Town Hall Recap: Should the Community Control the Police?

In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, TRNN replays a community Town Hall hosted by Marc Steiner, where Baltimore residents, lawyers, police and activists gathered to discuss what to do about police brutality in their city

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Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: I’m Eddie Conway from The Real News.

And the recent death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore City Police Department brings into question again who should control the police department. Should the community control the police department? Should other things be put in place? We have been discussing this and reporting on it for a long time.

Recently, we did a town hall meeting on it, and now we’re going to do a recap of that town hall meeting.

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MARC STEINER, HOST: Welcome to The Real News Town Hall. I’m Marc Steiner, your host for this evening, and also host of The Marc Steiner Show on WEAA FM.

Today we’re going to discuss police brutality and asking this important question: should the Baltimore community control the police?

We have folks from all over the city, from all walks of life–community activists, police officers, elected officials–here to join us to wrestle with this deeply, deeply important question that faces our communities. And I want to welcome you all.

[APPLAUSE]

STEINER: Now, before we get to these issues, let’s first take a look at the question of the police department’s record of abuse in our city. And reporting for Real News is Jessica Desvarieux, who walks us through some of these offenses. Take a look.

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Over the past three years, the city of Baltimore doled out more than $5.7 million in compensation to victims of police brutality and abuse. Out of the more than 100 cases settled, a recent Baltimore Sun investigation found that many of those having run-ins with police were not your stereotypical troublemakers.

MARK PUENTE, JOURNALIST, THE BALTIMORE SUN: They weren’t men or women on the corner selling drugs. They weren’t people breaking into houses or having a gunfight. Eighty-seven-year-old lady calls the police because her grandson was shot. A pregnant accountant calls because she witnessed a beating. So you’ve really got to wonder: are those cases not being reported if something happens to those folks?

EFREN EDWARDS, BALTIMORE POLICE DETECTIVE: I recognize and I would be a liar if I were to sit here tonight and tell you that there are those on the Police Department who should not wear a service weapon, a badge, and the patch that I wear. I stand here tonight and I tell you that I wear my uniform with pride. I’m from Baltimore. My family is still here in Baltimore. I have a host of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins who live in Baltimore. And I educate them about certain officers in their area, because I trained them.

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STEINER: I want to turn to Neill Franklin first. Neill Franklin is sitting here in the front row. Let me introduce him for a moment. Neill Franklin was a police officer for over 30 years in the Maryland State Police, where he was an officer, then came to Baltimore, where he ran a training center in Baltimore City for the police for four years. And now he’s executive director of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

NEILL FRANKLIN, EXEC. DIR., LEAP: Go all the way back to slavery. The police have been an instrument to suppress the black community, to oppress the black community.

And the most recent system that has been put in place is the drug war, is the prohibition of drugs. It’s a health issue, it’s an educational issue that we’re trying to solve through criminal justice. It’s not about health. When Richard Nixon started the war on drugs, it wasn’t really about health. It was about the black community.

LT. KENNETH BUTLER, PRESIDENT, VANGUARD JUSTICE SOCIETY: Today, with it being a numbers game, you have a lot of officers, they just have to get numbers.

STEINER: What do you mean they have to get numbers? What does that mean?

BUTLER: They have to get a certain amount of arrests. They have to get a certain amount of car stops. They have to get a certain amount of tickets.

KIM TRUEHEART: We have to be oppressed in order for somebody to be wealthier in this nation than we are. And so the oppressor has instituted policies, laws, regulations that will ensure that we remain oppressed. And the police are the arm, the tool that they use for that oppression.

CONWAY: It’s more than training; it’s a mental attitude that it’s like war. It’s a mental attitude that causes a reaction against any incident in the community.

LT. COL. MELVIN RUSSELL, CHIEF OF COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP DIV., BPD: When we came up, just like Kenny was saying, we spoke to everybody. We knew everybody. We didn’t abuse anybody. Yeah, there was times you had a scuffle and you had to get into it, right, but when it was over, it was over. Cuffs went on, and when they went on, fighting stopped.

STEINER: So the question is–I hear what you’re saying, but I want to get to what’s under this. Why is it that when police stop people in this city, there are too many cases of people being pulled out of their cars, disrespected–.

UNIDENTIFIED: I thought I addressed that, Marc.

FRANKLIN: It’s a combination of everything. It’s the cultural underflow that has never been dealt with because we keep dumping system on a proper system. It’s a training issue, okay? It’s a supervision issue. It’s all of those things that we’ve never been able to properly deal with because of what’s being asked of these police officers and what these systems do to our young people on the street.

JILL CARTER, MD STATE DELEGATE: We’ve allowed the public perception to be changed, the perception of our society to be changed, such that black people, poor people, are not deemed human, have no human value in the eyes of the law. And that is the problem. That’s the fundamental problem. It’s an education in training, but–and a little bit’s been said. I could talk all day about this.

But in terms of policy, that’s where leadership comes, and that’s where it’s incumbent upon those in political office, the leader of the city, the leader of the state to make it clear that the policy is there will be no brutality.

JEROME BIVENS, ATTORNEY: It’s got to be instant accountability. It’s got to be right there, immediate, on the spot. We’ve seen several incidents within the last six, seven, eight months where police have committed heinous acts and nothing happens to them until we all see the elevator video.

