Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Tuesday announced that the Baltimore Office of Civil Rights will now be a standalone agency, no longer under the city solicitor’s office, amid concerns of potential conflicts of interest between city attorneys and the board that investigates police misconduct.
The move means that the Civilian Review Board, an independent agency that reviews police misconduct complaints, will no longer work under the gaze of the city’s law office. The city’s law office also represents officers in police misconduct cases, creating the potential for conflict or an appearance of conflict.
The civil rights office also includes the city’s Community Relations Commission, Wage Commission, and the Mayor's Commission on Disabilities.
“The public perception of independence is critical,” Young said at a news conference announcing the change.
He said he had wanted to make the change when he was City Council President under then-Mayor Catherine Pugh.
The Office of Civil Rights was placed under the control of City Solicitor Andre Davis last year, after its previous director, Jill P. Carter, resigned when she was appointed to the state Senate. She said state law prohibited her from holding the director position as a sitting senator.
“The staff from this office must be free to conduct unbiased investigations,” Carter said Tuesday. “The executive leadership must be unencumbered by politics within city government and the boards and commissions must be permitted to act in the best interest of the people of Baltimore that they serve.”
The current director of the Office of Civil Rights, Darnell E. Ingram, was traveling and did not attend Tuesday’s news conference.
Deputy City Solicitor Dana P. Moore said the law department is in “full support of Mayor Young’s decision.”
Moore said the office has and will continue to serve as counsel for the civil rights office.
“They do very, very important work,” she said.
The board regularly hears complaints from civilians and conducts its own investigations of alleged police misconduct, separate from the police department’s internal affairs division. The board can make recommendations about discipline to the commissioner, but ultimately, the commissioner has final say.
Carter said the agencies also should be able to have “independent legal counsel when it is warranted.”
“People must be able to trust that their claims will be fairly and vigilantly investigated and decisions made with integrity without conflict or political influence,” she said.
Since the review board moved under the purview of the law office, it has clashed with the city solicitor.
Davis required the board members sign confidentiality agreements last summer, saying they would not affect the board’s work, but board members refused, arguing the agreements were excessive and feared they would impede their work. When they refused to comply, Davis directed the Police Department to withhold police internal affairs files of cases that were set to be reviewed by the board. The Civilian Review Board then retained a private attorney, pro bono, and filed a lawsuit against the city last year.
Davis later withdrew the requirement for board members to sign confidentiality requirements, but warned board members could face legal action on their own over any allegations of public leaks of the police officers’ confidential personnel documents they are authorized to review. The board later withdrew the lawsuit.
Bridal Pearson, the chairman of the Civilian Review Board, also praised the decision to move the board from under the city solicitor’s office.
“We greatly support righting this wrong. It’s community members who face constant police misconduct. We are that voice and I would say this is what advocacy looks like,” Pearson said.