Baltimore Moves Forward on Police Reform Despite Trump Pushback
The city announced openings for a civilian oversight board as the commissioner reaffirmed his pledge to reduce the department’s plain clothes deployment by Taya Graham and Stephen Janis
CATHERINE PUGH: We want citizens to be engaged. We want them to feel free to express themselves, to request information that they think is necessary to review any situation. And so, I consider this to be a very important aspect of how we create police reform in our city.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Today Mayor Catherine Pugh advanced efforts to reform the troubled Baltimore City Police Department, despite push back from the Department of Justice.
In a news conference she announced the process for residents to join a civilian oversight taskforce, a body required under the consent decree with the Justice Department, recently approved by a federal judge. But she also faces questions, not just about the future of police reform, but the impact of bad behavior by the department on the community, and the continued rise in crime.
To discuss these developments, I’m joined by investigative reporter, Stephen Janis, Stephen what did you hear in the press conference today?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, this would be the first substantive step since the Justice Department announced the consent decree with Baltimore City, and a federal judge signed it a couple of weeks ago. This is the first process of appointing two things: one, putting out a proposal to hire a monitor, who would be in charge of monitoring the police department’s progress on a number of metrics, including the types of arrest, and complaints and investigating. And also appointing a civilian oversight taskforce, which is a body that would be tasked very much like our civilian review board, with monitoring the progress of the police department on behalf of civilians.
This review board, or this taskforce, would be comprised of residents from the city at large, around the city, who would basically be, sort of the civilian component of the oversight, of the consent decree. So, they would basically be monitoring the police department, very similar to the monitor, in terms of how the police department was doing in performance, and addressing the actual structure of the consent decree, in terms of what the police department is supposed to be doing. So, this is like the first substantive step.
TAYA GRAHAM: Terrific. When you were listening to Mayor Catherine Pugh talk, she faced some questions about, what does community oversight really look like. What did you think of her response?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, I mean the problem that you have, and I think the skepticism has been that we have had a civilian review board, and it has been very difficult for… number one it has no real power.
Number two, the police department has fought it tooth and nail, as an investigation that we did where they don’t turn over documents and information. I mean, basically civilian oversight has been compromised continually throughout the history of the Baltimore City Police Department.
And we were just down in Annapolis where Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Davis, advocated for one civilian on internal disciplinary boards. And again, that was pushed back. So, I think there’s really a lot of skepticism, as to whether or not this would be substantive. Will this taskforce have any power? Will they get any information? Those are the questions that we asked. Let’s go to that question, and see what the Mayor had to say.
STEPHEN JANIS: Mayor, when we look at the history of the civilian review board, the police department is not always forthcoming with information to that board in … documents … showed. Rarely do they … information … What’s going to be different about this board and its ability to have oversight and … ?
CATHERINE PUGH: We’re giving them the power to do that. And let me just say, I can’t answer for the civilian review boards of the past, I can answer for the civilian review board as we put it in place. We’ve done our work, in terms of people that we’ve selected to be on the civilian review board. I think Joe(?) has done a great job of looking for individuals in the community, and so I’m excited, you know.
And, as I said, we will monitor this process. We also have an independent monitor; we have an office that looks over it. And so, I believe that they’re going to be able to ascertain whatever their needs may be, and at the same time, I think that they will lead us towards criminal justice reform.
TAYA GRAHAM: Stephen, the mayor was asked about the officers who arrested Freddie Gray, what was their status, what was her response?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, it was very interesting because, as we know, six officers were charged in the death of Freddie Gray who were all exonerated, or acquitted in court. Well, four of them were acquitted; two of the cases were dropped. Now it moves to an internal disciplinary review, which is very different. It’s based on administrative law; it’s based on the police department rules governing behavior of officers.
This investigation was supposedly started, the end of the criminal, which was about a year ago and there’s been no word. Currently these officers are all still employed by the Baltimore City Police Department, and being paid.
JANE: We just had the two-year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s arrest and death. What’s the status of the internal investigations of the six officers that were involved?
KEVIN DAVIS: Jane, as you know and your colleagues are aware, we asked the Montgomery County Police Department to conduct that administrative investigation, because I didn’t want there to be any appearance of impropriety. And that investigation is ongoing. We are well aware of the time limits that are associated as defined by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
So, we’re aware of those time limits, and we are in constant contact with the Montgomery County Police Department. I recently met with Chief Manger just to ensure that all the timelines are adhered to, and I’m confident that they will be. And I await the results of that administrative investigation.
JANE: What is he saying it’s taking so long?
KEVIN DAVIS: Well, Jane it’s an administrative investigation that involves six police officers, who are being treated as respondents in an investigation that deserves their best investigative effort. So, as long as that investigation is conducted within the timeframe, as allowed by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, I’m confident that I’m going to get the results of that investigation in a manner that allows me to then make the final determination from there.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, Stephen, what are the next steps going forward?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, the city’s going to put out a proposal to solicit bids for people who applied to be a paid federal monitor. Civilians are going to apply to be on this board. And also very important, the Mayor said that the Justice Department so far is co-operating in those efforts, that there’s hasn’t been any push back. We don’t know if that’s true.
So, the next step we’ll see, number one, who does the city hire to do this job, and what are their connections. And number two what kind of civilians step forward, and when will this board be constituted, and what real power will they have? One other interesting thing we asked of Commissioner Davis, and I want to put this in here because it’s very important, we asked about his transition from plainclothes.
Many of the officers who get involved in these problems, especially the brutality problems in the city, have been plainclothes officers. We asked him about whether or not he had been working on transitioning officers out of plainclothes. And let’s see what he had to say ’cause that’s a very important component of this reform process. Let’s hear what he had to say.
STEPHEN JANIS: Commissioner you know you said you wanted to sort of transition out of plainclothes as part of the program. How is that going, having fewer officers in jeans and T-shirts, etcetera?
KEVIN DAVIS: Well, we still have plainclothes officers, they serve as undercover officers, but they don’t take enforcement on the streets. So, the transition has been, if you’re going to enforce laws, if you’re going to stop people, if you’re going to engage in traffic stops, if you’re going to execute search warrants, you’re going to be dressed as I am, a very identifiable, professional, as a police officer.
‘Cause that’s what the community expects to see us as, as police officers. So, that’s going really well. So, plainclothes has a place in our profession, but over the years it has been exacerbated, and not only in Baltimore, but across the country. Over the years, more and more police officers who are engaged in enforcement actions, are no longer wearing this uniform in its entirety, and Baltimore’s going to lead the way with that reform. And I think that is a reform, and I’m really proud that the agency’s embracing it.
TAYA GRAHAM: Well, I’m sure there are many residents of Baltimore that are glad to hear that they’re going to be phasing out the plainclothes officers. They’re notorious for their brutality, as well as acting outside the law. So, we’ll see if this change makes any difference, with the man in the uniform.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s very true, yeah; it’s a good point.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.