The Real News Town Hall Pt. 2: Should the Community Control the Police?

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER, HOST­: Welcome back to the Real News town hall. We’ve already discussed the root causes–or touched them–of police brutality. Now we want to get to what citizens can do about it. How do we take our communities back? How do we have a voice in controlling our communities and those sworn to serve and protect us? Many point to a civilian review board as the country’s best line of defense. Is it? We’re going to talk about that.

Let’s see what Real News says about that right now. Real News producer Tom Hedges did some digging to find out what’s going on with the Baltimore Civilian Review Board and why it doesn’t have the teeth that people think it should have. Let’s take a look.

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THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN PRODUCER: One of the most important tools for the public to be able to combat the use of excessive force and harassment should be Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board. The nine current members of the board are appointed by the mayor and meet once a month. Their job is to review allegations of abuse. But if their account differs from the Police Department’s report, there’s little room for them to move forward.

CHARLENE BOURNE, CHAIR, BALTIMORE’S CIVILIAN REVIEW BOARD: We have what the state legislation gave us. And that’s after we review the cases, if it is different from what the Baltimore City Police Department have, all we really can do is send a recommendation.

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: And how often does the police Commissioner agree with your findings and take action?

BOURNE: We haven’t got any back where they reversed their finding.

NOOR: Any in 14 years?

BOURNE: Nope.

HEDGES: When the review board was created in 2000, lawmakers omitted how the board would actually be funded. The director of the board’s umbrella agency at the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement had to find the sources of funding himself. The board managed to hire two investigators, but today that staff’s been cut down to just one. Critics argue that the board is limited by design, specifically with regards to the contents of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which is a piece of Maryland state legislation.

DAVID ROCAH, SENIOR ACLU STAFF ATTORNEY: There are two key provisions that prevent civilian oversight. One is that all investigations have to be conducted by sworn law enforcement personnel. So it prevents the outside investigators from a civilian review board from conducting the investigations. And then, two, no meaningful discipline can be imposed except by a trial board, which is, again, composed of fellow officers, sworn law enforcement officers.

HEDGES: Oversight of law enforcement officers is something that the city’s mayor also recognizes needs reform.

STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE, MAYOR OF BALTIMORE: We’re taking a look: how can we make this board more relevant, more vital, and make it a place that the community feels is valuable, a valuable asset? And we’re not there yet.

HEDGES: Last month, the mayor, along with Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, released a 41 page report that includes a list of recommendations.

ANTHONY BATTS, POLICE COMMISSIONER, BALTIMORE CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT: This isn’t fluff. We outline some of our dynamic training, including constitutional, impartial policing, emotional intelligence and de-escalation techniques, not taking things personally.

HEDGES: But many say that when the board doesn’t have the legal means to properly address police abuse, the unchecked tensions, however small, culminate into more serious instances of brutality down the road.

BOURNE: If you can’t take care of the small issue, it just keeps building, building. It just escalates into excessive force and harassment. So.

HEDGES: If the current review board is as ineffective as most everyone seems to agree, does Baltimore need to reform its review board in order to give the public proper oversight of its police force?

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STEINER: Now we’ve heard this piece and we’ve heard from the voices before here. And I’d like to turn to a few people and come to the back row, as I promised. But we have a guest here tonight, Alok Mukherjee, from Toronto, who runs the civilian review board, has a couple of things to say about this. I want to hear his voice. Then we can go back to the audience here and let you respond to what he’s saying. Alok.

ALOK MUKHERJEE, CHAIR, TORONTO POLICE SERVICES BOARD: Well, I don’t want to comment on Baltimore, because I that’s your concern. But I just want to share how we’ve done civilian oversight in Canada generally, but Toronto in particular.

The Police Services Act–sorry; my throat is going–the Police Services Act of the province requires that in every municipality where there is a municipal police force, there must be a police board, police service board. And it does not report to the mayor or the city council. It’s an independent board that is made up of some members of the city council, appointed by the city council, and certain number of citizens appointed by the city council and by the province.

So I’m the chair of our police services board, almost tenth year now, and I’m not an elected politician. And the board is responsible for appointing the chief and the deputy chiefs. Board has the power to terminate them. Board sets policies for the police service. Board sets annual priorities. Board conducts the performance appraisal of the chief. The budget of the police service is approved by the board, and then board takes it to the council. It’s not a negotiation between the chief and the mayor. Board is the bargainer. Board is the employer. So I personally lead our negotiations with our police association. The law requires that every member of the police service must belong to either the Police Association or the Senior Officers’ Association. And I lead the bargaining with them, which means that our labor relations matters are not the bailiwick of the chief, but the board.

