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Baltimore police
(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

City leaders are under pressure to require the Baltimore Police Department to add civilians to its internal disciplinary panels as part of ongoing labor contract negotiations.

A new state law allows civilians to join the panels for the first time beginning Oct. 1. In Baltimore, the union must agree to the change.

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Baltimore's labor agreement expired last month, and the city's police union is negotiating with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration. It's unclear how long that process would take, and both sides have agreed not to publicly discuss what's being negotiated behind closed doors.

A coalition of community activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union, is pushing for civilian participation on police trial boards as a way to bolster police accountability.

"Baltimore has a history of police brutality. This helps to put civilians in a substantial position to be a deterrent," said Dayvon Love, co-founder of the black empowerment group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, which is part of the coalition.

Officers can request a trial board to contest the findings of an Internal Affairs investigation and the discipline recommended. Internal Affairs investigates whether officers violated department policy, including use of excessive force and misconduct.

The trial board can recommend an officer be fired, suspended or docked leave that's been accrued. The police commissioner has final say.

The six officers charged in Freddie Gray's arrest and death could request trial boards — which are independent of criminal proceedings — after an outside agency's review of their cases.

Instead of an internal affairs investigation by the Baltimore police, an outside agency will be selected to handle the Gray case. That review won't happen until the criminal proceedings are complete. Two officers have been acquitted, while another trial is underway and the remaining three have been scheduled.

The General Assembly approved legislation this year that allows local governments to add specially trained civilians to the trial boards, subject to the agreement of police unions during collective bargaining in certain jurisdictions, including Baltimore.

Up to two civilians with full voting rights can be added to the trial boards, composed now of three police officers.

Civilians had been prohibited from serving on the panels under the state Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.

Across the country, civilians have been given a greater role in reviewing alleged police misconduct. Washington, Chicago and Detroit are among a handful of places that give civilians authority in disciplining officers.

City leaders including Police Commissioner Kevin Davis have supported the idea of adding citizens to trial boards.

But the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police has argued that citizens do not have enough information to make decisions about officer actions.

The union argued against changing the makeup of the police boards, saying the panels review internal matters that require specialized knowledge about policing.

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The city's expired police contract remains in effect while negotiations continue. A new contract is likely to be in effect for just one year, allowing the next mayoral administration to develop terms of a longer agreement.

State senators representing Baltimore — including Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, the Democratic nominee for mayor — pushed for civilian participation on trial boards as a way to increase the department's public accountability.

Pugh said it would help to build trust between the community and police, but she is not involved in the negotiations.

Rawlings-Blake spokesman Anthony McCarthy said the administration is "not at liberty to discuss negotiations." He noted that the mayor lobbied for legislation that would have removed the composition of trial boards from the collective-bargaining process. The bill failed.

"We hope that the General Assembly takes this issue up again next session," McCarthy said.

The mayor, he said, is "committed to transparency in the trial board process," and noted that Davis plans to allow the public to watch video of administrative disciplinary hearings at police headquarters.

T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said Davis has spoken to community groups and others about adding civilian oversight and "supports the idea, but it is something that is not up to him, specifically."

Since Davis took over the department about a year ago, Smith said, Davis has taken a more hard-line approach to discipline. Six officers have been fired and seven resigned during his tenure.

Gene Ryan, president of the FOP Lodge No. 3, said ground rules during contract negotiations bar the parties from publicly discussing it.

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said public pressure to add civilian representation on the trial boards should be heeded by those at the table.

"I would find it appalling and inconceivable if the city was not pushing for it," Rocah said.

Only the administration and the union are party to the contract negotiations.

If the union and administration fail to reach an agreement on trial board participation, Rocah said, the two sides could declare an impasse and leave the decision to an arbitrator.

"Having civilians on the board is historic, necessary, and the legislature's failure to address this procedural impediment to getting it done is a significant problem," Rocah said. "It is incumbent on the city to force the issue."

Kim Trueheart, an activist who organized a recent rally at City Hall on the matter, said with court proceedings failing to yield any convictions in the Gray cases, civilian participation on the trial boards could provide a layer of accountability going forward.

"We're not getting justice in the court system," she said. "Maybe we need to stand up and be more involved in the disciplinary process that the system has set up.

"The FOP is in a position of power, but we believe the citizen's voice needs to be heard."

Baltimore Sun reporter Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.

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