Civilian Board Pushes Back Against Baltimore Police in Controversial Case
The newly reconstituted board votes to sustain an excessive force charge police dismissed, but critics say the board’s lack of power and inability to mete out punishment make it an ineffective mechanism for real civilian oversight
Stephen Janis: Throughout the debate over police in Baltimore, the idea of community control has been critical. The concept that civilians should have power over the people who police them, and on Thursday night in Baltimore that idea, at least in part, seemed to be on the agenda.
Male: Used arrest and control techniques without describing what those techniques were, whether those were the appropriate techniques. There are a lot of arrest and control techniques but what did you use here?
Stephen Janis: Stuffed into a cramped conference room, the newly appointed Civilian Review Board met for the first time. It’s a board that is supposed to review complaints of excessive force and abuse filed by civilians. A watchdog of the department’s internal affairs process that a Real News investigation found rarely disagreed with police and had little power. But since former delegate Joe Carter took over the board and appointed nine new members, there has been hope that it can make a difference and first on their agenda was a case investigated extensively by the Real News.
Jill P. Carter: At the Inner Harbor between the hours of 2:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. she and her husband witnessed the officers slam two teenagers onto the concrete pavement in an unnecessary manner. The complainant further stated that while on the ground, one officer began choking one of the victims causing him to bleed from the mouth.
Stephen Janis: Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, 2014. In this video, obtained by The Real News, we see the controversial arrest of Calvin Wilkes. Wilkes and his friend were told to leave the area after an argument inside one of the pavilions. Police followed, took his female friend to the ground and finally forced Wilkes onto the sidewalk. Wilkes was hospitalized and charged with the assault of a police officer, charges for which he was acquitted. He filed a complaint of excessive force with the police department, but internal affairs investigators determined the police did nothing wrong. However, the civilian review board disagreed and voted to sustain the complaint.
Male: This a case in point where you have testimony from a bunch of officers who weren’t there. They did not see it happen, they arrived after these people were on the ground, and we’re talking about how they got on the ground. Yes, it’s there, but it’s not a whole lot of information [inaudible 00:02:08] particular act. Then you have a witness who stops the car and got out of the car because of what she saw. You’re talking, downtown you stop your car and get out of the car and you go and start taking pictures.
Stephen Janis: In fact, almost all the pending complaints before the board were similar to Wilkes, internal police investigations in dozens of cases found police did nothing wrong. But the board pushed back on some cases while postponing others for more information. According to the Office of Civil Rights, the board sustained one other complaint and voted not to sustain two others. It also voted to table 21 complaints until the next meeting. Law enforcement professionals say the Civilian Review Board’s lack of power makes it an inadequate oversight mechanism.
Melvin Russell: There are townships, there are cities where … Actually, let’s talk about Sheriffs, where they’re elected. Even in our own city of Baltimore the Sheriff’s elected. I think that’s something we do need to look at because we’re not giving the community enough buy-in or say-in or input. I’m on my 13th Commissioner and I’ve seen many times where the community has shouted and jumped up and down, “This is who we want for our Commissioner,” and almost never has it happened.
Stephen Janis: For Wilkes, it was an emotional evening. The arrest cost him his job, friends, and a home. How do you feel about the decision the board sustained the complaint that you had filed? How do you feel now?
Calvin Wilkes: It gives me a little bit of justice, a little bit of hope, a little bit of feeling better. Now I just got to wait for the next board meeting to see the major outcome and the discipline on the police. Hopefully it all goes well then.
Stephen Janis: But he says he is now more optimistic because a board of his peers, not just police, sit in judgment of their actions and gave him some sense that the community has a say.
Calvin Wilkes: It makes me feel a little bit better, gave me a little bit more hope. I really appreciate the Civilian Review Board taking my case in consideration and making their findings.
Stephen Janis: This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting from Baltimore for the Real News Network.