In addition to that, there is something very interesting. People were talking about accountability. The board sees itself as representing the public interest. So, for example, when we have inquests into deaths caused by police shooting or other action, the board is an independent party at the inquest, independent of the police service. And that’s a very powerful position to be in.

I’ll give you an example. A few months ago, we had a major inquest into the death of three people who had mental illness and were killed by police shooting. And the coroner decided to do a joint inquest. The board took that as an opportunity to make common cause where necessary with community and mental health professionals and survivors, consumers, to push for changes in legislation upon regulations which will cause the police to act differently. And there was a mention made of de-escalation–it was a major piece of that.

One of the things we pushed for in terms of how we deal with mental illness is a target of zero death, that when you–because what we find is that people were talking about many factors. One of the factors that concerns us is the heightened sense of officer safety and the number of times when guns had been drawn because the officers felt they were not safe. The most recent case is that of Sammy Yatim, a young man who was riding in a streetcar and obviously going through metal crisis. And he wielded a small penknife. He made everybody go down. And as they were containing, one officer took out his gun and fired at him seven bullets and killed him. And that became a major issue, this notion of officer safety when this young man was quite a long distance away from the officer.

STEINER: So, Alok, let me just jump in for a moment as we get back to the audience. I want to in a moment turn to Dwight Pettit, ’cause you fight a lot of cases, get your thoughts on that. But before I do that, because I promised not to be a liar, we’ll go to the back, the rows behind me before, so people can–I’d like to also hear what you have to say about what Alok has just presented, given what we’ve said here so far. So let me turn to one of the people who–. Go ahead.

DOMINIQUE STEVENSON, FOUNDER, PARTNERSHIP FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE: I actually want–.

STEINER: And identify yourself, if you could.

STEVENSON: My name’s Dominique Stevenson. I work here in Baltimore and I live in Baltimore for over 20 years.

I want to go back to the issue of training. It’s not training. You, Lieutenant Russell, you said yourself that nobody had to tell you to not brutalize anyone. That seems to be a contradiction to me. You all have acknowledged that this things has its roots in slavery. And so I feel like we’re here trying to come up with rational solutions to an irrational system. I really don’t see reform. There has to be a really radical change.

The other thing about the cultural misunderstanding is on our part as black folks. We’re misunderstanding the fact that these folks are fascists, okay, that this country has become increasingly fascist in how they deal with us. Okay? That’s the big understanding.

And in terms of solutions, we really have a job to educate folks in our community, to educate young folks about that, about the danger of policing, because when you call 911, you never know what you’re going to get. Okay? It’s more than a joke.

STEINER: Let me get one or two more responses back here. Then we’ll come over here. Go ahead. Go ahead, Bilal. And introduce yourself.

BILAL ALI, BALTIMORE RESIDENT: My name is Bilal Ali.

I think when you try to actually assess a problem, you usually go to the root cause of the problem. But in this particular case, you don’t go to the root; you go to the seed. And the seed is this racism, just like racism is an institution in America.

And one of the points that I want to highlight myself, because I’m a lifelong Baltimorean myself, even within the Baltimore Police Department, you have racism that runs rampant. That’s why you have a Vanguard, because you wasn’t even allowed to even go into a Roland Park. You didn’t even have arrest powers to arrest a white person.

LT. KENNETH BUTLER, PRESIDENT, VANGUARD JUSTICE SOCIETY: White person. Absolutely.

ALI: You had to call a Caucasian to the scene and perform your duties for it so for us to sit here and say that racism is not the seed of the behavior that’s being perpetrated on a vulnerable population is like Dr. Winbush said: it’s delusional.

STEINER: So let me ask Dwight Pettit to jump in here for a moment.

And, Dwight, given everything people were just saying, what we said before, and what Alok was saying, I’m curious. Given the history you have with defending people who have been brutalized and killed and families of those who have been murdered, what’s (A) your response about what you’ve heard here, but also about what Alok said about where we might go, and how you feel about that in all your years of practice and civil rights activism?

DWIGHT PETTIT, ATTORNEY: Well, I have to agree that I think the problem is systemic. And the problem exists because of the aspect of property and race. You’ve got to remember slaves were property, and that’s where the whole thing begins to originate and comes up. I mean, when Richard Nixon said, what are we going to do about the negro problem, that was a signal when you talk about the creation of the war on drugs, which was really the war on us. So all of this history, you’ve got to remember, it’s only been developed in the last hundred or so years. So we’re not a long time removed.

