BALTIMORE — A squabble over the recording of Baltimore police officers during training sessions — and whether it improves outcomes or stifles honest learning — played out this week between Commissioner Michael Harrison and the union that represents rank-and-file officers, further exposing their frayed relationship at a time of great violence in the city.
Harrison’s decision at one point to prevent a union warning about the recording from being sent through the department’s email network — breaking from what is normally allowed for the Fraternal Order of Police — infuriated union officials and further inflamed the situation.
The dispute began Monday, when FOP Lodge 3 President Sgt. Mike Mancuso attempted to use the department’s email to send a message to all officers.
“It has come to my attention that the Department is audio and video taping the current [stop, seizure and arrest] training,” Mancuso wrote. “This is a warning to members that any questionable conversation you have during this training could potentially be used against you in some form or fashion. Please keep your comments professional!”
Mancuso also warned that the police department “plans to utilize audio and video recording throughout the new training facility” it is building at the University of Baltimore, which he said “does not promote open and honest exchanges of ideas.”
The email, however, was blocked.
“Contrary to internal communications policies for other Baltimore City unions, the Baltimore Police Department has typically granted the FOP leadership access to our work distribution lists to communicate with sworn members,” the police department said in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun. “In this particular instance, we believed the FOP’s messaging would have hindered engagement in necessary training on constitutional policing. This training is critical to effectively fighting crime in Baltimore, and the full attention and participation of the officers of BPD is essential.”
On Wednesday, Mancuso wrote a follow-up message to officers, obtained by The Sun, quoting his initial email message to the full email list and lambasting the department for blocking its release — saying Harrison and his staff were “again attacking us.”
“It is my feeling that the Department is now trying to censor our ability to communicate as a union,” Mancuso wrote.
Union officials said officers have shared that “they’ve not been completely forthright in their conversations” during recent training because they knew they were being recorded and fear “retribution.”
Police department officials said Harrison and Mancuso have discussed the matter, and that the FOP can again use the email network, though Mancuso said Friday that he had not been told that.
The department said Harrison is committed to working with the union leadership to support officers. And they defended the recording of training sessions.
“The purpose of recording the training is to continually evaluate and enhance the quality of our training, which is crucial to improving our department," the department said in a statement. "Other police agencies across the country record training for the same purpose. We continue to foster constructive and free communication in our training environment.”
The union has been a thorn in Harrison’s side for much of his tenure here. Harrison arrived in Baltimore in February 2019; the year since has been one of the city’s deadliest on record.
The union has consistently criticized Harrison’s crime plan, said the city is in “crisis,” and said Harrison has treated officers “with disdain on a daily basis.”
The police department is under a federal consent decree mandating sweeping reforms, including improved training for officers. The city announced a deal with the University of Baltimore to relocate the police training academy to the university’s campus under a five-year, $6.8 million lease last year.
The deadly pace of violence last year has not abated. The city has had more than 40 homicides already this year, significantly more than it had seen at this time last year.