Police review proposal stalls; Committee chairmen block votes on bill as session winds down


Legislation that would create a citizen board in Baltimore to hear complaints against police has stalled in the General Assembly and might die at the hands of two powerful committee chairmen, neither of whom lives in the city.

The bill's supporters say Baltimore residents have long demanded a civilian board to provide an unbiased look at charges of police misconduct. The proposal won widespread support from the city's legislators, as well as the mayor, the City Council, the police commissioner and the police union.

But the two committee chairmen have blocked key votes on the bill for reasons that have little to do with Baltimore.

In the House, Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said he believes the board is not needed and would give residents too much power over police complaints.

In the Senate, Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil Democrat, has said he is holding the bill to send a message to city senators who have not supported legislation he wanted.

"Down here, it's got to be a two-way street," Baker explained. "I needed to get the attention of some people who have not seen fit to support some issues that are important to me."

By taking no action on the bill, the two chairmen give it ever-diminishing chances of passage. With 13 days left in the Assembly's 90-day session, there may not be enough time to navigate the legislation through the legislative process.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill. "This is a jurisdictional issue -- it only affects Baltimore and should be approved on courtesy."

Traditionally, measures involving a single jurisdiction are assured passage if they are supported by local legislators. But Vallario said that may not happen in this case because portions of the bill could have wider implications for the state.

His concern focuses on a provision that would give civilian board members the power to subpoena witnesses and obtain internal police documents.

"We don't like to just freely hand out subpoena power," Vallario said, adding that he might support creation of a review board if it were not given such power.

The bill's sponsors said such a change would make it more difficult for the board to get at the truth. The legislation prevents the board from issuing a subpoena to an officer accused of wrongdoing. Without the ability to subpoena others, the bill's supporters say, the board would be less likely to get the cooperation of reluctant witnesses.

"It kicks the teeth out of the bill," said Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the House version.

Vallario questioned whether a civilian police review board is needed.

"I'll bet if you walked right into the center of Baltimore and asked 100 people about this bill, 98 of them wouldn't know a thing about it, or care," he said.

The city's legislators have expressed support for the concept in recent weeks. At a meeting of city senators, House Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount said concern about police misconduct is high in Baltimore. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a city Democrat who had not backed the idea in the past, said she has come to believe it's essential.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, who chairs the city's House delegation, said she hopes a compromise can be reached to move the bill out of committee.

Even a weakened version of the legislation "will be better than what's being done in the city right now," she said. "My own position is, if you cannot get it beyond the chair, you need to move forward with something that's more realistic."

Pub Date: 3/31/99

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