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Police Corruption Trial Reveals More Than ‘A Few Bad Apples’

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Jill Carter of Baltimore’s Office of Civil Rights says she has high hopes for new Police Commissioner Darryl DeSousa, but the issues within the BPD are systemic, and fixing the corruption will require hard work and more civilian oversight

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LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: I’m Lisa Snowden-McCray, editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Beat, an independent paper here in Baltimore City, and you’re watching The Real News Network.

Here in Baltimore, police abuse and lack of accountability is again front and center. Two officers were just found guilty of corruption in a trial where a dozen others were accused of wrongdoing. The mayor and other city leaders say they are just bad apples, but critics say the BPD needs to be disbanded and put under civilian control. Just before the trial, the Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was forced to step down and a new Commissioner, Darryl DeSousa, was just sworn in.

To talk about all that, I’m here with Jill Carter, former Baltimore City Delegate and current head of the city’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement. She also just announced that she’s running for state senate, so we’ll also talk about that.

Thanks for being here, Jill.

JILL CARTER: Thank you.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: So I just mentioned in the intro the GTTF trial, and I think everybody pretty much couldn’t keep their eyes off of it. So, were you watching it and, if so, what are your thoughts on it?

JILL CARTER: I followed it primarily through the media reports every day and, you know, I hate to seem as if I’m numb from allegations of police misconduct, but I was not surprised really by anything that I found out that came out of the trial. I wasn’t surprised for a couple of reasons. I’d known for a long time that there were serious problems, individual and systemic, in BPD, Baltimore Police Department. In addition to that, I don’t know how anyone could have been shocked because the Department of Justice report pretty much outlined a lot of issues of mistreatment of people and abuse by the police throughout Baltimore, and so it kind of goes hand-in-hand that there were, that there wasn’t just a few bad apples, that there were systemic problems in the Baltimore Police Department.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: Now, your office is in charge of the Civilian Review Board, and I know that they are kind of in charge of handling civilian complaints against the police, so had you guys heard anything about these people that were charged or had you had any complaints lodged against them?

JILL CARTER: Over the years there had been several of the officers that were part of the Gun Trace Task Force that had had complaints by the Civilian Review Board. In each case, even before my tenure, which has only been a year, my understanding is that the allegations either were not sustained or they were, if sustained by the Civilian Review Broad, they were never sustained by the IAD.

So I wanna talk a little bit about that because, so one of the things that I don’t think people fully understand is we have a completely two-tiered system. There’s internal investigations that the Baltimore Police Department does, and then the Civilian Review Board, that has the ability to conduct investigations over just five small categories of cases, so we don’t have the authority to just investigate any case. Even if, you know, sometimes something will happen on the news or it’ll be on camera, and people will ask, “Are you investigating it?” We actually have to investigate cases only within our five categories and when a specific complaint is filed.

So that being said, over the years and including within my last year that I’ve been there, repeatedly the Civilian Review Board sustains complaints of misconduct against officers and then the IAD does not sustain the complaint. Then, there is no requirement on the part of BPD that they actually adhere to the recommendations or the suspensions of the Civilian Review Board. So 99 times out of 100, the cases that the Civilian Review Board sustains against officers are completely ignored.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: So what’s the point? What’s the point of a Civilian Review Board?

JILL CARTER: Exactly, that is exactly, exactly my point. If we’re not going to have authority, then there is no point.

So another thing is that I really believe that this is something that could be a mere policy change on the part of BPD, and I’m actually hoping it’s gonna come out of the consent decree. You know, we’re still very early in the process of the consent decree. I’m ready to zoom forward to the end ’cause I know exactly what I wanna have come out of it, but unfortunately, we have to go through the process. The monitoring plan just got set up. You know, they’re looking at policies. They’ve created something called a civilian oversight task force, which is charged with looking at our practices, looking at our polices, looking at our work, and figuring out how to make us more functional. So certainly I think that will be one of many things that they would change, which is that, if the Civilian Review Board sustains a complaint against an officer, that the Baltimore Police Department either has to adhere to that finding or, at the very least, give it weight in its ultimate decision and articulate any reasons it might have for straying from the decision, for ignoring the decision. I think that’s critical.

But I also think it’s important to talk a little bit, because I think there’s a lot of confusion around this, and I learn every day, it’s more complicated that I thought, too.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: Yes.

JILL CARTER: But, you know, I wanna separate what we do and this whole idea of civilian oversight or Civilian Review Board, IAD, and trial boards. So, to clarify, trial boards have been in a minuscule number of cases. Trial boards occur only in cases where IAD sustains a finding against an officer, which is rare, and the officer then chooses a trial board. The officer, even when a complaint is sustained, they have options. They can resign. They can retire. They can accept punishment, or they can negotiate a deal for a smaller punishment than what is offered.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: And when they retire, I’m assuming they would still get like retirement payments or-

JILL CARTER: Absolutely, they do. So, yeah, there’s no penalty for an officer that retires even in the wake of a sustained complaint. So that being said, trial boards happen very rarely and only when officers most likely believe that they can prevail or that a better deal wasn’t offered such that they wanna take their chances at a trial board.

