And the easy part of the civil disturbance preparation had to do with updating our training and equipment. The Baltimore Police Department hadn't focused on civil disturbance training practically since 1968. The tougher thing - the ongoing endeavor is improving our relationship with the community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're talking about community engagement. But I also want to talk about community policing. In other words, foot patrols. Many people that we've spoken to say that this is lacking. You know, cops just drive into communities. They jump out of their cars. They arrest people. Then they drive away.

We spoke to one activist named Ray Kelly. He's with the No Boundaries Coalition for Central West Baltimore (ph). And this is some of what he told us.

RAY KELLY: There have been more open dialogue between the police department and residents. But there's still not a foot patrol or beats being delegated to the officers just yet. And if it is, it's barely noticeable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you respond to that?

DAVIS: I'll say this - the implementation - the creation, rather, of a community foot patrol academic curriculum is something that I just did in the last year that's never been done here before.

When the last academy class graduated on February 27, I mandated that they spend their first 90 working days exclusively on foot patrol. They won't see the inside of a police car for over three and a half months. So we are doing things differently. Again, if we're going to change this - if we're going to fundamentally change the way we police in Baltimore, it's going to be a journey.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the issue, though, of how police interact with residents - you know, a lot of people say that there is a systemic problem. And I bring up, for example, the use of Tasers. The number of Tasers used by police has tripled to 1,700. But policies - specific guidelines for how police should use them have not kept up. What changes are you pursuing in that regard?

DAVIS: Yeah. Well, that's not a correct statement. I was named interim police commissioner back in July of 2015. And one of the first policies that I looked at was the Taser policy. And I changed it in August of 2015, just over a month after being into office. And specifically, the use of a Taser in Baltimore was too broadly interpreted. Officers were allowed to use a Taser when they felt it was quote, "reasonable and necessary," unquote.

That just wasn't specific enough. So I changed that to reflect, or mandate, rather, that police officers will only deploy their Tasers when they are in the midst of dealing with a person who's exhibiting active aggression.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The numbers show that 90 percent of the tasing is happening to African-Americans. Seventy percent is happening in impoverished communities. Don't those numbers speak to the wider problem?

DAVIS: I think you can probably take that same conversation and apply it to crime and incidents of violence. I think in the city of 623,000, the number of folks in the city who are responsible for the violence is very, very small.

So that's why our policing strategies and philosophies really are more laser-focused on the gun-carrying bad guys that were repeat offenders - those are the people that we are going after. The days of zero-tolerance policing are over. The war on drugs has failed. So police leaders are now tasked with doing something that our forefathers have never been tasked with, and that's just to holistically and fundamentally change the way we police our communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If you had to give yourself a grade, what would be the grade that the Baltimore Police Department has gotten in the year after Freddie Gray's death?

DAVIS: So I'm not into grading myself, but I'll grade the men and women of the Baltimore Police Department. And I'll give them an A-plus. And that A-plus is for the emotional trauma that visited this city to include Baltimore's police department. It's not easy to find yourself in the midst of a significant change in the way we fundamentally do business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was my discussion earlier with Baltimore police Chief Kevin Davis. We circled back to the community activist you heard in that talk to ask what grade he would give the police. Ray Kelly said, quote, "a C, not a C-plus. They're doing just enough to get to the next day."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.