A restructuring that has moved the Civilian Review Board — an independent body that investigates police misconduct — under the city solicitor’s office presents a conflict of interest and more challenges for the oversight body, its members said.
At a meeting with City Solicitor Andre M. Davis and other city attorneys Thursday night, the Civilian Review Board members expressed concern about being under the city law department’s purview and entering a new confidentiality agreement being imposed by the office.
The moves by the law department, which represents both the board and police officers, was an effort to “strategically contain us,” board chair Bridal Pearson said.
The meeting, at times contentious, ended with the board members refusing to sign the confidentiality agreement.
The board is part of Baltimore’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, which has been moved under the city solicitor’s office, Pearson said. The city’s law department, among its many functions, represents police officers, the police department and the city in lawsuits.
The fact that the external oversight body that is supposed to investigate officers falls under the same office that represents police undermines the Civilian Review Board, Pearson said.
The move presents a “conflict of interest. How can you be unbiased when you are representing the BPD?” Pearson said of the city solicitor’s office.
At Thursday’s meeting, Davis said he is fully committed to the board as its attorney. He noted that Assistant City Solicitor Kristin Blumer has been representing the city this week in a three-day-long trial board against two police officers accused of misconduct.
Davis also stressed to the board that its work in discussing police officer misconduct is subject to confidentiality laws, but that the agreement would not change the nature of the board’s work.
“Based on observing and listening to the board’s deliberations tonight, there is nothing incompatible or inconsistent between the board’s present practices in their meetings and the confidentiality agreement. Zero,” he said.
But David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, who attended the meeting, said the new agreement exceeded what is required by law. An ACLU representative is a non-voting member of the board.
“I think what we are seeing is an inexplicable overreach by the city to try to suppress the remaining vestiges of investigatory authority, transparency and openness of the Baltimore Civilian Review Board,” Rocah said. “It’s utterly inexplicable in light of the overwhelming consensus in Baltimore, and indeed Maryland, that what we need is more accountability, more civilian control, more oversight, more transparency.”
The board regularly hears complaints about officers from civilians and conducts a separate investigation 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.
On Thursday, Davis argued that the board needed to sign confidentiality agreements to avoid repeating what he said occurred in the case of Keith Davis Jr., the man who has been charged in the shooting death of a Pimlico security guard — and was later shot by officers. He’s been tried three times and has a fourth trial date scheduled for November.
In Davis’ case, unredacted findings by the Civilian Review Board — which included officers’ names — were given to the media from Davis’ wife and attorneys. The board does not typically release those names.
The board found officers used excessive force and recommended two be terminated and two others receive a 30-day suspension.
The board and other proponents of police reform have said the oversight panel already lacked proper authority to hold officers accountable and have sought efforts to bolster it.
As part of the federally mandated consent decree that is intended to enact policing reforms, the Community Oversight Task Force, known as COTF, was created to make recommendations to improve civilian oversight. The task force issued a report this month that recommended disbanding the Civilian Review Board and replacing it with a stronger, fully independent oversight body with “full investigatory and subpoena powers.”
Pearson and former Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement Director Jill P. Carter said previously that disbanding the Civilian Review Board in favor of a new entity was unnecessary, but agreed civilian oversight in Baltimore needs to be strengthened.
Pearson said this latest move only further hurts their efforts to hold officers accountable.
“I believe that’s a step in the wrong direction,” he said.
The Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement has had a turbulent few months. In May, it lost Carter, who resigned after she was appointed to the state Senate. She said state law prohibited her from holding the director position as a sitting senator. Carter was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan to fill the seat vacated by Nathaniel T. Oaks, who resigned when he pleaded guilty in a federal corruption case.
The former deputy director of the Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement Office, Charles G. Byrd Jr., also resigned in May after The Baltimore Sun asked questions about his disbarment last year.
Pearson said he’s concerned that efforts by the city are trying to suppress the board, rather then empower its members.