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Baltimore County police advisory group recommends police expand response to behavioral health calls, add civilians to officer trial boards

Baltimore County’s Police Equity Advisory Group released its draft recommendations for police reform measures Tuesday, advising the county to expand the ability of police to respond to more behavioral health-related calls for service and adding civilian members to the police department’s trial boards that look at allegations of police misconduct.

And in data analyses of complaints against officers, advisers found that while use of force complaints are down this year, the vast majority of complaints were filed by Black residents and resulted in no disciplinary action.

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In a 41-page report, the advisory group said that several community listening sessions and citizen and patrol officer focus groups showed residents feel there are “major deficiencies in police training, particularly as it relates to cultural competence, implicit bias and mental health related service calls.”

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. initially convened the group in November 2019 to study racial disparities in traffic stops before expanding it in June to look more broadly at law enforcement practices during protests surrounding the deaths at the hands of police of several Black Americans across the country, including George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police.

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The group is now a permanent body that includes representatives from the police department, county NAACP chapter, the State’s Attorney’s Office, state legislature, Towson University and County Council.

The work group has recommended the department “expand the capacity of its behavioral health response function to respond to additional behavioral health-related calls-for-service” and coordinate with the county Health and Human Services Department to provide follow-up.

The recommendation runs counter to broad calls this year to “defund the police,” with the idea being to rely less on police as the go-to respondents to solve societal woes, including handling mental health distress calls.

The police department is facing a federal lawsuit after an officer in November 2019 shot and killed Eric Sopp, a Parkton resident, on Interstate 83 in Baltimore County, after Sopp’s mother had called 911 for help, saying her grown son had been drinking and feeling suicidal before driving off.

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The county State’s Attorney’s Office declined to press criminal charges. The lawsuit alleges the department has a troubling history of killing people experiencing mental health crises.

Among the advisory group’s recommendations is a streamlined process for the Office of the Public Defender, criminal defense attorneys and the police department to easily report “potentially problematic behaviors observed during review of Body Worn Camera footage in connection with cases,” according to the report.

While the group found that use-of-force incidents from January through the end of May are down 29.3%, or 41 fewer incidents, compared to the same time period in 2019, it also found that 68% of use-of-force incidents involved Black residents, despite their making up 30% of the county population.

Some 85% of citizen complaints result in exoneration, dismissal or no action against the officer on whom the complaint was filed.

Of the complaints that were sustained, almost 82% were filed by white individuals.

Only about 19% of complaints filed by Black complainants were sustained, even though they filed 53% of the complaints. White individuals filed 40% of all complaints, according to the report.

Establishing a process to randomly audit a sampling of citizen complaints on an annual basis is among the group’s recommendations.

Black residents, according to the report, “clearly feel they are treated with bias in the county” across all areas of government, and group members heard “significant concerns” from residents about non-traffic-related interactions with county police, according to the report, and that community members want to see more cultural competency and implicit bias training, as well as more diversity, within the police department.

The county last month reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which in a lawsuit alleged the county’s hiring practices were discriminatory against African-American applicants.

As of February, minority groups — including Black, Hispanic, Asian American, Alaskan and Native American — made up 20% of the county police force, which totals 1,890 officers, according to police department statistics.

The county, per the settlement terms, must pay $2 million in back pay to eligible claimants who were denied entry into the department based on test results, and must make 20 priority hires of African-American claimants who previously took the test and failed.

Residents also said they wanted to see more community oversight of police practices, an idea for which Olszewski, whose brother is a county officer, has signaled support.

The County Council in October passed the Strengthening Modernization, Accountability, Reform, and Transparency, or SMART Policing Act, introduced by Democratic Councilman Julian Jones, banning chokeholds among other measures, but police reform advocates said the bill was stripped of some meaningful provisions, including one that would have added civilian members to the boards that review allegations of officer misconduct, because it would have to be negotiated with the Fraternal Order Police Lodge #4, the bargaining unit for officers.

Advisory group members recommend adding civilian members in fiscal 2022. Hearing boards currently comprise three voting members of the police department selected by the police chief, and are open to the public at the chief’s discretion.

County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in a statement the department embraces “the opportunity to evolve with our profession, and that police “are committed to serving our communities with the utmost professionalism.”

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According to the work group, there is “little to no community policing training” provided to Police Academy recruits. The group recommends the police department add that training for recruits.

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The advisory group said little about traffic stops in the interim report, but affirmed that Black drivers in 2018 were stopped at a higher rate than white drivers, but their review couldn’t determine the disposition of the issued citations; the group wrote it will conduct “a full examination” of the citation data, which they said was not previously available to them. The report states that data is now available.

Olszewski in a statement said the advisory group “has provided meaningful actions” to ensure that “every individual in every community in Baltimore County [is] treated equitably and with dignity by our law enforcement officers.”

Baltimore County is seeking public feedback on the recommendations through Jan. 8. The advisory group will issue a final report of findings and recommendations in early 2021, according to a news release.

Comments can be sent to equitablepolicing@baltimorecountymd.gov.

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