- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2015

The Obama Justice Department turned down a request five years ago to help the Baltimore Police Department save a training program widely credited for improving the department’s relations with the city’s crime-ridden and minority neighborhoods and reducing homicides and police-involved shootings.

The department was seeking $200,000 in federal funding to help extend the Diamond Standard training program. It was discontinued in 2012 when Justice declined to act on the request and the city’s new administration decided it no longer could afford it, according to interviews.

The key organizer of the training told The Washington Times that he was floored when he later learned the same Justice program whose help he sought instead gave money to the company that produced the children’s PBS series “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

He argued that the failure to continue the Baltimore program helped contribute to the demise in police-community relations that preceded the riots over Freddie Gray, who died after he was taken into police custody.

“Once they stopped training the officers — stopped their interaction with the community, that all that was left was locking people up, and that’s what led to this whole Freddie Gray thing. It was a nonsense arrest,” said Adam Walinksy, a police consultant who helped develop the training.

“The program made terrific efforts to show our trainees how to work with all of these really lost, mostly young men in the black community. We gave them the tools to show them how to make friends in the community — not to raise the tension but to lower it. How to be in control without being a bully. That’s been lost,” Mr. Walinsky said.

The Diamond program focused on mentoring urban youths, minimizing the use of force and better understanding the socioeconomic divide of the city. The training program, which ran from 2008 to 2012, was a centerpiece of Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld’s tenure, during which period homicides in Baltimore reached a 20-year low, police-involved shootings declined and officers were pressed to leave their cars and walk their beats, and community relations improved.

Commissioner Bealefeld’s success in Baltimore led President Obama to appoint him to a federal commission on community policing.

“He took charge of that training, made it a huge personal investment. He taught one lecture period to each class to make sure they understood how important it was, but none of it survived his departure,” Mr. Walinsky said.

He lamented that current Commissioner Anthony Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have de-emphasized the approach.

City police officials declined to comment Monday.

But two officials directly involved with the program at the time — who spoke to The Times only on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal — said the program had a dramatic positive effect on officer behavior and community relations.

“The training was important because it liberated us from old habits of thought to find new ways of learning and acting to situations,” said one official who declined to be identified. “After every training session, questionnaires were collected. The department now has thousands of them that overwhelmingly confirm this was the best training program the Baltimore Police Department has ever known.”

Justice officials confirmed that they considered the request from the police department and even sent out an evaluator but never issued a formal solicitation to start the process of federal funding.

“Every day in a grants agency, many people come in and want money. That is not unusual. The agency cannot issue competitive solicitations responsive to every individual who comes in the door,” Laurie Robinson, who was assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs at the time of the request, wrote in an email to The Washington Times.

She said that, unlike a foundation, the Department of Justice is restricted in whom it funds.

“OJP at that time had funding in appropriations given by Congress for over 50 line items designated by Congress for very specific purposes,” said Ms. Robinson, who now teaches at George Mason University. “Much of the funding was given by law to the states for distribution. A very small percentage was for discretionary grant programs.”

The Diamond training program’s motto, “No better friend, no better role model, no better diplomat, no worse enemy,” was dedicated to teaching officers how to defend themselves without a weapon and evaluate their situational responses to unexpected events — much like the military training provided SEALs and Green Berets.

Other aspects required officers to attend an Outward Bound session — wearing plain clothes — and partnering with troubled youths in the districts they policed. Then there was required reading about urban poverty and police leadership.

“Every cop knows that the people you’re going to be locking up for nasty violent crime five years down the road is currently in middle school and grade school, and it’s during this period when you have a chance to get a hold of them and convince them to steer a different path,” Mr. Walinksy explained. “We put a lot of emphasis on working with these kids — having some real contact with them and watching how these kids grow.

“If you’re a police officer, you can’t think you’re going to grab every kid that’s gone rotten in Baltimore and throw them in the jug and that makes sense,” he said. “You need to know who’s doing what and go and persuade them to moderate some of their violent activity and help with protecting some parts of the community and get information so you can arrest the right people. You need to be connected and trusted — so we wanted to retrain the cops and get them to better know the city and the reasons why some of the kids acted the way they did.”

But the training was expensive and resource-intensive.

Baltimore approved three contracts for up to $605,000 with Mr. Walinsky’s foundation and spent $1.9 million for martial arts training. It also required all of Baltimore’s police force to take four weeks out of their schedules to attend.

To help ease the expense on the city, Mr. Walinsky lobbied the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs in April 2010 to request roughly $200,000 in federal support so the city could extend and document its training results.

“We were just asking them to tell us how much to put the grant in for and we’ll do it. We weren’t proud. We were willing to take what we could get,” Mr. Walinsky said. He knew the department wasn’t interested in working with the city after it started to refuse to take his calls.

The Justice Department instead opted to give $496,000 to the company that produces “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” to do a national rollout of its video program on how to bring police and children together.

After a 2011 incident outside of a Baltimore nightclub where officers shot and killed one of their own, an independent commission appointed by Ms. Rawlings-Blake questioned the Diamond Standard program’s effectiveness and concluded that it had not prepared officers for that scenario.

Then a Baltimore Sun review found 40 percent of the money that Mr. Walinsky’s foundation was collecting from the city and its other contracts over a two-year period were spent on entertainment, meals and travel, leading critics of the program to question the city’s spending on the training contracts.

That Sun article, combined with questions over the program’s effectiveness and expense, led Ms. Rawlings-Blake to propose massive cuts to the police department with the training targeted. By 2012, the program ceased to exist.

“As of now, Diamond Standard Training is being effectuated by commanders at the academy,” Baltimore Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told The Baltimore Sun for a March 2012 article announcing its end. “It was designed to train the trainers, and now that’s what is happening.”

Mr. Batts and Ms. Rawlings-Blake declined to be interviewed for this story.

“It’s a real shame,” said a current Baltimore officer who’s been on the force for more than 20 years but declined to give his name for fear of reprisal. “The program was criticized for its directors spending too much money, but a lot of it did involve training the trainer.

“I loved it, I wish it would get back in the department. There was the practical side, an active shooter compartment, but then there was ropes training with the kids,” the officer said. “I wish we had more resources. Instead, we’re paying millions in overtime and to deployment just to keep the city from burning. The money could be used in a more productive way.”

Indeed, when looking at reforms, criminal justice analysts agree, training should be at the top of the list of how to help police-community relations — before body cameras and the racial makeup of the force.

“Police training should focus on what the communities are going through, for officers to gain a better social-science understanding,” said Paul Ashton, development and research associate at the Justice Policy Institute. “Body cameras isn’t going to be a panacea because you’re not getting to the heart of the problem, it’s a quick-fix issue that isn’t going to change the way people and police behave, we need to dig deeper.”

David Schroeder, associate dean at the Criminal Justice & Forensic Sciences college, at the University of New Haven agrees.

“One form of training that shows people how to use Tasers and batons and technology, but another form of training seeks to develop relationships, to understand youth culture, to deal with different religions and ways of life, and that’s something we need to see more of,” said Mr. Schroeder. “Resources are a huge factor here. It sounds great, but it is very expensive and labor-intensive to execute.”

Lew Hicks, who helped train the officers in Baltimore under the Diamond program, said the results spoke for themselves.

“The bottom line is this: When we engage in training, we see a change in behavior and a change in thinking and, at the end of the day, the use of force complaints against police reduces,” said Mr. Hicks. “When we engaged in Baltimore, they had the lowest crime rate, lowest murder rate and the highest respect and overall morale since the ‘70s. That’s saying something.”

• Kelly Riddell can be reached at kriddell@washingtontimes.com.

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