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Baltimore's Civilian Review Board seeks input on improving police oversight

Baltimore's Civilian Review Board seeks input on improving police oversight.

Baltimore's Civilian Review Board, which provides oversight of city law enforcement, met Friday with similar groups from around the nation about possible reforms to implement here.

Kisha Brown, director of Baltimore's civilian board, said she wants to see improvements to civilian oversight. Some changes could be part a broader agreement being hammered out between the city and U.S. Department of Justice. The agreement is expected to require Police Department reforms following the federal agency's wide-ranging civil rights investigation.

The Justice Department found that Baltimore police routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force. The agency also found that the Civilian Review Board lacked resources and authority, making it "ineffective" at holding officers accountable.

Brown described Friday's workshop as "a conversation about what civilian oversight can look like."

Jamaica, for example, established a civilian oversight group five years ago that has the authority to arrest police for criminal wrongdoing. In Washington, D.C., civilian investigators arrive on the scene after incidents in which police use force to collect evidence.

In Baltimore, some changes, such as granting the Civilian Review Board greater subpoena powers, would require changes to state law or the police union contract.

The city's Civilian Review Board is charged with overseeing and investigating complaints about police misconduct including excessive force, abusive language, harassment, false arrest and false imprisonment.

But the organization has struggled to have meaningful impact since its formation in the late 1990s. Established by the General Assembly as an outside check on police misconduct, the board has been beset by vacancies and questions about its relevancy. It has limited powers, and most of the time agrees with the findings of police investigations into misconduct.

After Brown took over the board two years ago, she implemented electronic record-keeping of complaints and expanded the staff with new detectives, a supervisor and an outreach coordinator. She's also worked out a deal with the city to keep better track of complaints that should be forwarded by Baltimore police.

In Baltimore, most residents file complaints directly with the Police Department, which is supposed to share them with the Civilian Review Board.

Margo Frasier, who oversees the Office of the Police Monitor in Austin, Texas, said her office is better known to citizens and receives the majority of complaints against police.

Frasier said she's learned an effective oversight agency needs true independence from political overseers, good relations with both the community and police and timely, data-driven reports on the office's activities.

"If the process doesn't have credibility, then you have failed," Frasier said.

Ursala Price, with the Office of the Independent Police Monitor in New Orleans, said they've established paid "outreach contracts" with community activists to gain credibility in various neighborhoods. Price said New Orleans police — like in Baltimore — have struggled with community relations.

"We have somehow allowed criminal justice to live outside democracy," she said.

Some civilian oversight groups shared lessons learned after Justice Department reviews in their cities.

Susan Hutson, also with the Office of the Independent Police Monitor in New Orleans, said the process improved their access to information. But, she said, her office wasn't able to get greater investigatory and subpoena powers through the agreement.

Pierce Murphy with the Office of Police Accountability in Seattle, which also reached an agreement with the Justice Department to implement reforms, said it's imperative that civilian oversight is independent and transparent to the public.

Several Baltimore civil rights activists, including Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, former president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, attended the Friday workshop. He said community leaders need to ensure that all parties adhere to the Justice Department agreement, given past failures to enact lasting reform.

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