A renewed push in Annapolis to establish a civilian review board to oversee discipline of Baltimore police officers is gaining momentum with surprise support from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who had rejected the idea for years.
State Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat, introduced a bill yesterday that would set up a powerful 18-member panel with broad discretion to examine the conduct of police officers, including allegations of excessive force and improper use of their guns.
The proposed legislation would give the board -- to include nine civilians and representatives from various city agencies -- subpoena power to call witnesses and gather documents.
The board would also have the authority to discipline officers.
"The public has to have faith in the police force," Hughes said. "When the decisions lay in police hands, the public is not going to have confidence."
Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat who has pushed similar legislation unsuccessfully in past years, predicted that with Schmoke's backing, the measure would win the support of Baltimore's General Assembly delegation.
If so, the bill would likely be enacted into law, as the Assembly rarely rejects bills of strictly local impact that are supported by the local delegation.
A similar measure introduced by Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, is pending in the House of Delegates.
Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has questioned the effectiveness of civilian review boards, but his spokesman said yesterday that he remains open to the proposal.
Frazier objects, however, to giving up his authority to punish his officers.
"The commissioner has always stated that he is willing to talk about the process, so that if it's implemented, it's implemented effectively," said spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr. "The department is certainly held accountable by the public, as it should be."
The president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, Officer Gary McLhinney, said he will work with the legislature to draw up acceptable parameters for the proposed board.
"The bill needs a lot of work," he said. "But I'm confident that everyone's concerns can be addressed."
The proposal would alter the way police investigations are handled and the way punishment is imposed, and officials said some way of merging the two disciplinary systems would have to be worked out.
City officers are guaranteed protections under the Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights.
Those include the right to a trial board, open to the public, at which officers plead their cases in front of three law enforcement officials. The trial board recommends punishment for any officer found guilty, but Frazier has the authority to override the board's decision.
Police critics have sought a civilian review board for years, arguing that the department is incapable of handling complaints. Schmoke resisted the call for years, saying that existing oversight measures were adequate.
A Complaint Review Board made up of prosecutors, city officials and four members of the public exists now. It reviews police investigations and can recommend they either be redone or turned over to state police.
But Schmoke has grown increasingly concerned with police conduct. He said two weeks ago that he is "hearing more and more stories about police officers treating people with disrespect."
Thursday, a group of civil rights leaders including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called for withholding federal dollars from police departments with patterns of abuse and pushing for the establishment of civilian review boards across the nation.
Sam Walker, professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, cited Minneapolis, San Francisco and San Diego as having successful or improving civilian review boards.
Maryland senators gave an ovation this month to Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who accused a city officer of using excessive force when he arrested her on charges that she failed to move back from an accident scene.
"I think what happened to Senator Conway raised the mayor's level of consciousness in terms of having fair treatment," Mitchell said yesterday.
Need for high public profile
Schmoke outlined his support in a letter to Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and Del. Salima S. Marriott, in which he advocated abolishing the Complaint Review Board and replacing it with a civilian review panel that would include one citizen from each of the nine police districts. City lawyers and members of the Community Relations Commission also would be on the board.
Schmoke said yesterday that the existing civilian oversight does not have a high enough public profile to be effective.
"As I looked at the visibility of the complaint evaluation board, I was not satisfied, so I looked to another step," he said.
The community members would be selected by a vote from each police district's Community Relations Council, groups of citizens that meet monthly with police commanders to discuss problems in their neighborhoods.
"These are nine people who are interested in public safety and have shown an interest in police work," Schmoke said.
Frazier has revamped the disciplinary process to make it tougher on officers. He has fired about one officer a week since he arrived in 1994 for abuses that range from hitting handcuffed prisoners to domestic violence.
"The Baltimore area has one of the finest reputations in the world for police discipline," said Sheldon Greenburg, director of a Johns Hopkins University police executive training program. "Our area has a reputation for dishing out some of the harshest discipline."
Many police groups, including the National Association of Chiefs of Police, oppose such boards, arguing that civilians do not understand the dangerous nature of police work.
Boards as political tools
Greenburg said boards can become political tools more interested in satisfying public outrage than dealing fairly with police misconduct.
"In some cities, the civilian review board becomes its own bureaucracy," he said. "I don't think that Baltimore has attempted the various alternatives to a civilian review board, so I think it may be a disservice to the public."
A number of people have raised concerns about controversial police incidents in Baltimore -- particularly shootings of knife-wielding citizens -- even though many of the shootings have been ruled justified.
"One of the real problems people have is that there is a feeling that the police will always protect their own," Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said, arguing that the panel needs subpoena power to be effective.
Otherwise, he said, "If there is information damaging to the police officers, the public will never see it."
Sun staff writer Amy Oakes and contributing writer Young Chang provided information for this article.
Pub Date: 2/27/99