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  August 24, 2016

Baltimore Police Union Could Thwart Planned Civilian Oversight

A law that was supposed to allow civilian participation in the internal disciplinary process could be blocked by the city's police union
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TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.

Since the Department of Justice released its scathing report on the Baltimore City Police Department, many top officials have pledged to reform the department. But there is definitive step the city could take now based on a new law. But the question is will they?

The DOJ report was uncompromising in its criticism, outlining a pattern and practice of racist policies targeting African Americans who suffered illegal arrests, constant harassment, and retaliation for exercising their first amendment rights.

VANITA GUPTA: BPD engages in a pattern of practice of making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests.

GRAHAM: But along with criticism came recommendation for reform. Among them a push for increased training, better data gathering, ensuring police were better equipped, and improving the system for holding officers accountable. The last recommendation, advocates say, is something that could be addressed by the Baltimore City Council thanks to a new law that allows local government to put civilians on internal disciplinary boards called trial boards. Bodies which discipline police for abuses like excessive force.

DAYVON LOVE: The only meaningful item on the table in terms of police reform is civilian oversight. Because you can’t get any of the other things right. You can’t get the training right. You can’t get the training protocols right or discipline unless there’s authentic civilian oversight.

GRAHAM: But uncertainty in how the law works is prompting some to push back and raising questions about the power of police unions in the state. Earlier this year Maryland legislatures passed a series of laws aimed at comprehensive reform. One of them, the inclusion of civilians on so called trial boards was considered to be a major breakthrough. The law allowed jurisdictions to require civilians on the board. A key first step towards bringing about civilian oversight of police and providing some transparency for a system the DOJ report says is broken. But there was a catch. A last minute amendment introduced in the state senate which precluded municipality from acting unilaterally. Instead a law could be passed but would only take effect if the police union agreed during contract negotiations. And that amendment is coming back to haunt Baltimore. Currently the FOP and Mayor are negotiating a new contract. And while nothing official has been said about civilians on trial boards, earlier this year FOP State President Vince Canales told the Real News his organization is definitely against it.

VINCE CANALES: Well we believe that basically it takes a law enforcement officer to know what a law enforcement officer deals with. It’s no different than the military and the way that the military handles their disciplinary process as well as funny as it may seem, the legislature and how they handle internal issues. We believe that an individual that’s basically serving should have an understanding of what an officer goes through and why an officer makes the split second decisions that they do regarding a certain situation.

GRAHAM: We asked the police union for comment, they declined. However, there is a scenario which could result in civilian oversight says Dayvon Love from the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. A stalemate:

DAYVON LOVE: Our hope is that if the same contract gets reauthorized as a result of them not coming to an agreement then we could pass that into law and then it would take effect in the next contract.

GRAHAM: Which is why he’s urging council to act now to get a law in place. Still councilmen Brandon Scott is not sure how the council will proceed because of uncertainty over the law.

STEPHEN JANIS: The council has the power right now thanks to state legislation to require civilians on the civilian--

BRANDON SCOTT: We don’t. We don’t have the power.

JANIS: What do you mean? The legislation didn’t?

SCOTT: The legislation has a clause in it. It says except when that is a part of the negotiation or is collectively bargained which is the case for the city. So essentially what happened is that the ball was punted back to themselves because – and Stephen as you know even if we did for the city it doesn’t hold true for the city because the police department falls under code of public laws which can only be changed by who? The state legislature.

GRAHAM: Perhaps it will be an issue which will have to be addressed next year when 8 council seats change hands. We spoke to John Bullock, the new democratic nominee for the 9th district. He says he supports the idea.

JOHN BULLOCK: I think it’s worth investigating. I think part of what has to happen is it may be a law change. Maybe even a selection process in terms of what individuals get appointed as because I think part of the concern is if it’s selected by the police department then it could be some conflict in terms of who gets selected to be on that board and if there’s going to be a rubber stamp or they’re really going to be a voice for the community.

GRAHAM: But even more important, a complete examination of policing in a city that has suffered through its misapplication for decades.

BULLOCK: Right one of the functions of the council is that investigative function. And so I think it’s important to ask the right questions to make sure that we again keep a relationship open with the commissioner that he’s being forthright, that we’re communicating and then there’s transparency involved. Because part of what the problem has been is all stuff has been swept under the rug and part of our role is to really be advocates for people of Baltimore and also to work with our agencies.

GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.




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