MARC STEINER, HOST: 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: 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.

~~~

DWIGHT PETTIT, ATTORNEY: 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 [snip]

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?

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.

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.

RUSSELL NEVERDON, ATTORNEY: So, knowing that and understanding that, the part of the reason why we’re gumming at the issue is because we’ve got the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. We have to tear that down to the core. 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.

SONIA KUMAR, STAFF ATTORNEY, ACLU MD: 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.

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 around this country are animated by racism and white supremacy, the thing we should be doing is creating black institutions that hold them directly accountable.

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

STEINER: How can we organize to protect ourselves and our communities and create these civilian review boards? Let’s look at cities across North America that have been able to address or are working to address police brutality.

~~~

NOOR: With Baltimore’s police review board not having the power to actually hold officers accountable, it’s worth looking at those in several cities around the country that do.

By contrast, the City of Toronto’s Police Services Board is a very different model. The board is comprised of two City Council members, civilians appointed by the city and the province, and the mayor can choose to sit on the board or be replaced with another City Council member. The police chief handles discipline, but the board hires and has the power to fire the chief. And after being criticized for not better overseeing the highly maligned police response to the 2010 G20 protest, where over 1,100 people were arrested, the board is now asserting its authority over day-to-day policing.

~~~

STEINER: 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.

ALOK MUKHERJEE, CHAIR, TORONTO POLICE SERVICES BOARD: 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.

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.

STEINER: The subtext here, to me, anyway, is that these things don’t work unless there’s a force in the community push them to work.

MUKHERJEE: That’s right.

STEINER: 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 could 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.]

BRITNEY PRICE, CONNEXIONS COMMUNITY HS: I would just like to say thank you for having me today.

Y’all talk–I’ve been listing to you all, and y’all have been talking a lot about the future and about the movement and things like that. But what you all fail to realize is the youth is our future. And y’all haven’t acknowledged the fact that y’all have to educate our youth on certain things for y’all not to have this [similar (?)] problem going on in the future.

STEINER: In the first half of the program, we discussed a model review board for Baltimore. What would it look like? Now we want to discuss how we can get there, how we achieve that.

FRANKLIN: A review board is not a governing board. I think what we should strive for first is a governing board to take the power away from City Hall and let the citizens and that governing board design the police department in the way it should be.

STEINER: How effective is that in Toronto?

MUKHERJEE: Well, I mean, I made a point about policy versus operation. In order for policy to be effective, it has to be implemented. And what we’re having difficulty with the racial profiling policy is policy says we must define public safety purpose. Chief says that’s an operational matter; you cannot.

PAUL JAY, CEO, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: On paper, this may be the best legislation in North America. If there isn’t a mass movement, if the community isn’t organized, Alok and a few of the people on his board are all out there on their own against the union. It does not stop the war. It’s an important tool, it’s an important weapon, if you have it. But it’s only a weapon if the people wield it. Otherwise, they’re out on their own.

KIM HUMPHREY, EDUCATION AND LEGISLATIVE ADVOCATE, ACLU: You do need policy and you need implementation, but you have to have the grassroots. So his point about getting organized and staying organized: you have to show up in Annapolis. When people like the ACLU who are able to get the ear don’t have the support of the community, we can’t get anything done.

I call on the community groups at the grassroots level to really hold the feet to the fire, get people organized, get the students involved that are dealing with this every day, so that we can really make a change.

QIARA BUTLER, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: Hi. I’m Qiara Butler. I’m a cousin of Tyrone West.

We have created a West Coalition. This coalition has forefronted a list of demands where we’ve actually asked for legislative changes and changes in the community that can be implemented in a way where we can actually see the change in the short-term kind of framework.

DAYVON EVERETT DUNN, COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: I worked with the West family. I’ve worked with–myself, all the–Dayvon, all the grassroot–we’re working. It’s y’all not with us. I mean, I’m not faking at y’all. I ain’t going to fake with you.

FARAJII MUHAMMAD, HOST OF LISTEN UP!, WEAA 88.9 FM: As we’ve been hearing, if we don’t put the focus on the next generation–you know, we’ve having an opportunity with the American Friends Service Committee to go into schools. We’re at ConneXions. We’re building relationships in the Gilmor Homes community. We’re going in and we’re talking to those who are highly affected about all of these issues.

But, again, it’s about building relationships with folks. And we have to be the ones, those who are in positions of influence or those who have access to resources; we have to be doing that.

STEINER: I want to turn to Paul Jay, whose organization is hosting this thing this evening, Real News Network, and say that we in the media do have a role here, just to answer what you were saying. Tawanda and at least 30, 40 people in this room have been on our programs to tell this message to the larger community, which is, whatever role the media has to play, it doesn’t play it, but our alternative media, whether it’s The Marc Steiner Show or The Real News Network or Faraji Muhammad’s show on WEAA, where I am also, that’s our role is to get people out and get the story out so people can hear it and get galvanized.

JAY: Well, I’ll just pick up on what you said. Local television news is the most watched news across the country and, as far as we know, in Baltimore. But local television news is based on an advertising model. So they don’t want to take up these issues from the kinds of points of view we’ve heard tonight. They turn tragedy into infotainment. They’re not trying to dig into what are effective solutions.

So our mission at The Real News is we want to beat Fox, NBC, CBS, we want to become the mass media for Baltimore.

[snip] thousands and tens of thousand people get in on this conversation. And then, when you organize, the reverberation of that organizing will be citywide and even statewide.

STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner. I’d like to thank all of our guests in the audience, members for being part of this incredible discussion. It cannot stop here. We have got people in here, we’ve got the suits in here, we’ve got the nonsuits in here, we’ve got the police in here and the community here to talk about it’s time to build a movement for change. And I want to thank you all for coming to this Real News town meeting. Thank you all so much.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.