City civilian review board still flounders

City police officers at a crime scene in May.

One year after city officials pledged to reinvigorate Baltimore's police civilian review board, members say their work feels insignificant and they are still seeking more authority.

The Police Department recently said it would ask the volunteer citizen panel to look at police-involved shootings and other major use-of-force cases. The reviews, however, would occur after the cases have been closed — a role that seems perfunctory, members say.


"We want to know: What are we really going to do?" said Charlene Bourne, the board's chairwoman. "If we're just going to read this for you, that would be almost a waste of someone's time."

Such questions underscore the panel's long struggle with relevancy. Established by the General Assembly amid controversy in the late 1990s, the board was to investigate complaints against city police officers. But it has limited powers and its recommendations are rarely followed by the police commissioner. Several spots on the board sat vacant as other members overstayed their term limits.


Ronald Bailey, a Northeast Baltimore resident, was one of the members appointed last year as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake moved to replenish the board. He stepped down after a few months because of health problems but said his experience on the panel was not worthwhile. Bailey said police too often excused the actions of officers.

"What looks aggressive to us is not aggressive to what they are trained to do," Bailey said. "They would say that it was within the means to defend themselves, to make sure nothing happens to them. … The deck is stacked toward the Police Department."

Bailey and two other members have stepped down, each citing personal reasons. Alvin Gillard, a city official who is a liaison to the board, said the administration is working to replace them. The board is supposed to have nine members.

City Councilman Warren Branch, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said he thinks the civilian review board "deserves more authority," and he wants to have preliminary discussions about how that could be achieved. "I want to see what we can do to strengthen it," he said.

Police union President Robert F. Cherry, however, said he is wary of giving the board more power. He noted that the state's Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights assures officers the right to due process before a panel of their peers or an administrative law judge.

Civilians shouldn't be handing down police officer discipline any more than "pilots should be disciplining attorneys, or plumbers disciplining doctors," Cherry said.

Police have pointed to the recent renewed attention they have paid to the civilian review board as an example of their increased efforts at transparency.

The latest discussion about the board's lack of authority came at a City Council hearing last week, where top brass discussed reforms regarding the investigation of officers' use of force. Chief among them is a new team of investigators, modeled after a U.S. Department of Justice initiative in Las Vegas, to look at significant incidents.


The department also says it will post a running log online of the cases the investigative team is probing, and when the investigations are complete, the agency says it will post summary documents.

"We are being as transparent as possible without compromising the public and the rights of the officers," Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez told council members.

The civilian review board would get the cases afterward. The department has not said what else the board's role would encompass.

At the hearing, Gillard, executive director of the city's Office of Civil Rights, told council members the board did not want a "perfunctory" role in the process.

"They want to make sure there's going to be a meaningful opportunity for the board to have input, and whatever that input may be, that the department will seriously consider what the position of the board is," Gillard said in an interview.

Gillard said the frustrations are inherent given the restrictions entailed in the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. "Just by the nature of what the board is and is not able to do, [they're] always going to have a certain amount of frustration," he said.


Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts did not comment directly when asked about the board's complaints. He said the department's relationship with the board "wasn't working well" when he took over, but the agency has been paying more attention over the past year to "give them a solid role."

Department officials declined further comment.

Councilman Brandon Scott said he was disappointed that members of the reconstituted panel still feel they lack authority. "We have to find a delicate balance to make it more effective," Scott said, referring to police concerns about giving civilians too much oversight power.

By comparison, Washington has one of the most assertive civilian oversight panels in the country, with a staff of more than 20 people.

Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said Baltimore's civilian panel needs "real power, real transparency, and more funding to be able to provide the accountability that the community is asking for."

"No matter how well-intentioned the police are in trying to police themselves, there's such a profound lack of trust," Kumar told council members. "We all need to acknowledge that something external is needed."