Baltimore civilian oversight panel meets with residents in Harlem Park

Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board met with at least 70 community members Thursday at a church in Harlem Park the neighborhood where a city homicide detective was fatally shot two weeks ago.

The town hall meeting at Metropolitan United Methodist Church was intended as a chance for residents to voice concerns about heavy police presence in the neighborhood following the shooting of Det. Sean Suiter. It was also an opportunity to reintroduce to the community a board that wants to raise its profile as a voice for residents.

“We’re here so when there are problems and grievances, people know we’re out here and are knowledgeable about how to get to us with a complaint,” said Jill Carter, director of the city's Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, which oversees the board. “We are here to be the voice of the people.”

The board is tasked with reviewing complaints alleging excessive force, abusive language, harassment, false arrest and false imprisonment by police. It can recommend disciplinary actions against officers and changes to police policy, but has no enforcement power.

The board has in the past been criticized for a lack of authority and high turnover.

Mayor Catherine Pugh appointed eight new members to the largely vacant nine-member group earlier this year.

The new board has been holding community meetings as a way to raise awareness about its capabilities, as well as hear to from residents about what concerns them, said Bridal Pearson, a University of Baltimore professor and the board’s chairman.

The meeting in Harlem Park followed reports that parts of the neighborhood were shut down for close to a week while police investigated Suiter’s death and that residents had to show identification before being allowed into the cordoned-off blocks.

At least 20 people addressed the group, raising questions and concerns about a broad range of issues, including excessive force, accountability and transparency.

Charles Hughes, who lives in Edmonson Village, said he wants to see more done to try to help youth with felony criminal records.

“What I want to know is how can we get these kids second or third chances for their lives?” Hughes said.

Arlene Fisher, the president of the LaFayette Square Association within Harlem Park, asked the board to consider other issues that impact neighborhoods like hers, aside from police interactions.

“This community has been trying to deal with the vacant houses, to deal with the drugs, lack of jobs,” Fisher said. “We’re fighting, we’re trying hard and we’ll continue to do it.”

While the board’s ability to address all the concerns raised is currently limited, the group wants to expand its authority.

A preliminary report by the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights detailed 15 recommendations for improving the board’s effectiveness, including expanding the scope of complaint types it can review, requiring that officers and agencies cooperate with the board’s investigations and granting an annual operating budget.

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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