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Police unit at center of Freddie Gray review, use-of-force investigations dismantled

The special investigative unit created by former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts last year to probe shootings by officers and deaths in police custody — including Freddie Gray's — has been overhauled by Batts' successor, who has replaced all of the team's members and given it a new name.

Interim Commissioner Kevin Davis has replaced the Force Investigation Team with the Special Investigations Response Team, or SIRT, swapping one Department of Justice review model for another.

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The Justice Department is conducting its own investigation of the Police Department's use of force.

The move is the latest change in a turbulent year for Baltimore police and the city. Gray's death in April, after he suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody, drew protests against police brutality. On the day he was buried, the city erupted in rioting, looting and arson.

In the weeks that followed, killings and other violence in the city spiked. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Batts in July, and then said this month she would not run for re-election next year.

Davis said "recent examples have demonstrated [that] the BPD is capable of policing itself when matters arise that directly impact public trust and confidence."

"Our capacity to investigate police-involved shootings, in-custody deaths, and other critical incidents relies heavily on the SIRT team and the quality of their objective investigations," he said in a statement.

The Force Investigation Team, or FIT, was modeled on a unit developed by Justice officials and put in place in Las Vegas. Batts brought it to Baltimore last year as a way to improve use-of-force investigations amid widespread allegations of police abuse and misconduct.

The department promised to post its FIT investigations online — a first-of-its-kind idea that was short-lived.

The criteria for triggering an investigation by FIT were vague, and reports were posted online for only nine of the team's more than 30 investigations in 2014. The links to those reports disappeared from the FIT website this year without explanation, and no more have been posted.

Since Davis became interim commissioner in July, he has said, he has looked for opportunities at all levels to make improvements.

The Special Investigations Response Team is based on a model devised in light of a Justice Department investigation into the Prince George's County Police Department. Davis, a former commander in Prince George's, helped oversee use-of-force reviews during that time.

Davis helped oversee the FIT-led review of Gray's death.

David Harris, who studies police misconduct at the University of Pittsburgh, said FIT and SIRT units are "second-best" alternatives to independent bodies that investigate departments from the outside.

Harris said it makes sense for Davis to implement the type of unit he wants now, before the Justice Department decides for him.

"If some model like this wasn't in place, you'd surely be having it pretty soon," Harris said. "There's no way DOJ would leave Baltimore without insisting upon something like this, so you're better off putting it in place as your own initiative.

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"Taking the suit off the rack, so to speak, and customizing the fit to your own department, you're going to be that much further ahead."

Chief Rodney Hill, head of the Baltimore Police Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which oversees the new unit, said in an interview that all FIT members have been reassigned and that he is currently staffing SIRT with some of the city's most experienced officers — including veteran homicide detectives and officers with years of investigating street shootings.

The SIRT members will be put through extensive training on homicide investigations, crime scene analysis and the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, Hill said — and will ultimately constitute a team deserving of the trust of the department's rank-and-file officers and the public.

"The public wants to feel comfortable that, if we come out and say, 'This is our finding,' that everyone feels good about it," Hill said. "Members of the agency want to feel good that, if an officer has to use force, has to use deadly force, there [is] a comfort level that the people who are investigating it are good at what they're doing."

Hill said members of FIT had valuable experience, but that officers often shifted roles within the department and some had asked to be reassigned. He said the changeover did not have anything to do with the FIT members' performance during the department's review of Gray's death or relationships with Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

Mosby brought charges against six officers involved in Gray's arrest just hours after the findings of FIT members and other police investigators were delivered to her office.

Mosby said her staff had conducted its own investigation. She charged the officers with violations ranging from misconduct in office to second-degree murder.

All of the officers have pleaded not guilty; trials are tentatively set to begin next month.

Hill said he has an "extremely good working relationship" with Mosby and her deputies, and that will continue with SIRT.

Mosby's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Michael E. Davey, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents Baltimore's rank-and-file officers, said he welcomes the change. He said the officers who he has heard are being brought into or considered for SIRT are "very seasoned investigators that know what they're doing."

Davey said he didn't have specific concerns about individual FIT members, but thought they were "put in place way too fast with not enough training."

Davey said he has not been briefed on SIRT and how it will operate. But he said he hopes it is allowed to conduct investigations of use-of-force incidents without interference.

Under FIT, Davey said, the unit's members would interrogate — or try to interrogate — officers involved in shootings and other uses of force, and then internal affairs would demand a second interview for the department's administrative review of the officers' actions.

Officers would end up being asked to provide two statements, which could cause problems if those statements weren't identical, Davey said. Under FIT, he started advising Baltimore officers against giving statements at all unless compelled by internal affairs — a process that bans their use in criminal court proceedings.

In other jurisdictions in Maryland where Davey represents officers, he said, when they are asked to give a voluntary statement only once, they do so "99.9 percent of the time."

Hill wouldn't discuss how SIRT will function, but said it would be similar to FIT.

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Capt. Bill Alexander, who oversees the Administrative Investigations Section in the Prince George's County Police Department, said the SIRT team there does not seek officer statements until after the state's attorney decides whether to file charges.

Alexander said the model has worked well for the department and the community — due largely to the expertise of officers selected to be a part of it.

"Those officers have to be not only excellent and high-caliber investigators, but be able to retain and handle evidence that is confidential, and be able to remain unbiased," Alexander said.

As a result, they often produce case folders that are four times thicker than the average homicide case, he said.

"Every 'i' is dotted, every 't' is crossed, every possible avenue, every source, every video ... any possible detail, they work to get those details," Alexander said. "I don't think any reasonable person could look at a [SIRT] case and say, 'Well, you probably could have done this or questioned this person.'

"That person has been questioned. That evidence has been collected."

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