In recent years, Baltimore County Police have faced calls for accountability for issues ranging from fatal shootings to traffic stops disproportionately targeting Black motorists to the handling of sexual assault cases.
Now the county is starting work on a new system that eventually will give communities a say in the oversight of police. The first step is creating a “police accountability board” made up of residents from around the county.
But just how powerful that board will be remains an open question, with community groups and law enforcement watching closely.
“We don’t want something that just looks good on the face of it,” said Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP. “We want something that’s actually working.”
The county is one of the latest municipalities in Maryland to take up a proposal for an accountability board, which local governments are required to create by the sweeping 2021 police reform legislation passed by the General Assembly in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020 in Minneapolis.
Those reforms repealed the state’s decades-old Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, replacing its disciplinary structure with a new framework of civilian-led boards and committees in local jurisdictions.
Under the state law, the county police accountability boards will receive complaints of officer misconduct, review disciplinary outcomes, issue suggestions for policy improvements and appoint civilian members to administrative charging committees. Those committees will review and recommend discipline for internal investigations stemming from complaints that involve a member of the public.
Specifics of membership, board powers and funding were left to the counties themselves — and each is facing a looming July 1 deadline, leaving a tight timeline to hash out the details of the consequential oversight bodies.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, introduced legislation this month to establish such a board and the County Council is set to discuss the bill Tuesday. A vote is scheduled for May 2.
His bill would create a nine-member board, with the county executive appointing one member from each of the county’s seven County Council districts, plus two at-large members.
“This really is the first opportunity for communities to have involvement in police accountability,” said Ericka McDonald, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County. “It is a significant step toward transparency and stopping misconduct.”
Still, community groups have some concerns.
For instance, they want assurances that the board membership will be diverse. In addition, the legislation does not give the board investigatory powers, which activists say is key to giving the board real teeth. They also say it’s a conflict of interest that Olszewski’s bill would make the county attorney — who represents county police officers in litigation — the board’s legal adviser.
While Olszewski’s bill would bar active police officers from serving on the board, reform advocates also want to exclude former law enforcement officers.
Lorena Diaz, a regional community organizer with the ACLU of Maryland, said the hope is that county officials take the opportunity to create a board that would bring about true accountability and transparency, rather than “the bare minimum.”
“We want them to really listen to the community,” she said.
The county police union is watching closely, too. Baltimore County FOP Lodge No. 4 President Dave Folderauer has asked the council to consider changing the county executive’s proposal to allow County Council members to nominate board members, rather than having the administration select all of them. The FOP also hopes to see record-retention policies laid out for the bodies.
Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in a statement that the department has held itself to the “highest of standards for decades.”
“We will continue to work with the community as well as the newly established Police Accountability Board to maintain public trust and ensure these standards continue to be met,” Hyatt said.
Debates over the details of the police accountability boards have played out across the region.
In Montgomery County, advocates successfully pushed for compensation for members, independent legal counsel who are not county attorneys, dedicated staff and more open membership requirements. Joanna Silver of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition said the group and its partners took a “really poor bill and made it into something fairly robust.”
In Howard County, where a bill passed earlier this year, activists argued against two proposed nonvoting board members appointed by law enforcement, against some confidentiality obligations and for a more open membership criteria, which originally called for experience in law enforcement or government.
The issue of investigative powers was fiercely debated in Anne Arundel County, whose County Council approved legislation last week without such powers.
The conversation is just getting started in some other counties.
The Baltimore City Council will discuss a proposal filed Monday and the bill’s sponsor has suggested holding work sessions to get residents’ feedback.
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The city faces a unique situation in that it already has a Civilian Review Board that can conduct independent investigations into a handful of categories of police offenses. Legislation proposed this session in the General Assembly would have transformed the existing review board into the city’s police accountability board and strengthened what’s been called a “toothless tiger,” but it didn’t pass.
The creation of police accountability boards is a “floor, not a ceiling” in the effort to increase community oversight, according to Chad Leo, a spokesman for state Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the review board proposal this session and has been a leader in pushing for police reforms.
In Carroll County, county commissioners discussed a measure last week to create the board and plan a vote in early May.
A spokeswoman for Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said legislation will be introduced there in mid-May. Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said he hopes to see a board of five to seven members, composed of people without a “predetermined disposition in the way they’re going to see something,” that closely hews to the powers laid out in state statute.
Gahler said he would prefer if the board members were required to have some law enforcement experience or experience in a closely related field, along with significant training.
So far in Baltimore County, about a dozen people have expressed interest in becoming members of the board, according to Erica Palmisano, a spokeswoman for Olszewski. Officials expect that number to increase significantly as the legislation is finalized and the county promotes the opportunity to serve on the board, she said.
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Dana Munro and Madison Bateman contributed to this article.