Now, as a trial trial lawyer, do I see any overall change other than the political climate changing through political activism? I think in terms of the local issues, in terms of Baltimore City, for example, there has to be some price to pay. And what does America understand? Money. And that price that has to be paid is that police officers have to realize that not only do they have a judiciary system, as my brother said, that’s going to prosecute them, but they’re not going to gain economically by what they do. And I guarantee you, if they didn’t have caps and the city had to turn around and pay some real money, they would find a solution to the problem very, very quickly.

STEINER: So–.

PETTIT: But when a police officer that I have all the killings and all the shootings, and I ask them on the witness stand, I said, officer, after you were put on suspension, did you lose any money? No, I was paid. What happened when you came back on the force? I was promoted. And then you turn around. Now I read that not only are they paid and not only are they promoted, but now they can file for workmen’s compensation because of the stress that they incurred because they kill somebody. Give me a break.

STEINER: So–and then over here.

CONWAY: In addition to being paid, they not only need to be fired when you find that they have violated somebody. They need to be sent to jail. And it would stop. It would stop. You send three or four of them to jail, it would stop.

JEROME BIVENS, ATTORNEY: And the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, in my view, allows for that. They ought to be arrested on the spot, because once they are arrested, once they are charged with felonies, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights says that the chief can suspend them without pay.

UNIDENTIFIED: For felonies.

BIVENS: That’s what you do.

UNIDENTIFIED: For felonies.

BIVENS: That’s what I mean when I say it’s immediate.

UNIDENTIFIED: Felonies. For felonies.

UNIDENTIFIED: For felonies.

BUTLER: For felonies.

UNIDENTIFIED: Make that clear.

BUTLER: Right. For felonies.

BIVENS: Felonies. Immediate action. Police lock up people every day. Why don’t they lock each other up?

UNIDENTIFIED: Because the police cannot police themselves.

STEINER: So. Seema.

UNIDENTIFIED: ‘Cause they can’t police themselves.

STEINER: And tell folks who you are.

SEEMA SADANANDAN, PROGRAM DIRECTOR, ACLU OF THE NATION’S CAPITAL: Oh. My name is Seema, and I am the policy director at the ACLU in the District of Columbia. While I won’t deliver recommendations about Maryland (my colleague here from Maryland can do that), I can say that in the district what we’ve learned by this failed war on drugs is that punishment does not deter bad behavior. In the district, we have locked up a staggering amount of, really, black people, where the war on drugs has been selectively enforced of the black community, black people making up only 50 percent of the population but 91 percent of the arrests for crimes, things that have been criminalized that we know white people actively engage in, like the use of marijuana, for example–more than 45,000 arrests every year, where 96 percent are for nonviolent offenses. So when we talk about the police interface, the overpolicing of the black community, it cannot be explained by so-called black-on-black crime, because so much of these interactions are about nonviolent offenses.

What I think we do know is that you can incentivize, you can create perverse incentives which drive the type of disparate policing we’re seeing. So what are those incentives? The federal grants which create monetary incentives on high number of arrests for nonviolent drug possession charges.

But in no way do I mean to intimate that the war on drugs is the beginning or will be the end of the war on black people in this country. I think we all understand that it’s–the reproduction of inequity is a part of every institution and the founding of this society. And so I admire our colleague’s explanation of how their system works. But we have deep work to do in unraveling the system that has served to incarcerate us both inside and outside prison.

STEINER: I want to get here. I promised to go back here. And I want to get Clayton Guyton into this conversation, who’s been involved in this both as a corrections officer and working in the community with people coming out of prison. But let me ask a question, just a show of hands. I’m just curious as we–’cause part of the conversation tonight is: do we want a civilian review board in Baltimore? And would that be effective for what we are addressing at any level? So let me just start with that question. How many people in this room think we need a civilian review board in Baltimore? And one that has powers similar to what we heard up in Toronto?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah. Right. But we don’t need one.

STEINER: So I’d like to talk a little bit about from your perspectives and from the police perspective their response to that, and also how do we get there, what does that mean.

Russell, go ahead.

But [incompr.] there’s a lot of people [incompr.] Russell. And I want to get around the room here, here and here and here. But I really want you to focus your responses on the question I just asked about civilian review boards–should we get there, how do we get there, and your thoughts on that.

Russell.

RUSSELL NEVERDON, ATTORNEY: I think, as was depicted in that viewing, one of the things is we have to be very real with ourselves and acknowledge that we have a civilian review board, but it has no teeth.

STEINER: Well, we know that. Right. Right. Right.

NEVERDON: And so knowing that and understanding that, the part of the reason why we’re gumming at the issue is because we’ve got the LEOBR, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

STEINER: Just want to [incompr.] acronyms get confusing. Go ahead.

