Baltimore police failed to share misconduct complaints with civilian oversight board; promise to do so now

Baltimore's Civilian Review Board has been in the dark about most @baltimorepolice misconduct complaints.

Baltimore police have agreed to share complaints about officer misconduct with the Civilian Review Board, a beleaguered group created nearly two decades ago to provide citizen oversight of city law enforcement, after the department failed to forward hundreds of cases.

According to a Baltimore Sun analysis, Baltimore police did not forward to the board from 2013 to 2015 more than two-thirds of the police misconduct cases that are under its purview. The board takes complaints alleging excessive force, abusive language, harassment, false arrest and false imprisonment.

Under the agreement facilitated by City Hall last month, police will send the Civilian Review Board all citizen complaints but withhold investigative and personnel files until the board obtains a notarized copy from the complainant. The board had planned to go public with allegations that police were not following the law.

Police officials said they did not share citizen complaints that had not been notarized, which they believed was legally required. Rodney Hill, who oversees internal affairs investigations as chief of the Office of Professional Responsibility, said that while police and the board interpreted the law differently, there was no effort to conceal complaints.

"Baltimore police are not intentionally keeping cases from the Civilian Review Board," Hill said.

Established by the General Assembly in the late 1990s as an outside check on police misconduct, the board has been beset by vacancies and questions about its relevancy. It has limited powers, and most of the time agrees with the findings of police investigations into misconduct. When the board has recommended that police reverse a decision in a case, the commissioner has rarely followed its advice.

The board can only recommend changes in how police misconduct cases are adjudicated and has no authority to discipline officers or appeal decisions by police.

State law requires that citizen complaints filed with the Civilian Review Board be notarized. For a document to be certified by a licensed notary public, complainants need identification and often must pay a fee.

State law also requires that police hand over complaints to the board within 48 hours.

Critics said police were being unnecessarily selective about which complaints to share with the board.

"They are making a judgment call about which law to follow," said Mary-Denise Davis, a Civilian Review Board member.

Around the time the agreement with police was reached, the board had put out a news release announcing that it planned to issue a "detailed report" on the Police Department's "failure to forward statutorily required complaints to the Civilian Review Board for investigation." The board canceled the news conference the day before it was to have taken place.

Kisha Brown, director of the Civilian Review Board, has been out of town and unavailable for comment since then.

Hill said most of the complaints to police come through phone calls or email and are not notarized. He said many civilians fail to follow up on their initial complaint or to make a formal statement with internal affairs, much less get notarization, and some retract complaints upon further questioning by internal affairs detectives.

Hill acknowledged that the notarization process can be difficult. He said in a recent case the complainant, who was in jail, was unable to have a complaint notarized for two months after phoning it in because of a prison lockdown and transfer.

Police received 369 complaints of excessive force over the past three years, but the Civilian Review Board had a total of 95 such complaints forwarded by police and groups such as Legal Aid on file, according to records obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act.

Police received 214 complaints alleging false arrest and imprisonment during that period, and the board had 79 on file. Police received 134 complaints of harassment; the board had 41. Police received 240 complaints about abusive language; the board had 65 on file.

Doreen Rosenthal, the board's first chair in 1999, said she was puzzled when nearly every complaint the panel received was for abusive language. She said she does not recall any notary issue and did not question at the time that the board might not be receiving all complaints. She said the panel just took what it was given and believed "it was all above board."

Alvin O. Gillard, who oversaw the Civilian Review Board between 1999 and 2014, said board members suspected they were not receiving all of the misconduct complaints but did not have the resources to conduct an audit.

"When we counted the cases we did at end of year versusthe cases we heard of at the Police Department, we knew there had to be a universe of cases we were not receiving," he said.

He said the board brought it to the attention of the Police Department and was told that police would look into it.

The U.S. Justice Department faulted the Baltimore Police Department last month for its handling of misconduct cases, saying internal affairs has been "plagued by systemic failures" for years.

The findings were part of a sweeping civil rights investigation that found the Police Department routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force.

A Baltimore Sun investigation published days before the Justice Department released its report found that internal affairs investigations took nearly eight months, on average, and concluded in two-thirds of cases without proving or disproving the officer's alleged misconduct, meaning that officers were not disciplined.

The data from January 2013 through March 2016 also showed that officers were rarely found to have used excessive force — 4 percent of such complaints were upheld.

The Sun also found that many citizen complaints were not investigated by internal affairs but by so-called Command Investigations Units in the police districts, where dozens of cases languished and expired. Under state law, in most cases police have a one-year statute of limitations to impose discipline.

Over the past year, the Civilian Review Board has worked to regain relevance by hiring Brown and additional staff. The city boosted its funding from $150,000 to $550,000 from fiscal year 2016 to 2017.

Still, fundamental problems persist.

For example, between 2012 and 2015, police dismissed all recommendations by the board to change its investigatory findings in misconduct complaints, according to city budget documents.

Meanwhile, the city's police union has filed a lawsuit against the Police Department and the Civilian Review Board to block the board from examining police disciplinary records. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the lawsuit, saying it is an attempt to block civilian oversight.

In the past, Brown said the board has struggled to gain visibility, though she believes civilians might be more receptive to civilian investigators than police.

Brown and state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, tried to remove the notary requirement during the last legislative session, but the bill stalled in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Conway said other state senators were worried about another provision of the legislation that would have enabled the board to subpoena officers accused of misconduct. Now the board may only subpoena officers who are witnesses.

Conway, who sponsored the legislation that established the board in 1999, said she was surprised that the notary requirement was causing such a problem. She said it was originally intended to ensure that complaints were valid, but that she now recognizes the impediment it has created.

She plans to reintroduce legislation to remove the notary requirement during the next session.

Such a requirement has little impact on minimizing false complaints and is an "unnecessary and outdated obstacle to filing a complaint," said Michael Tobin, executive director of the Office of Police Complaints in Washington, a citizen oversight group.

"The citizen complaint system in most jurisdictions is already tilted to favor police officers, and a notary requirement is just one more item that tips that scale and makes it even more unbalanced," Tobin said.

Complainants in Washington are required to sign that their statements are true, but do not have to have them notarized.

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

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