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Can Baltimore police investigate their own? Internal Affairs, noted for its ‘disarray,’ shows halting improvement.

In 2018, a federal judge and a panel of experts overseeing reform of Baltimore’s troubled police department expressed little confidence in the force’s ability to investigate its own officers.

Internal Affairs was understaffed, faced staggering caseloads and maintained files that “were in disarray ... the outcomes relied on faulty or insufficiently explained reasoning,” federal consent decree monitors wrote in a filing to the court.

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Those problems played out in the real world and continued long after that report. Dozens of internal cases alleging misconduct by officers expired, often on procedural grounds because Internal Affairs did not file the complaints in a timely manner.

The department — and other entities — continued to battle criminal misconduct within its ranks. The State’s Attorney’s Office brought a string of charges against officers ranging from falsifying records and abuse of power to assault and overtime fraud.

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And public polling and interviews showed that the people of Baltimore had little trust in the department.

Now, after years of training and expense to upgrade its technology, the department and federal overseers point to signs that things are getting better, though problems and criticism remain.

At the latest quarterly hearing, Judge James Bredar complimented the department on its overall progress, while noting that Internal Affairs has a heavy lift ahead before it can reach compliance.

“[M]uch work remains,” Bredar wrote in his prepared remarks. “The Public Integrity Bureau must march ahead with the complete overhaul of the Internal Affairs function, and, in the process, restore faith that the Department can truly police itself and its wayward officers, be their number small or large,” he said.

Baltimore Police officials say they have increased the number of internal investigators, introduced new software to better organize and track cases, and required professional training of investigators where none had been required before.

“We see that there’s progress,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said. “Certainly we realize there’s much more work that needs to be done.”

Improving Internal Affairs is at the forefront of the consent decree, which calls for a “robust and well-functioning accountability system in which officers are held to the highest standards of integrity,” saying that’s “critical to BPD’s legitimacy and a priority of the Department.”

Deputy Commissioner Brian Nadeau came to the department from the FBI in 2019 to oversee the Public Integrity Bureau, which includes Internal Affairs. He said the department has a long way to go but has made substantial improvements.

When Nadeau took over, there were 1,900 outstanding cases, which have been whittled down to 800. Caseloads have also gone down, from 80 on average to 20 to 35 per investigator. Officials hope handling fewer investigations at once will improve the quality of the cases, as well as morale.

More detectives have been added to the unit, and Nadeau said the department has managed to attract applicants for a long-unpopular post. The department got 24 applications for a single opening, Nadeau said.

Overall, external complaints are down 42%, from 986 in 2019 to 600 last year. Nadeau said the pandemic could be a factor but interactions with the public have not dipped 42%.

“I worked for four years in Baltimore at the FBI, and I saw what was going on in BPD for four years. I would never believe that we would have this many changes in place in two years,” Nadeau said in a recent interview.

Nadeau said improving Internal Affairs is crucial to the overall reforms.

“If people feel like they make a complaint and it gets handled effectively and fairly, they will have a different look at the police,” Nadeau said. “Most importantly, is to curb the problems that are happening so we don’t get the complaints.”

New software lets investigators see all complaints involving the same officer, which didn’t happen before when cases were kept in books. Being able to better track cases means the department should be better able to spot problematic officers, like members of the disgraced Gun Trace Task Force, who were federally charged after robbing residents, fraudulently filing for overtime and engaging in other misconduct.

“You could’ve taken any one of these officers, and they could have had two or three cases, but they were with different [investigators] .. there was no communication,” Nadeau said.

Internal affairs’ dysfunction extended beyond the corrupt GTTF officers. Because the unit couldn’t quickly share information about cases, duplicate investigations could be launched.

“Sometimes there was three cases on the same person for the same violation because nobody could see it, nobody could talk,” Nadeau said.

The federal monitoring team is starting to track progress in the unit’s work.

For example, in its September report, found that “some 40 percent of misconduct investigations in 2018 were of ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ overall quality.” Documentation was so poor even the facts of the cases and the list of investigative steps taken were not clear. Further, the monitors found that people filing complaints were interviewed only 41% of the time. Often, the report said, investigators failed to “flag repetitive problematic behavior, and potential policy shortcomings.”

In its latest report, the monitoring team continued to express concerns over the Public Integrity Bureau’s progress, writing that there is “insufficient evidence to show that BPD has begun to erase [the Public Integrity Bureau’s] troubled legacy of permissiveness, which has emboldened officers not only to violate policy, but — as with the Gun Trace Task Force — to break the law.”

However, the monitors continued, “to its credit, BPD is not in standstill mode” and has improved policies and procedures for misconduct complaint intake and classification, and misconduct investigations.

Deborah Katz Levi, the head of the special litigation unit for the public defender’s Baltimore district office, has extensively reviewed Internal Affairs files for potential exculpatory evidence for her clients. In 2018, the public defender’s office flagged to the monitoring team and Justice Department concerns over how some internal cases were wrongly being expunged.

Levi said she has not seen that practice continue. However, she said, she has yet to see any “sea change” in overall misconduct investigations.

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“I am not seeing any grand sweeping changes in how cases are being conducted and concluded,” she said. “I think it’s too soon to say we have noticed any changes in the integrity of the investigations.”

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But Levi said, “I am finding anecdotally that we are finding more body camera violations,” which Nadeau has attributed to more audits.

Levi said she has also seen fewer cases dropped because a witness or victim of the misconduct failed to follow through with the complaint, which happened often as cases dragged on without being properly investigated.

Nadeau expressed optimism in a recent weeklong professional training for the unit’s more than 70 investigators, which he said would make investigations more thorough and efficient.

“Having professional training to give people a roadmap of how to do things is really necessary. A lot of times officers, detectives, try to train each other, but you need to have the foundation,” Nadeau said, adding that “the grassroots building blocks were never taught.”

Much of the training was focused on interviewing, which can be difficult in an Internal Affairs case.

A member of the public has a different perspective than that of a veteran officer. “You have to be open” and get what information they have, Nadeau said. Investigators have to tactfully and respectfully ask questions to get all the information.

Generally, Nadeau said complaints tend to result from poor communication between the officer and the public.

“When you get through all the minutiae of that, nobody did anything wrong, but it could be handled better,” he said.

Det. Vanessa Simpson, a veteran Internal Affairs investigator, called the training “a longtime coming,” and said such sessions will help seasoned investigators and newcomers alike to the job better.

She said that, traditionally, investigators would rely on each other for on-the-job training. Caseloads were daunting and would divert investigators’ attention, she said.

Internal affairs cases can be challenging because they can cover a range of misconduct that varies in complexity. The training, she said, provided exercises to help investigators determine who to speak to and what physical evidence to collect. In smaller group sessions, they would discuss what conclusions they should come to.

Simpson said she’s happy to see changes. “This is how we develop a better relationship with the community.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilio contributed to this story.

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