NEVERDON: Right. We have to tear that down to the core, because the one thing that we do know exists in human nature is this: if I keep making a mistake, if you smack my hand, I’ve learned my lesson. Behavior is learned. If you don’t have something that takes away that protection from them, the only thing you’re doing is enabling them to do continue to do the same thing over and over again, because I’ll be on suspension with pay, I’ll hold out till I retire or until a new administration comes in, and I’ll work my way through the system. We have to have an immediate mechanism right now, and that is tear apart the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights right now as it exists, so that a civilian review board then begins to have more teeth and the ability to do something about it.

STEINER: So let me–and I’m sitting here watching people respond. Before I come over here and back over here, I’m watching you nod a little bit over here–not from sleep, but from [crosstalk]

LT. COL. MELVIN RUSSELL, CHIEF OF COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP DIV., BPD: You’re supposed to watching me, though.

STEINER: I’m watching everybody. That’s my job.

So the question I have, though, just–and before we go back to the rest of the audience, is: how do you approach that, Melvin Russell, as a police officer? How many years have you been on the force?

M. RUSSELL: Thirty-five.

STEINER: Thirty-five years. And people know you all around the city, and have a lot of respect for you as well. I’ll say that.

So what is your perspective on the civilian review board? Does it make sense? You heard what Alok was saying, how it works in Toronto. Can that work here? Should it work here?

M. RUSSELL: I know a lot of people that want to get in. So my answer is I would welcome that with open arms today, yesterday, if we do that. If you guys could figure out how to do that, I would welcome that with open arms. And I would think the vast majority of the Police Department would want those. And the ones that wouldn’t want those are the bad seeds that you’re trying to root out anyway. Does that make sense? So we will welcome that. I love that. I was excited when you were talking about it.

STEINER: Kenneth.

BUTLER: I’m going to have to agree [inaud.]

STEINER: So I want to come back to this point with the two of you. But I know you want to say something [incompr.]

SONIA KUMAR, STAFF ATTORNEY, ACLU MD: Yeah. I think we can’t forget that for our Civilian Review Board to be meaningful, we also need our elected officials and the people responsible for running our city to understand what we’re talking about. I think part of the issue that I’ve seen is, for example, when the city enacted our new curfew law that we knew was going to bring more kids in contact with police when they’ve done nothing but be outside, we’re inviting these kind of interactions. And what I hear a lot of times is a disconnect between what folks are saying their experiences are in the street and the reality of what elected officials are saying that they see and they understand. And so that’s why we keep hearing training is the answer.

In terms of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, I want folks to know that Maryland has one of the most protective law enforcement officers’ bill of rights in the country–in the country. Even–you know, law enforcement officers’ bill of rights are not uncommon, but we have one of the most protective in the country. And that is directly responsible for our inability as communities to hold police accountable. And whatever we say about the efficacy of civilian review boards, we can’t solve the problem if we can’t identify it, if we don’t have transparency. Right now in Maryland, if you file a complaint against a police officer, you cannot find out what happened. You cannot, as the complainant, as the victim of police misconduct, you can’t find out what they did. We need to fix that.

STEINER: [incompr.] let me ask this question, because you’ve represented a lot of police in your time as a lawyer, the other side of the aisle from Dwight Pettit. So how would you respond to that? How would you respond to a civilian review board? How do you think the police you represent would respond, and why? And do you see a problem with it?

PROF. BYRON WARNKEN, ATTORNEY AND ASSOC. PROF. LAW, UB: I represent the 2,600 members of the Maryland Troopers Association in administrative disciplinary matters. If there’s a complaint that comes from outside in the community or a complaint the comes from inside from a supervisor to someone under, immediately they call our firm, because we represent them against the department, where the department is investigating as to whether they have violated a rule or regulation, which could wind up being dismissed, could wind up being that they get charged administratively, which could lead to a reprimand up to dismissal.

STEINER: But how would that affect–how would that affect–how would a civilian review board affect that process in terms of dealing with the things between police and community? That’s the question I want to know.

WARNKEN: My–. Sure. My guess would be it probably wouldn’t change a lot of my day-to-day stuff. It would deal with those things that involve where there has been the kind of complaints that frequently leads to Dwight’s litigation, where the outside community needs to investigate because there is conduct that is anti the community, not just anti a rule or regulation, where I’m alleged to have padded my traffic statistics. I’m not saying that’s good; I’m saying that if they get charged with that, it probably can be handled through administrative discipline. But it’s when the conduct deals with the community. That’s where you need the community interaction.

STEINER: Go ahead.

