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Baltimore Police Civilian Review Board calls for more authority as activist legal group sues over transparency

Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board is calling on state legislators to give them more authority to investigate complaints against police, while an activist legal group has filed a lawsuit separately alleging that the city is overreaching in its control over the board.

“We are urging lawmakers to expand the legislative authority of the CRB and increase transparency in this process,” the civilian review board chairperson Melvin R. Currie said in an open letter released Monday. “It is evident that the police cannot police themselves. Civilian oversight is necessary to ensure an appropriate and fair punishment for police misconduct.

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“Unfortunately, the CRB does not have the mandate to initiate an investigation of what it believes to be police misconduct.”

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Action Legal Team filed a lawsuit Friday in Baltimore Circuit Court claiming that the city’s oversight of the board deprives residents of their “right to protection.”

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A representative of the Baltimore City Law Department could not be reached for comment.

The group, which filed the action on behalf of two residents and is not coordinating with the civilian review board, says the city is overreaching by having the city law department and civil rights office provide oversight.

“Neither the Office of Equity and Civil Rights or the City Solicitor’s Office are provided power to intervene in the capacity in which they act. The overreaching control they have asserted has taken independence and freedom from the Baltimore public,” the lawsuit says. “Control over investigations has been maintained by those in charge of also protecting the police.”

Legislation that created the board said it is an independent agency, and that the city can provide staff from the civil rights and law office to assist with meetings. It also says the city may hire an independent administrator.

In reality, the city law department has wielded control of the board. In 2017, then-Mayor Catherine Pugh directed the law department to exercise “general administrative oversight” of the board, which then-chair Bridal Pearson called a “conflict of interest.” And in 2018, the city stopped providing police disciplinary documents when members refused to sign confidentiality agreements requiring them to agree not to release information about such cases.

Then-Solicitor Andre Davis said at the time that state law is clear that such police personnel files are subject to confidentiality laws.

But Baltimore Action Legal Team is noting that the legislation creating the review board imposes no such restrictions on the panel. Subsection 16-52 explicitly says the review board may not disclose the names of complainants, witnesses and investigators — but speaks nothing of the officers who are the subject of a complaint.

The activist group has filed a slate of lawsuits this year seeking to compel the release of tightly guarded police records.

“To have a Civilian Review Board sanctioned by those being reviewed only adds to the visage of accountability,” said Gisell Paula, a plaintiff in the case, in a statement. “As a member of my Baltimore community, it seems fair and logical to demand that the individuals responsible for evaluating police behavior are not an extension of the blue wall of silence, but reflective of the community impacted by their misconduct.”

The Civilian Review Board, created more than 20 years ago by the state General Assembly, has long struggled with relevance. Its board positions have gone unfilled over the years, and members have said that the police department does not take its recommendations seriously and that they lack power to enforce their decisions.

Currie, the current chair, said in his letter that the board is “only permitted to review allegations of excessive force, false arrest, false imprisonment, harassment and abusive language.”

“Many acts of misconduct fall outside of these allegations,” he said.

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He cited the example of an officer who was filmed appearing to deliberately cough as he walked past residents during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Currie said that though the incident was a “national embarrassment,” the board can’t take action without a complaint from a resident, and that the incident may not even fall within what they are permitted to investigate.

Matt Zernhelt, legal director of the Baltimore Action Legal Team, said the civilian review board “should have always been independent for oversight of police abuse.”

The lawsuit, he said, is “by no means a sweeping solution, but it’s owed to Baltimore as we work towards real change.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, some legislators have been vowing to go further with reforms. Sen. William C. Smith Jr., chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, wrote a letter to constituents and fellow lawmakers, calling for police accountability reforms.

The proposals include making complaints against police officers and disciplinary records public when they involve deaths, shootings, sexual assaults, discrimination, dishonesty or improper use of force. Right now, that information is exempt from disclosure under Maryland’s Public Information Act.

Smith’s proposal also calls for allowing “non-law enforcement public officials” to participate in the review of complaints against police officers.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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