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Baltimore Police Department hails first civilian involvement in officer discipline trial, but won’t tell anyone what happened

The Baltimore Police Department said it became the first police department in Maryland to hold an officer disciplinary hearing in which civilians took part in rendering the decision — but refused to give detailed information about the proceedings.

The state legislature in 2016 allowed civilians to take part in police disciplinary hearings — known as trial boards — and made them open to the public. But because of negotiations with the police union and other delays, the city hadn’t held a hearing involving civilians until last week.

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With the pandemic canceling in-person meetings, the department’s web lists a schedule of disciplinary hearings. It lists only case numbers — there is no information about the officer or the type of case. The schedule does not offered the public an option for watching the hearings remotely.

In a news release, city officials touted the civilian involvement as a step toward transparency and accountability, but said state law governing records of employee discipline prevents them from discussing what took place.

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Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House judiciary committee, disputed that assertion.

“It strikes me that if the hearing is supposed to be public, then what happens in the hearing should be available to the public,” Clippinger said. “That’s the whole point of making the hearing public.”

Pressed by The Baltimore Sun, the department relented and gave some information, saying the case “did not arise from a complaint from the public” and that the “nature of the charges did not occur from any interaction with a member of the public.” The action being reviewed related instead to “reporting obligations and supervisory responsibilities.” The department did not identify the officer.

“The result of the hearing was that the board found that a policy violation had occurred and recommended a penalty,” department spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said.

Clippinger introduced a bill in 2019 that would have made audio recordings of the proceedings available. That bill failed, but Clippinger believes it was only clarifying legislation to emphasize that the account of the hearings should be publicly available.

David Rocah, of the ACLU of Maryland, said the legislature needs to do more since police departments are not making information about the hearings available.

“The General Assembly has been repeatedly asked to fix this problem and has willfully and consciously refused to do so,” Rocah said, aying the legislature has instead taken “meaningless half-measures.”

The legislation allowing civilians to take part in trial boards passed in 2016, the same year the hearings were made public. But the city next had to work out an agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police; that occurred in 2018.

In 2019, the BPD started receiving applications from city residents who wanted to be members of the department’s trial board. After a background check and a review process by the Police Department, the City Solicitor’s Office and the FOP, 45 people were selected.

They were required to complete 40 hours of classroom training by BPD and outside legal experts, and 31 of them participated in 20 hours of a police ride-along program.

Their names were put into a lottery system, and two names are randomly drawn in the lead-up to a trial board hearing.

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