Task forces are meaningless without real change

A police car from the University of Maryland Police Department sits in the parking lot behind St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Old Town on Sept. 4, 2020. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

This week, Maryland’s Commission to Restore Trust in Policing finally released its report, which has been more than two years in the making. The report, written in response to the Baltimore City Police Gun Trace Task Force scandal, describes a pervasively toxic culture within the city police that has allowed officers to commit wrongdoing with apparent impunity. The commission’s report presents a wide array of recommendations for better accountability within the city police, such as regular polygraph tests, “integrity tests” and audits of searches and seizures. While reform is surely welcome — and necessary — the issue is the recommendations are just that: recommendations. 

As with many other task forces, the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing doesn’t have any actual legislative power to implement their proposals. It’s made up of various appointees chosen by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and the leadership of the state Senate and House of Delegates. The commission’s members are capable — experts, in some cases — but they still lack the direct authority to ensure their recommendations are carried out.

Without any real enforcement mechanisms for implementing the report’s proposals, the onus for change is placed entirely on Hogan’s office and the General Assembly. That is where things get tricky. 

One of the key recommendations highlighted within the report is the restoration of the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Started in 1999, the council was a monthly forum for criminal justice advocates in Baltimore to “work cooperatively to enhance public safety and reduce crime in Baltimore City, to advance the fair and timely disposition of cases, and to ensure justice for those accused of crimes and the victims of crimes.” But Hogan stripped the funding for this absolute bare minimum standard for effecting change in 2017, with Hogan citing his belief that the group had a “lack of urgency” in addressing violence.

Additionally, the General Assembly enacted some of the Commission’s recommendations following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 — but the new policies fell upon deaf ears. Rather than comply with the newly imposed regulations, officers throughout the city simply ignored them, while the top brass sat by and allowed it to happen.

In 2016, the Obama administration went so far as to create its own task force to work with Baltimore and make the city more equitable. Among other initiatives, the task force helped the city invest in public transportation and implement massive workforce training programs. Regrettably, Baltimoreans saw little effort from elected officials to actually maintain the White House’s efforts.

Police reform is, obviously, desperately needed — but it’s important to remember it takes more than a nicely written set of recommendations from a well-intentioned task force to create change. Groups such as the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing promote much-needed policy solutions, but they also provide a smokescreen for politicians to hide behind without doing anything. To “restore trust in policing,” Maryland legislators need to actually legislate rather than obstruct the tide of progress with procedural hurdles. 

Therein lies the issue with recommendation-giving task forces and committees in general — they’re a method for politicians and other powerful people to prolong debates and say they’re helping without implementing any policy. Reports from task forces, committees, commissions, working groups and all similar entities are simply just reports. They’re not real mechanisms of change, and they won’t be without the true support of those asking for them.

Josh Binderman is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at jmbinderman@gmail.com.

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