DANIELLE ELY, BALTIMORE PEOPLE’S POWER ASSEMBLY: I’m Danielle. I’m from the People’s Power Assembly, which is a continuation of the All People’s Congress, who actually worked with the community to pass the current–the review board.

But the thing is it’s been incredibly watered down and it’s up to us to really take action once we leave this room.

STEINER: I’m going to go back here, and I want to get Clayton Guyton into this. And I’ll go back here as well. And we’re focusing here for this moment on the idea of a civilian review board, can it be effective in our community, how can it work, what–.

ADAM JACKSON, CEO, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: Well, my point would be that no civilian review board can be effective unless black people in Baltimore are organized enough to force them to do what they’re supposed to do.

And so the first thing that we need to do in Baltimore, if we understand that institutions like police forces and police and–you know, around this country are animated about racism and white supremacy, the thing we should be doing is creating black institutions that hold them directly accountable, and not the typical ones. We need to create ones that are socially, politically, and economically free of forces that have kept us oppressed in this system of white supremacy. So that’s where we need to start.

And the problem is, when we don’t start there, we end up rehashing these same issues over and over again, talking about civilian review boards. There are several bureaucratic boards created in every system of government that are supposed to hold them accountable, but we don’t have organized systems and organized organizations that are independent of white supremacy. The problem is we don’t have that. There’s no way we can actually expect them to perform as expected. So that’s where we need to start, to build black institutions first and to build organizations that can hold them directly accountable.

STEINER: Jill, and then over here.

JILL CARTER, MD STATE DELEGATE: Thanks.

Just briefly, I want to say that the civilian review board, giving it strength and authority is legislation. It’s state legislation.

STEINER: It can’t happen in the city?

CARTER: Revising the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights is state legislation. Making sure that either expanding voting laws for ex-felons or making sure the laws are enforced as they are is your politicians in the state legislation. And I want to just say on that, I believe that we do have to take action when we leave here and not just talk about it and complain, but we have to be organized, as Adam said, to support these issues in Annapolis. And so, for example, it didn’t just come out, you know, this year or after the last beating that we saw. People have been sponsoring legislation in Annapolis to give more authority to the Civilian Review Board for years, for a decade. I’ve been sponsoring legislation to change the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights since the entire time I’ve been there, ten years. And so these are issues that we need to bridge that gap and have a connection on.

And then, finally, I’ll just say that the Baltimore delegation to the state legislature is having a pre-session legislative hearing on all of these policing issues next Saturday at University of Baltimore at 2 o’clock, which is important for everybody to be there.

STEINER: This coming Saturday.

CARTER: This Saturday, the 22nd. And so that is the beginning of moving toward Annapolis to change some of these laws.

STEINER: Before we have to–we have to take a quick break here in a minute, but I do want to get a couple people in here. I told–I can go–I said we go here. So we’ll go up to the man with the mic.

And identify yourself, please.

RENO THOMPSON (SPL?): Okay. Reno Thompson [spl?]. I’ve been born and raised in Baltimore–matter of fact, about eight, maybe nine blocks, ten blocks from here. But the Citizen Review Board needs somebody on there, on that board, with a pitbull mentality. And if there’s not–it’s not going to be effective, because it’s not going to be respected. If you’re not going to have someone on there that is going to take these issues and run with it, it is not going to be respected in the community.

And just to go back real quickly, those of you talk about a lack of training, I’m going to say what Arnold used to say on Different Strokes: what are you talking about? This is not a lack of training. There’s a lack of respect for the community, and there’s a lack of–disrespect for the badge and themselves. If the officer don’t respect the community, this is what you’re going to get.

M. RUSSELL: Just real briefly, just real briefly.

So when I talk about–and I don’t want to feel like I was–I don’t want you to feel [incompr.] that I was being contradictory. When I talk about lack of training, when we came up in this agency or any police agency, you were from the neighborhoods. You lived in the neighborhoods. Could you please understand–let us not be ignorant to the fact we’re getting police not just from Baltimore; as a matter of fact, from the state of Maryland. And I’m just going to just be real frank with you. We’re probably getting 40 percent from the state of Maryland that are Baltimore police officers. And when you shrink it down to Baltimore City, it’s ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED: It’s very small.

M. RUSSELL: Sixty percent are coming from outside of Maryland. Then, when you talk about grabbing people outside of the country and now being police in a culture they don’t understand.

BUTLER: They don’t understand.

UNIDENTIFIED: Right?

STEINER: We are going to take a short break from this. I want to thank you all for being part of this conversation right now. When we come back, we’re going to address the issues of where we go from here, how do we get there, what a civilian review board could do, and what’s our part in it as a community. So I want to thank you all so much. Stay with us.

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