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Activists urge more citizen oversight of Baltimore police

Activists made the case for more direct oversight of the Baltimore Police Department by members of the public at a forum on Saturday examining the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities.

Dayvon Love, a member of the group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said stronger external measures keeping police in check could help prevent instances of misconduct and brutality.

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"It doesn't make sense to rely on police to police themselves," he said. "You need civilian oversight in every level of the process of policing."

Dozens of people attend the forum at the University of Baltimore. The discussions ranged in topic, with panelists talking about changes they would like to see to the way police do their jobs, the effects of racism and segregation in America, and how the media portray the victims of abuse by officers.

The speakers highlighted a deep distrust of law enforcement that they said the current approach to policing has engendered.

"Community can't truly begin to trust police and policing here in Baltimore until that system itself is reformed, until we see transparency, until we see justice and we see police accountability," said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, an activist with immigrant-rights group CASA de Maryland.

In its report earlier this year concluding that the Baltimore Police Department had engaged in widespread violations of citizens' rights, the U.S. Department of Justice found that systems designed to give the public a role in overseeing the department were not working properly. The Civilian Review Board, which is supposed to investigate cases of misconduct, had been largely ineffective, federal investigators concluded.

"The board was meant to be a crucial check on police misconduct by providing an alternative investigative and review process," wrote Justice Department investigators, who concluded that it didn't have enough resources.

Police generally have resisted more outside oversight. Officers have said that people who haven't worked in law enforcement cannot understand the pressures of the job and would second-guess their work unfairly.

Besides strengthening the Civilian Review Board, the speakers said members of the public also could serve on trial boards, the currently all-officer panels that review internal disciplinary cases. The General Assembly passed legislation this year allowing for that to happen but not requiring it.

Ganesha Martin, the official overseeing the department's response to the Justice Department report, said she hoped legislation for putting civilians on the boards would be revisited in the coming legislative session. In the meantime, Martin said, the department has taken steps to be more transparent about the process, opening up the board hearings to the public.

"For years, those trial boards have been closed to the community," she said.

Lawrence Grandpre, another member of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said activists should push locally to get members of the public onto the trial boards under the current law.

Following the publication of the Justice Department's report, Baltimore police and federal officials are in the midst of negotiating a court-backed decree to impose changes on how officers work in the city. But the future of that process is up in the air after the election of Donald J. Trump.

Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department has pursued numerous civil rights investigations of police departments across the country, but Trump has nominated the conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to serve as attorney general. The choice drew rebukes from civil rights groups and could signal that improving the relationship between police and minority communities will not be a high priority in the Trump administration.

Marion Gray-Hopkins, the mother of a teenager who was killed by police in Prince George's County, said things were already bad and could get worse: "With the new administration that's coming in, God forbid where we go from here."

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