As Baltimore’s Police Union Attacks Reform Efforts, The ACLU Fights Back
The ACLU is challenging a lawsuit filed by the FOP to undermine the civilian review board, a body that has little power but is the only form of civilian oversight in the city
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. I’m standing outside the Baltimore City police union headquarters, where a controversy is brewing over police reform.
For Baltimore resident Calvin Wilkes, civilian-controlled police is not an abstract idea. He is homeless and jobless, due in part to this encounter with cops in the Inner Harbor in 2014. Caught on camera, it shows Calvin and his friends taken to the ground by police as they were leaving after a dispute inside in one of the pavilions. Calvin ended up in the hospital and in jail. The consequences for him were harsh.
He filed an internal affairs complaint alleging police brutality, but learned recently it was not sustained.
CALVIN WILKES: [Inaud.] not sustained, meaning the officer wasn’t right, wasn’t wrong, or they couldn’t find any evidence saying that it was misconduct in play, or anything of that nature.
GRAHAM: A ruling he thinks reveals the flaws in the process: lack of outside oversight.
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Do you think that was a fair assessment of what happened to you?
WILKES: Not at all. Clearly after we, all through the process of courts and at the scene of the videos and pictures of–[inaud.] it was clearly that police [inaud.].
GRAHAM: So he turned to the body of last resort in Baltimore for residents who believe they are mistreated by police: the civilian review board.
Formed in 1999, the board is comprised of civilians who review all internal police investigations. However, it is essentially powerless, its ruling unenforceable. But at least for people like Wilkes it offers a place to turn where civilians, not police, review the evidence.
But now the city’s powerful police union, the FOP, is taking aim at the very body that gives people like Calvin hope. In a lawsuit filed last month, the FOP alleges the civilian review board does not have the legal right to inspect personnel records, a key part of the process for investigation. The suit calls for a halt to the board’s work.
It is a provocative move, say critics, particularly as the FOP is now fighting civilian involvement on another front: keeping civilians off internal disciplinary bodies called trial boards. Their inclusion was a major part of reform laws passed in Annapolis last year. But even then, FOP president Vince Canales argued that civilian oversight in any form was inappropriate.
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 the military handles their disciplinary process, as well, as funny as it may seem, the legislature and how they handle internal issues.
GRAHAM: Which is why the Maryland ACLU has stepped in. Earlier this week they filed an amicus brief against the lawsuit, arguing the civilian review should continue investigating.
DAVID ROCAH: I think the FOP says, speaks volumes about the degree of institutional unwillingness and hostility to even the most minimal forms of civilian accountability, transparency, and oversight.
GRAHAM: ACLU lead attorney David Rocah says the FOP’s arguments don’t hold legal water.
ROCAH: The brief that we filed points out both the utter lack of legal support for any of the things that the FOP is saying as a legal matter, but also, importantly, talks about this broad national consensus about the importance of civilian reviews, civilian participation, civilian accountability, civilian transparency, and brings those perspectives before the court.
GRAHAM: And yet the constant fight against civilian oversight reveals just how entrenched the battle is against civilian oversight.
ROCAH: The fact that 17 years after the civilian review board was created here in Baltimore, when nothing has changed as a matter of law, that it is only now when these baby steps are being made that the FOP files this frivolous lawsuit that says, in essence, that the entire concept of civilian review in Maryland is illegal, speaks volumes about where the FOP is compared to the rest of the state, the city that it is supposed to, that its members are supposed to serve, and where we are as a country. And I think that those arguments need to be countered, which is what we attempted to do in the brief.
GRAHAM: We reached out to the FOP for comment, but have yet to hear back. For Wilkes, all he can do is wait, his last hope tied to a body that, if the FOP succeeds, may no longer exist.
WILKES: My last hope is the Baltimore City review board, to see the outcome of their findings. And then it’ll be a big decision. Both in Baltimore, [inaud.] Baltimore City review board, and then go from there.
GRAHAM: Another setback for police reform in a state that seems to need it, but lacks the political wherewithal to implement it.
WILKES: Police investigating the police, some of them are family, some of them close friends. They go to book clubs, they have a chess club, things of that nature. So how can you have somebody that’s real close with somebody investigating someone? It’s not going to work out. If you put civilians that doesn’t really have to say so about that officer, then you have a more, a better outcome as far as anybody that’s going through the process that I’m going through.
GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.