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Citizens to gain peek at police discipline, but not full view

Citizens to gain peek at police discipline, but not full view

The process by which police officers are disciplined in Maryland has long been shrouded in secrecy. But bills passed by the legislature this year should allow citizens more of a peek behind the curtain.

Civilians will be included in the training process for officers, and internal disciplinary hearings will be made public. Residents could get a seat at the table to decide the outcome of those hearings.

But just what those outcomes are will not be released to the public. And records related to discipline will continue to be withheld — though those who make the complaints will be able to learn if punishment was handed down.

"It's been a process that's been a mystery for so many, for so long, and is now opening up to the light," said Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland. "Hopefully this is just the start of the process."

Vince Canales, president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, said some of the changes appeared to be for show. He anticipates legal challenges to some that are ambiguous.

"There were a lot of political motivations to come up with something," Canales said. "We believe there's a lot of areas within this legislation that should make a lot of people wonder."

Lawmakers considered a wide range of police reform bills this year in the first session since the death of Freddie Gray. Protests in cities across the country have brought a new level of scrutiny to police, and legislators sought to work with activists and the police unions to compromise on change.

At the top of the list for activists was including citizens on the trial boards that decide police discipline. They wanted to require jurisdictions to include citizens, but the final bill makes it optional, and in Baltimore and elsewhere, the change would have to be negotiated with police unions.

Aides to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis say he supports the idea, but wants to have control over who is picked. The legislation allows the addition of up to two members of the public.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wanted lawmakers to take the trial boards out of the collective bargaining process altogether, giving police more control.

"We wanted the commissioner to have the authority to set that, and that didn't happen," said Howard Libit, the mayor's spokesman.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he is pushing to see what kind of bill the council could craft to help get civilians onto the trial boards.

Young said he wants whoever is picked to be "well-versed in police relations."

"In order to build that trust with the Police Department, I think it's incumbent upon us to find the right person," Young said.

Dayvon Love, public policy director of the activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, expressed frustration that lawmakers were unwilling to mandate the civilian involvement.

He said legislative leaders sought changes that would give the appearance of reform "without disrupting the structures that created the problem."

"It's frustrating that the idea is so controversial," Love said. "If you don't mandate something, it creates opportunties to circumvent actually carrying it out."

Whether the city can strike an agreement with the police union to add civilians, police trial board hearings are now public hearings. Some jurisdictions, including Prince George's County, already considered the hearings open.

"There was nothing specifically in the law that precluded it, but now it's clear: from now, these are open to the public," said Sarah Love, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

It is unclear how the public will be notified of when such hearings are taking place, and the outcomes of specific cases will remain unknown, due to what police departments say is a prohibition in state law regarding discipline of public employees.

Jason Johnson, director of strategic development for the Baltimore Police Department, said officials are exploring how they will go about opening up the hearings.

He worked previously in Prince George's County, where hearings were open but not publicized, and sometimes drew interested members of the public. He said city police will "make every effort within the law to make this process as public and transparent as possible."

Canales, the police union state president, said police are wary of some of the changes. He notes that the union was "pretty much on board" with 19 of the initial 23 recommendations made by the commission.

One change, for example, requires police to document and investigate anonymous citizen complaints. Proponents said it would ease fears of people who want to make a complaint but are fearful.

Canales wondered how police can investigate a complaint without being able to follow up with the person who lodged it.

"The concern we ultimately have is that you could potentially see complaints spike, but the number of unfounded cases going up as well," Canales said. "Those numbers [of unfounded complaints] could cause individuals to question or distrust how an agency is handling complaints, when in reality they're working with the information they've been provided."

In some states, police personnel records are open to the public. In Ohio, for example, following the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the personnel history of the Cleveland police officers involved was on full display — including the fact that one of the officers had resigned from a previous employer following a poor performance review, and had failed a written exam to join another agency.

Canales said keeping the disciplinary process secret in Maryland is unlikely to help engender trust, but he said it was unfair to improve transparency only as it relates to police records. If you want to open up government, it shouldn't be for one particular group," he said. "Open it up for all government, including elected officials."

One major change: people who make a complaint about officer conduct are now entitled to find out the result of the police investigation.

The state's highest court ruled last year that officer discipline fell under the personnel record exemption of the state public information act, and that those who made the complaints weren't permitted to find out what happened.

"The Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights was passed in the 1970s," said Stafford, of Progressive Maryland. "It's been a long time since issues with this have been addressed."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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