Baltimore Police Have Ruthlessly Fought Past Efforts of Civilian Oversight
Documents obtained by TRNN show a pattern of police resisting citizen input from an all but powerless civilian review board, raising troubling questions of hopes for real reforms
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
Last week we sat down with Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to discuss what’s next after the scathing Justice Department Report recounted a police department that engaged in racist and unconstitutional policies on a regular basis. One of the topics we talked about was civilian oversight of police. Specifically, a proposal to include civilians on internal disciplinary bodies called trial boards. The commissioner says he supports the proposal but it needs approval from the city police union to go forward. A roadblock which makes reform in this area unlikely.
KEVIN DAVIS: So what came out of Annapolis this past legislative session wasn’t enough to compel police departments in Maryland to put civilians on administrative hearing boards. It just said that police officers are allowed to do it if their union agrees to it through a collective bargaining process. So that’s I’d argue Steve, a little bit of a cop out.
GRAHAM: But this is not the first time police have made civilian oversight all but impossible. The troubled history of blocking input from the people goes beyond what the Justice Department outlined in its report and it starts inside City Hall itself.
Tucked in the corner of the 6th floor is the office of legislative reference. It’s unkempt shelves and scattered fines, depicting the past of a city long since forgotten. Inside this unremarkable file cabinet are tales of the city’s first and only experience with civilian oversight. And what this simple and unassuming folder contains is disturbing.
In it are minutes of meetings of what’s known as a civilian review board. A body made up of citizens who are tasked with taking a second look at use of force complaints against Baltimore City police officers. The CRB as it’s known is essentially powerless. It has no ability to discipline or fire officers but even in its advisory capacity, the body wasn’t exempt from [obviation] and outright defiance from the police department. A pattern that bodes poorly for the future of civilian oversight of police in a city that many say needs it.
The Real News reviewed the files in an attempt to reconstruct the history of Baltimore’s first experiment with civilian oversight and here’s what we found. May 2014, the board asked a police commander if they could be made aware of the outcome of internal disciplinary cases managed by the police department. A representative of the Baltimore Police Department said no, the law enforcement officer’s Bill of Rights would not allow it.
In that same month the board found the police department was reclassifying excessive force cases as unwarranted actions. When the board urged the department to reclassify the cases to comply with the law, the department wouldn’t budge. In fact, a top police commander admitted unwarranted action was used because it led to lesser internal charges, meaning more lenient punishment for the officer. The board also rejected to receiving complaints shortly before and even after the statute of limitations had expired and therefore they could not independently investigate them. But nothing was done.
October 2015, the board said citizens were having trouble filing complaints, citing the rule that all excessive force allegations needed to be notarized and filed directly at police headquarters. They asked why notary was not available. Victims of police misconduct would be deterred from filing their complaint because a notary was unavailable and may even be discouraged from returning to police headquarters to try and file their complaint again. The department did not respond with any changes to their policy.
In fact, the board discussed how officers who were being discouraged from participating in mediation with victims by command staff. But again nothing was done. In that same time period., members openly complained that they had no power. And even after the death of Freddie Gray, problems continued to occur.
At a June meeting in 2016, the board said they were a whopping 800 missing investigations which the board quested from the police department but had not received. And during that same meeting, board members discussed officer behavior during a de-escalation training exercise. Comments made in front of the board so concerning that they then wrote a letter to the commissioner.
We asked the police department about the letter. They say all officers involved in the training incident deny making any inappropriate comments. Police also say they did not receive any requests for missing cases and that they do not turn cases that are not notarized. They did say Commissioner Davis met with the board’s director Keisha Brown to improve relations between the department and the CRB. We requested an interview with Ms. Brown but have not heard back.
But the fractured relationship with police doesn’t surprise an alleged victim of excessive force Calvin Wilkes. He was beaten by police during this arrest at the Inner Harbor in 2014. The department ruled the officer’s actions were acceptable. So he returned to the review board for relief but has thus far been brushed aside.
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Do you have faith in the system at this point?
CALVIN WILKES: What system? It’s no system as far as the civilians or for us as a people. It’s more of a system for them. It’s the way of making money and growth and things of that nature. I get locked up for j walking and now I have to pay me a $25,000 bail just to get out for j walking. There’s no system.
GRAHAM: Any efforts to increase the board’s powers may be difficult. Baltimore’s Police Officer’s Union also known as the FOP has already targeted the body with legal action. Earlier this year the FOP filed a lawsuit to block the CRB from reviewing departmental personal records, critical information for inducting investigations. It’s a move which prompted the ACLU to file a brief arguing the lawsuit was frivolous. But also signs say ACLU legal expert David Rocah that civilian oversight of policing in Baltimore has little hope or real change.
DAVID ROCAH: I think the FOP’s lawsuit speaks volumes about the degree of institutional unwillingness and hostility to even the most minimal forms of civilian accountability, transparency, and oversight. And I think it’s critical that people understand that and I think it’s critical that there be pushback against it.
GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
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