For years, advocates for civilian oversight of Baltimore police have complained about what they call a “toothless tiger”: the city’s Civilian Review Board.
Since it was created by the state legislature in 1999, the panel of volunteers has convened to hear cases of certain types of misconduct. It uses subpoenas to compel testimony from witnesses, as well as police records. However, many people, including its members, say the board is hampered by a lack of funding and independence from the city.
Meanwhile, Maryland’s counties are gaining Police Accountability Boards under sweeping reforms passed by the General Assembly last year. That’s created a dilemma for Baltimore, which will get one, as well: How to merge the new panel with the old, without losing its powers?
Advocates are pushing a new state bill that they say would solve the issue for Baltimore while resolving some of the current city board’s problems, too, strengthening civilian oversight here overall.
“Transforming the Civilian Review Board into the Police Accountability Board makes sense,” said Sen. Jill P. Carter, the Baltimore Democrat sponsoring the new bill. “The Civilian Review Board already had statutory authority,” and combining both entities would “expand authority.”
However, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration has criticized the bill: “Rather than enable the city to lead transformation efforts, [it] maintains the status quo,” according to written testimony the administration sent last month to the city delegation to the House of Delegates.
The bill would require the city to assign 2% of its $555 million police budget to cover the costs of the board’s work, such as staff salaries and payments to outside counsel, rather than the board continuing to work with attorneys in the city solicitor’s office, which also represents the police department.
Supporters say these changes would significantly boost the board’s independence. The board sued the city in 2018 after a dispute with the then-solicitor over board members’ nondisclosure agreements, with members at that time citing what they called a conflict of interest in their legal representation.
Combining both models under the proposed legislation would allow Baltimore’s oversight panel to retain subpoena and investigatory powers.
In contrast, the Police Accountability Boards rely on reports from officers in their departments’ internal affairs sections, which investigate their colleagues.
“It’s a step backward for civilian oversight,” said Tiera Hawkes, the Civilian Review Board chair.
“They won’t be able to investigate,” she said of the new accountability boards. “They just get the case, and they just send them up.”
Advocates who support combining the panels said if the city board lost its subpoena and investigatory powers, that would leave Baltimore woefully short of the level of community oversight required by 2017 consent decree. A federal judge is supervising reforms after the city acknowledged widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing.
A task force created under the consent decree called for disbanding the Civilian Review Board in 2018 and replacing it with a more powerful “independent police accountability agency” with designated funding, further investigatory and subpoena powers, and an expansion of the types of misconduct that the panel could investigate. Those changes also would have required legislative approval, and such as agency has not been created.
About 50 people gathered outside City Hall recently to rally in support of Carter’s bill. Some held handwritten signs with slogans reading “Strong police oversight NOW” and “Mayor Scott, Baltimore needs real police accountability.”
The rally was organized by two coalitions, the Baltimore-based Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs and the statewide Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability.
Darlene Cain, founder of Mothers on the Move, said she started her activism after Baltimore police killed her son in 2012.
“This is my passion, from pain to purpose,” she said. A robust independent oversight body is “key to figuring out what is really going on in the police department.”
The new bill also would broaden the types of complaints the panel can investigate. Currently, the Civilian Review Board is permitted to hear only a handful of misconduct allegations, including abusive language, false arrest, false imprisonment, harassment and excessive force. Board members have said many acts of misconduct fall outside of those categories, such as when a sergeant was accused of coughing on a woman on purpose at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Carter said the expansion is necessary because when she previously oversaw the city’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights, which includes the Civilian Review Board, the police department often downgraded a complaint an officer faced to keep a case from going before the board. For example, an abusive language complaint might be watered down to a discourteous language complaint, which did not fall under the board’s purview, she said.
Ray Kelly, executive director of the Citizens Policing Project, said reform advocates fought to establish the Civilian Review Board powers and can’t allow the new law to walk those back.
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“We fought hard for a civilian oversight entity that is independent of the politics that continue to hinder true accountability in Baltimore,” Kelly said. “We are far from a place where we can blindly trust our elected officials to work in our best interest.”
Scott’s administration cited concerns that the Civilian Review Board would be at the mercy of the General Assembly should any legislative changes be required.
“Baltimore City would be held to a different standard, where the General Assembly would continue to serve as the gatekeeper for the city,” the administration said.
Natasha Mayhew, a member of Scott’s administration, testified on Feb. 16 against merging the panels, saying it “creates an unworkable framework,” would undermine the city’s authority and would be contrary to local control efforts.
At the recent rally, Kelly criticized Scott for failing to present a substantive plan for dealing with the existing and future oversight bodies and called for more transparency.
“In my opinion, duplicity is divisive and smells like another political maneuver to create unnecessary conflict by creating confusion about who Baltimore’s oversight entity will ultimately be accountable to,” he said. “Mr. Mayor, what’s your plan?”
Asked to comment on the bill, a spokesman for Scott referred to the administration’s earlier written testimony.