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Crime

New police accountability board to increase civilian oversight in latest push for reform in Baltimore

In response to a new statewide requirement that seeks to strengthen civilian oversight of local law enforcement agencies, the Baltimore City Council passed a bill Monday to create a police accountability board, marking the latest development in a longstanding debate over police reform in Baltimore.

Mayor Brandon Scott is expected to sign the bill later this week.

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It passed with several significant amendments that police reform advocates believe will give the new accountability system sharper teeth. The board will receive complaints of officer misconduct, review disciplinary decisions and appoint civilian members to an administrative charging committee — a separate civilian panel that participates directly in the disciplinary process.

Statewide legislation passed last year requiring each county in Maryland to establish a similar oversight structure. But the details were left up to each jurisdiction.

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With a long history of police corruption and mistrust among residents, Baltimore’s stakes are especially high, advocates and officials said.

“Unfortunately, too often in our great city’s history, real police accountability has been insufficient and in some cases nonexistent,” City Councilman Mark Conway said during a recent hearing on establishing the new board. “Complaints have gone unanswered, cases have been dropped and constituents have walked away wondering who is making sure that problematic officers follow the law.”

Amendments to the bill passed Monday sought to address those challenges. The changes include allowing people with criminal records and undocumented immigrants to serve as board members and giving the panel subpoena power. The council also removed a minimum age requirement, allowing youths under 21 to serve.

“Incorporating some of the least recognized demographics in the city means incorporating the voices of people who have traditionally had those negative experiences with police,” said West Baltimore activist Ray Kelly who advocates for increased civilian oversight of the department. “That opens up the opportunity for more diverse representation.”

It also sets the Baltimore City board apart from those in some other jurisdictions, including Baltimore County where people convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors are prohibited from serving for 10 years.

Another amendment says the 17-member board can include no more than two former law enforcement officers.

“To the extent practicable the membership of the board shall reflect the racial, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity of the City,” the bill reads.

Kelly said he’s cautiously optimistic, calling this “the very first step into uncharted regions.”

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While the original proposal allowed the mayor to appoint all board members, the final version gives him two direct appointees and allows each council member to propose a candidate. The mayor can accept or reject those proposed candidates.

Dayvon Love, director of public policy for local think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, called the selection process a win because it effectively decentralizes the system and gives Baltimore residents more opportunities to lobby their elected representatives.

Advocates pushed to exclude people with law enforcement experience entirely but settled for the two-person limit for former law enforcement officers. Current officers are not allowed under the statewide requirements.

People can submit officer misconduct complaints to the board directly. Complaints submitted to a law enforcement agency must be forwarded to the board. In addition to City Police, the board will oversee other local agencies, including Baltimore School Police and the Sheriffs Department.

Apart from reviewing misconduct cases, the board will release an annual report on law enforcement discipline trends in Baltimore and recommend policy changes to improve police accountability.

It also will appoint three of five members to a separate charging committee. That panel will play a direct role in the officer discipline process by reviewing the findings of internal affairs investigations and determining whether the complaint is sustained or unsustained, then recommend discipline accordingly.

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The police commissioner or other agency head then could impose harsher discipline than the committee recommends, but cannot stray below their recommendation.

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During its review process, the board can subpoena witnesses and demand additional investigative material from law enforcement — two powers advocates said were hard-fought.

After the statewide legislation was passed last year, advocates in Baltimore started pushing to preserve some qualities of the existing Civilian Review Board, a similar oversight body created back in 1999. That board has been labeled a “toothless tiger” because of limited funding and concerns about its lack of independence from the city.

A bill that failed to pass the General Assembly this year sought to combine the two boards and expand their authority. Supporters said one of the main concerns was subpoena power, which the city council agreed to keep anyway.

Another concern was getting independent counsel for the new board — an issue that led the Civilian Review Board to sue the city in 2018, arguing that getting representation from the city solicitor created a conflict of interest because that office also represents the police department.

Councilman Conway, who sponsored the bill, said officials are working to develop a new arrangement to address the issue with the fledgling Police Accountability Board.

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He said he appreciated feedback from community members and was proud that the council acted quickly to amend the proposal in response to their demands.

“It’s a loaded issue, a tense issue, and the history of our police department has been troubling,” he said. “This board is going to be critical in helping to hold the department accountable, and I think the department is ready for that.”


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