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By Kevin Rector and Justin Fenton The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — A third of Baltimore Police recruits set to leave the academy and hit the streets lack a basic understanding of the laws governing constitutional policing and are being pushed through by the department nonetheless, according to the academy’s head of legal instruction.

“We’re giving them a badge and a gun tomorrow, the right to take someone’s liberty, ultimately the right to take someone’s life if it calls for it, and they have not demonstrated they can meet [basic] constitutional and legal standards,” said Sgt. Josh Rosenblatt Friday.

After a gun and badge ceremony at the academy Saturday, the recruits will receive eight weeks of training on the street before formally becoming Baltimore police officers, department officials noted.

But Rosenblatt, an attorney by training, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that 17 of those 50 recruits failed to pass scenario-based practical tests on legal standards related to basic police work, such as the need for probable cause before making arrests.

He said all did pass eventually, but only after he and other legal instructors were removed from administering the tests.

Some of the recruits, he said, have not been able to master basic material. Four have been in the academy for 18 months, having been recycled back from previous classes to continue their training, and still haven’t grasped the legal concepts, he said.

“With 18 months of training, they’re still failing to meet very basic legal standards,” he said. “Don’t illegally arrest people. Don’t illegally search people. These are not high standards.”

Acting Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said Friday night that he is looking into Rosenblatt’s concerns and reviewing the curriculum at the academy.

“Under my watch, there isn’t going to be a single police officer who does not satisfactorily pass any Maryland police training requirements,” De Sousa pledged. “They won’t be allowed to go on the streets. It’s plain and simple.”

A spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh said she is confident De Sousa is addressing the concerns. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office referred all questions to police.

Rosenblatt said he decided to speak to The Sun because academy leaders have ignored concerns raised by him and others.

After some recruits repeatedly failed legal tests, Rosenblatt said, academy officials returned to an old, less rigorous multiple-choice test.

Academy leaders also decided the tests would be administered by other police officers at the academy, rather than by Rosenblatt and other legally-trained instructors, Rosenblatt said.

“When I said that police officers are not more qualified to test on the law than lawyers are, I was forcefully told that I was wrong,” Rosenblatt said.

When the multiple choice test was administered, every recruit passed, he said.

De Sousa defended the testing, saying it met state standards. But he said he would be reviewing how the current recruit class was tested and would make “any modifications” that are needed.

“I’ll take a look at that, and we’re doing it really rapidly,” he said.

Rosenblatt said his more rigorous testing model was not new — he introduced it after becoming an academy instructor two or three years ago — and has not been a problem before.

Pugh and police officials have said that the department is hundreds of officers short, and is doing everything it can to fill those positions.

Pugh has said the department should have 3,000 officers, and called the fact that it has fewer than 2,000 on active duty working on the streets “really devastating.”

She has also said that her administration has made huge strides in recruitment — including by shortening the amount of time it takes to get new police officers on the job.

In September, then-Commissioner Kevin Davis — who Pugh fired last month — said that recruitment was outpacing attrition for the first time in years.

“There’s rumors out there and urban legends out there about no one wants to come to Baltimore, no one wants to be a Baltimore cop,” Davis said. “That’s all really a bunch of B.S.”

At a Neighborhoods Symposium Dec. 5, Pugh said she had used her Bloomberg Innovation Team, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, to brainstorm and come up with solutions to the shortage after two years of frozen police hiring and attrition rates of 20 to 25 officers a month had left the force depleted.

“I was in a position that I had to step up hiring police officers for our city,” she said. And she claimed her administration had been able to cut the time it takes to “become a police officer” dramatically.

The department has promised to improve training on constitutional policing as part of its consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The decree, which mandates sweeping reforms to the police department, was the result of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that concluded the police department had engaged in widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing for years, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

The federal agency said illegitimate police stops, searches and seizures were a major problem for the department, as was a lack of adequate training for officers.

©2018 The Baltimore Sun

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