So, having civilians on a trial board alone is not sufficient to really change anything because there’s this two-tiered system. So we have the Civilian Review Board over here and then the trial boards. So even if we put civilians on the trial boards or even, I would argue and I have suggested, that if we put civilians on trial boards they should be members of the Civilian Review Board, put civilians on trial boards, that’s still about less than maybe 5% of all cases, all allegations ever made against officers.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: Okay. So how we, so what do you suggest? How do we fix that problem?

JILL CARTER: Thank you for asking that question. How do we fix it? We fix it a number of different ways. One, we make it such that the Civilian Review Board, first of all we change the name to make it an oversight authority. We give the Civilian Review Board and the Office of Civil Rights the authority and the power to oversee the operations, the policies, and the conduct of officers. We don’t relegate it to five categories that frankly BPD has full discretion as to whether or not they will submit a complaint or determine whether or not it’s within our jurisdiction. We need our own discretion to determine when complaints are within our jurisdiction.

We also need to take away the requirements, these formalities, about signing a complaint, swearing under oath-

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: Right.

JILL CARTER: All of that, because these are all impediments to people filing complaints and then, also, the biggest deterrent to people filing complaints is fear. They’re afraid of retaliation and they’re also afraid that, even after they subject themselves to potential harm, there will be no result in their favor. So I would say that there’s some justification to that fear, and so in order to change that we have to actually change the authority and we have to change the way that the two agencies interact. We have to treat the civilian oversight agency or Civilian Review Board in a serious way, as if we really do have the authority to determine what the conduct of law enforcement officers in the city of Baltimore should be. We can’t keep leaving it up to BPD to police itself and to only rely on IAD.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: Okay. So, we have, like I mentioned in the intro, we have a new Police Commissioner officially as of today, of this taping, Darryl DeSousa. Some people have said that it seemed like he was kind of rushed through. There was kind of no need to kind of get somebody right away when we’re looking at this, you know, immense amount of corruption, but, no matter what, he’s here. So have you had a chance to talk to him?

JILL CARTER: I have.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: And what are your thoughts about-

JILL CARTER: I have, and I have a very good feeling about his commitment to changing a lot of what’s wrong. He has offered that we should actually meet and try to figure out how to work together to fix some of the things. I felt like he might be the first commissioner that didn’t give the impression that he wanted to just place the Civilian Review Board on a back-burner, and that’s important, because I wanna make it clear that, even with the Department of Justice report, even with the consent decree, even with the independent monitor, all that stuff is designed to make the Baltimore Police Department but then it says okay, we’re gonna work on making the police department better and then, way over here, we’re gonna try to figure out how to give civilians a little bit more power, too. But I think that we have to really work toward changing the thinking to make people that are within the law enforcement field and the policy makers understand that civilian review should not be at the back end. It should be at the top end. It should be all the way through.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: I mean, for me it just feels like that’s a person who grows more and more cynical every day. You know, Darryl DeSousa talked a really good game at the hearing that City Council held, I think it was like the week before he was officially confirmed by the whole body, you know, he said a lot of the right things but, once you get into power, it’s kind of how likely you actually are to follow through. It’s very easy for politicians and people of power to say, oh, yes, definitely. Like is there any way that we can like guarantee that he does these things that he’s kind of assured you that he cares about?

JILL CARTER: Well, well, you know, the Office of Civil Rights doesn’t have that authority but I will say that I think that the people are watching very closely and I think that people were watching this hearing in a way that they’ve never really watched it before, on the heels of the GTTF trial, on the heels of the consent decree. I think people are tuned in in a way they never were before. So I actually have, and we have to, honestly, I have high hopes for Commissioner DeSousa and I think it’s better to operate that way, to expect the best, present what you think should be changed, and give them the option to do it, to make it happen, rather than just assume the worst, that, oh, it’s not gonna change.

I feel like, given all that we’ve been through, he understands his responsibility and his obligation. Now, there are some things I’m certain because of he’s been in law enforcement that he doesn’t know. That’s up to the us, the people, the public, to educate him about it.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: One more thing I wanna throw into the mix and then we can kind of wrap up this segment is I think the mayor has kind of floated the idea of giving him, making it easier for to fire police officers, which on the surface seems fine. Do you have any takes on that? Do you think that’s a good idea?

JILL CARTER: So I think that, I appreciate the intent of it and I certainly think it’s a step in the right direction. The only thing that I would hope that we could have a conversation, since we’re talking about final authority, is the concept of weaving in the Civilian Review Board’s opinions and decisions within that final authority. If we’re gonna talk about altering final authority, we should talk about altering the final authority in cases that involve the Civilian Review Board as well. Until some years ago, the Police Commissioner did have that authority but I wanna also be mindful of where that still may fail us, which is that the Commissioner can only make that decision, again, once there’s been a sustained finding.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: We go all the way back to the initial-

JILL CARTER: So if we can’t rely upon IAD to sustain findings against officers, all we really have is the Civilian Review Board. Now I will grant you that there’s been a new chief of IAD that’s been put in place. She’s a female, Black officer, and so I know that we and many people have high hopes that she’s gonna kind of revamp and change the way they operate, so let’s hope so. But at the end of the day, all of the changes, all of the reforms, all of the resources put into the BPD without also simultaneously making sure, ensuring that there’s greater civilian oversight, I think all of it will not be adequate without that.

LISA SNOWDEN-MCCRAY: We’ve been talking to Jill Carter, head of Baltimore City’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement. Join us for Part Two.