Toothless Tiger: Citizen Review Board Unable to Hold Police Accountable

November 9, 2014

TRNN examines Baltimore's police review board, which everyone from the board's head to the mayor agree needs to be overhauled

TRNN examines Baltimore's police review board, which everyone from the board's head to the mayor agree needs to be overhauled



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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Recent revelations of unchecked police brutality and systemic civil rights abuses have spurred calls for greater public oversight of the Baltimore Police Department.

Baltimore has a civilian review board. It meets every month and reviews allegations from victims of or witnesses to acts of excessive force, abusive language, or harassment by police. But it’s been widely panned, including by board chairwoman Charlene Bourne, for being ineffective–it can’t actually hold police officers accountable.

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CHARLENE BOURNE, CHAIR, CIVILIAN REVIEW BOARD, BALTIMORE CITY: We are limited in the powers we have. We have what the state legislation gave us. And that’s after we review the cases, if it is different from what the Baltimore City Police Department have, all we really can do is send a recommendation.

NOOR: And how often does the police commissioner agree with your findings and take action?

BOURNE: Well, we haven’t got any back where they reversed their findings.

NOOR: Any in 14 years?

BOURNE: Nope. None.

I’m going to say that I believe that now Deputy Commissioner Rodriguez is willing to work more with the Civilian Review Board.

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NOOR: The board is limited by design. The state law that established it in 2001 did not fund it. The city does provide it with one full-time investigator, but this compares to 20 investigators in cities like Washington, in which the boards are more robust. Bourne says she was shocked by the Sun investigation that revealed the city spent $5.7 million to settle 100 cases of police brutality over the past four years.

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BOURNE: Shocked. I believe that that’s a waste of money, that–to me, we should be trying to get rid of the core of the problem instead of just paying out money, because we’re going to continue to pay out money until we figure out what’s the core issue.

NOOR: And so what–talk about the core issue, ’cause you are in charge of kind of maintaining this bridge between the police and the community.

BOURNE: Well, one of the things is is that if you can’t take care of the small issue, it just keeps building, building. And I believe that the Police Department has a problem with discourtesy, abusive language. And you can definitely see, if you can’t take care of that part, it just escalates into excessive force and harassment.

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NOOR: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Councilman Brandon Scott agree the board needs to be revamped, but say this needs to happen with a change in state law in Annapolis.

STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE, MAYOR OF BALTIMORE: And we’re taking a look. How can we make this board more relevant, more vital, and make it a place that the community feels is valuable, a valuable asset? And we’re not there yet. So do we have specific recommendations? No, but it will be a part, those recommendations will be a part of this larger reform that we’re talking about.

BRANDON SCOTT, MEMBER, BALTIMORE CITY COUNCIL: I’ve actually–before this all came to a head, had already been researching review boards across the country to see how we could possibly strengthen our Citizen Review Board. And those are something that we’re going to, I’m going to constantly be working on. But, again, this will have to be changed at Annapolis and not in the City Council. This is another thing that we have to change at the state level.

NOOR: Neill Franklin, who was a Maryland state police officer for 30 years and the chief trainer for the Baltimore Police Department for four, discusses the powers necessary for a civilian review board to be effective.

NEILL FRANKLIN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, LEAP: But at the end of the day, they should have subpoena power and their decisions should be binding.

Now, the complaints–and I know there’s been some talk about the complaints going directly to internal affairs. How do we make that happen?

NOOR: Cities like Cincinnati, Detroit, and Washington use such models and have reported declines in instances of police brutality. Senior ACLU staff attorney David Rocha argues Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights deprives a civilian review board the ability to impose discipline on police and would have to be amended for greater civilian oversight to exist in Baltimore.

DAVID ROCAH, STAFF ATTORNEY, MARYLAND ACLU: There are two key provisions that prevent civilian oversight. One is that all investigations have to be conducted by sworn law enforcement personnel, so it prevents the outside investigators from a civilian review board from conducting the investigations. And then, two, no meaningful discipline can be imposed except by a trial board, which is, again, composed of fellow officers, sworn law enforcement officers.

NOOR: Such efforts are likely to be opposed by the powerful police union, the Fraternal Order of Police. But attorney J. Wyndal Gordon says the mayor has more influence than the FOP.

J. WYNDAL GORDON, CRIMINAL LAWYER: Police unions are powerful. There’s no doubt about that. But our mayor is more powerful. And don’t ever one time think that the police union has more power or wields a bigger stick than our mayor. Our mayor has the ability to go down to the General Assembly and lobby them in order to change these laws.

NOOR: Retired officer Franklin argues the union should not oppose greater oversight.

FRANKLIN: This isn’t difficult to do. You just have to get the police to a place where they want to do it and the police union to a place where they recognize this as a good thing for them and not a bad thing for them. Personally, I don’t understand the fear behind it. But who wants people looking over your shoulder? When you have a job where you are responsible to the citizens and you answer to the citizens, you work for the citizens, they have that right. And in this case of policing, where it is a matter of life and death, they should be able to exercise that right, and they should.

NOOR: Scholar and activist Gerald Horne argues, while civilian review boards can reduce or mitigate police brutality and its excesses, it won’t solve the underlying problem that police are enforcing laws that perpetuate chronic poverty and systemic racism.

GERALD HORNE, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: It’s not enough, because crime, which police are sworn to try to deal with, has many causes, not the least of which is poverty. That is to say that novelists from centuries ago have noted that oftentimes people try to, quote, steal, unquote, because they’re hungry. And so, unless you’re dealing with hunger and dealing with poverty and dealing with homelessness in an all-sided manner, then you’re really not getting to the root of the problem.

NOOR: The Real News will keep following this story. From Baltimore, this is Jaisal Noor.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.