Members of the Baltimore Civilian Review Board want more authority over police misconduct complaints, telling a panel reviewing the Gun Trace Task Force scandal that allowing departments to police themselves can create a “hotbed of corruption.”
George Buntin, the new chair of the Civilian Review Board, and Bridal Pearson, who previously held the job, told members of the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing on Thursday that the board needs to be empowered to address police corruption, arguing that it has lacked any authority to hold officers accountable.
"It we’re going to fix this issue, we need to go a step further,” Buntin told commissioner members at a hearing in Annapolis. The state legislature created the commission following the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, which led to eight Baltimore police officers being convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to federal prison.
The Civilian Review Board, which is made up of volunteers, hears complaints from civilians and in turn makes recommendations about discipline to the police commissioner. But board members and other police reform advocates have long complained that board lacks any power to enforce its recommendations, and have called for legislative reforms to increase the board’s powers.
A task force created under the Baltimore Police consent decree recommended complete structural overall to the civilian board, including providing more staff, giving it subpoena and investigatory powers and requiring changes to the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
At Thursday’s hearing, Pearson said that the Civilian Review Board members did not track whether officers’ had histories of complaints made against them and that it did not have any documents connected to the GTTF officers. He said the board does not have access to the department’s full internal affairs files because of the restrictions under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
But under the board’s current leadership, Pearson said, they’ve created a system to monitor what he called “frequent flyers," or officers who are often named.
Commission member Sean Malone, an attorney who once prosecuted internal city police discipline cases and now defends officers, asked Pearson and Buntin how often the board agrees with internal affairs investigations. He cited a report the said the two agreed in about 74% of cases.
But Buntin and Peason said there’s not much communication with the department, and it’s often unclear whether the police department accepts the board’s recommendations.
“The reason I believe we need to take this out of police agencies is the overall culture of policing,” Butin said. He said there are good officers who find themselves in the position of trying to defend questionable practices because they don’t want to go against a fellow officer. “It’s a very conflicting thing for even the good ones."
Some officers might express their concerns about colleagues privately, but never in public. “That’s the culture of the police,” he said.
Butin argued that the department has too much power, which creates "a hotbed of corruption,” which can only be improved with external oversight. He said forming a board of independent investigators would create a “pure process.”
“We have to take some of the power taken out of their hands," he said.
The state commission is expected to meet again next month, when it will hear from members of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board.