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Community leaders question transparency of Baltimore police probe

When Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts asked the federal government to review allegations of brutality in the police force, he turned to a familiar face: Ronald L. Davis, the head of the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Batts and Davis have crossed paths on a number of occasions. Batts edged out Davis to be Oakland's top cop in 2009. As they worked in nearby cities, they served in 2010 on a transition committee for a newly elected California attorney general. And last November, they shared a stage with others in New York City to talk about police issues for the new mayor.

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Now, as Baltimore and federal officials prepare to announce details Monday of the collaborative review of the city's Police Department, some community leaders are faulting Batts for not disclosing his professional relationship with Davis.

"He definitely should have made us aware," said City Councilman Warren Branch, head of the public safety committee.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., past president of the local NAACP branch, said the police force's fractured relationship with the community can only be rebuilt with trust. Batts, he said, should have told residents about his connections to Davis, the former police chief of East Palo Alto, Cal.

"We're looking for a lot of transparency. That wasn't a wise decision," Cheatham said, adding he has faith in Batts.

Although Davis leads the COPS office, he will not be one of the investigators working here to interview residents, elected leaders, officers and other stakeholders. Staffers and a team of outside experts gather information and compile reports for such federal reviews.

Senior staff attorney David Rocah of the ACLU stressed that the "universe" for top law enforcement officials is small and that policing is a fraternity. Still, he said. Batts should have told the community about the relationship with Davis.

"A review by your friends is not the same as a review by the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division," Rocah said. "There seems to be a lot of connections there."

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor knew about the professional relationship. Batts' ties to top law enforcement officials will benefit the city's officers and residents, he said.

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Batts, Harris said, "has decades of experience at the highest levels of law enforcement. The nature of those relationships is part of the reason [the mayor] picked him" to lead the department.

In pitching the federal review to the mayor, Batts knew all the details of the federal program and explained how it can help transform the agency, Harris said. He added, "Why would you not want to bring that to Baltimore City? The results of this program speak for itself."

A police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

It's common for police chiefs to discuss issues in their cities, including approaches to crime-fighting. Like any other industry, law enforcement has multiple professional associations that tap leaders from across the country for conferences, conventions and other gatherings.

Cleveland Director of Public Safety Michael McGrath, who served as police chief from 2005 through February 2014, isn't surprised that Batts and Davis know each other well from their days in California and from trade groups. The ties among all the chiefs help cities, he added.

"So much information flows between the chiefs," McGrath said. "It's absolutely positive resources."

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Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, isn't concerned about the professional relationship between Batts and Davis. Walker, who lauded a similar probe in Las Vegas, said the collaborative review is a reasonable alternative to a broader civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice.

"I can understand that many community activists would be very skeptical of this alternative, but I think it can work," Walker said. "There are many paths to police reform, and this is one."

Baltimore lawyer Dwight Pettit, whose clients have sued police officers over brutality allegations, remains skeptical. He fears the collaborative review won't go far enough because of the relationship between the two men.

"I see it as a concern," he said. "It makes me even more suspicious."

Monday morning, the Department of Justice has scheduled a news conference at the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore to announce initial details about collaborative-reform initiative. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein will be joined by Batts, Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Such reviews differ from full-scale civil rights investigations because they are agreed to by local officials and are not enforced by court order. A review can turn into a full-scale civil rights investigation if federal officials find serious problems, as they did in Ferguson, Mo., where the police shooting of an unarmed teen sparked a national outcry.

The coming review in Baltimore is similar to ongoing probes in Philadelphia and Spokane, Wash., that are focusing on police shootings and other issues.

While Batts and Rawlings-Blake said they started talking weeks ago about the federal program, they unveiled the request on Oct. 4 — five days after The Baltimore Sun published results of an investigation showing that residents have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests.

The Sun found that the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits since 2011, and nearly all of the people involved in incidents leading to those lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges. Some officers were involved in multiple lawsuits.

The federal review will examine training standards, the way police interact with residents and how the departments tracks complaints against officers. Investigators look for troubling patterns. Within weeks, a team of policing experts could be in Baltimore, talking to residents, community leaders and officers.

Davis joined the Department of Justice in 2013 after serving eight years as chief in East Palo Alto and 20 years in various leadership roles in Oakland. He also served as a policing expert in the federal agency's Civil Rights Division and on teams with monitoring oversight of consent federal decrees over the Washington, D.C., and Detroit Police Departments.

Davis has a professional relationship with many police chiefs and law enforcement professionals from around the country as part of the department's outreach efforts and commitment to community policing, said Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for the agency.

The Civil Rights Division was also consulted in the decision leading up to the coming effort in Baltimore, he added.

"The department remains confident that the collaborative reform initiative will be an effective, independent review of the policies, training, and practices used by the Baltimore Police Department," Lewis said. "We look forward to working with the community to make sure that this process remains transparent and inclusive."

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Complaints about frequent police shootings triggered reviews in Spokane and Las Vegas.

In Spokane, critics questioned why police officials cleared officers in all 492 use of force cases between 2007 and 2011. From March 2009 through February 2013, officers fatally shot eight people.

The Spokane review started in 2013. Investigators examined deadly and nonlethal use of force cases going back four years. Federal officials set up a document transfer system to get thousands of pages of records, including departmental policies and disciplinary records, according to published reports.

In Baltimore, investigators could face paperwork problems.

The Sun's investigation found that police officers didn't complete use of force reports in some of the incidents mentioned in lawsuits. And some residents didn't follow through with complaints against officers, after being treated harshly by Internal Affairs detectives.

The Department of Justice hasn't ruled out a civil rights probe of the city agency. That could come if investigators find more problems, or if the department doesn't fully cooperate.

The threat of a civil rights probe, which often leads to a consent decree and years of costly federal oversight, is an incentive to cooperate, Walker said. "This is really the big stick in the corner if the police department fails to genuinely pursue the collaborative process."

twitter.com/MarkPuente

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