The panel reviewing civilian oversight of the Baltimore Police Department as part of the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice plans to recommend a vastly expanded role for community members in an array of police matters, including the handling of officer misconduct.
The Civilian Oversight Task Force voted Wednesday night to approve a set of core “principles” that it intends to adhere to as it seeks public input in drafting its final recommendations ahead of a late June deadline.
The new document says the group “envisions independent, comprehensive civilian oversight of the police that is rooted in accountability, transparency, racial equity, and transformative justice.”
In addition to full investigative and subpoena powers for a still-undefined civilian oversight body, the task force wants civilian input into police policy and budget decisions.
“The oversight body must have original jurisdiction over any complaint, and be able to investigate potential wrongdoing by police even without a specific complaint,” the panel wrote. “Police oversight is not just about addressing individual abuses; civilian oversight must include the capacity to audit procedures, review training and policy, assess trends, and conduct research.”
The group also wants the police department — technically a state agency — to be brought fully under city control, and for the future civilian oversight body to be provided with funding and a staff that is independent of the department and “not subject to political discretion.”
The new document provides the most complete view of the all-volunteer body’s thinking since it formed last year to begin reviewing civilian oversight of the department. The group is distinct from — and tasked with reviewing the form and effectiveness of — the city’s existing Civilian Review Board, which has been criticized by community advocates for years as lacking the necessary authority to hold police accountable.
“The most important thing is to be able to release some of where we are” to the public, said Marvin McKenstry, a local minister who is chair of the task force, of the release of the group’s principles.
The group’s final recommendations, which will come after a series of public forums, will not be binding on the city. But as part of the consent decree, they must be considered.
The consent decree, which requires a host of police reforms, was reached after a sweeping Justice Department investigation of the Baltimore Police Department uncovered what the federal agency described as widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices. The investigation came after the death of Freddie Gray and the rioting in 2015.
Task force members have been having bi-weekly conversations with officials in the police department’s consent decree compliance office, who they said have been supportive of their work.
“It’s been rich, and it’s genuine,” McKenstry said of the dialogue.
“We’re going to carefully start sharing with them what we’re thinking and what some of our recommendations are so that we can get their input, because we need police buy-in,” said attorney Denise Duval, the panel’s vice chair. “We’re trying to build that bridge.”
Michelle Wirzberger, director of the police department’s consent decree unit, said her team is “very excited” to be working with the task force, and believes “meaningful and extensive dialogue” is needed to restore the police-community relationship in Baltimore.
Jill Carter, director of Baltimore's Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, which oversees the existing Civilian Review Board, said she looks forward to working with the task force to bolster the community’s role in overseeing the city police force.
Carter said she agrees with the core tenets espoused by the task force, and hopes the panel will recommend reshaping the review board to achieve its goals rather than starting from scratch.
“We absolutely believe that the structure needs to change by broadening the authority,” Carter said. “We're frankly waiting on them to help us to build into the agency that we believe the city needs.”
The Civilian Review Board’s recommendations to police are not binding and are rarely heeded. Last year, the review board looked at 263 complaints, and sustained 62 of them, Carter said. However, the police department only accepted the board’s findings in four cases, she said.
The task force said it wants future oversight work to be transparent and accessible to average citizens, and to be conducted with a particular eye toward racial equity.
“The status of complaints must be easily tracked, and if the police department does not follow the oversight body’s recommendations on discipline, the department’s reasons must be made clear and public,” they wrote.
They also wrote that both “victims and perpetrators of police misconduct must have access to practical help, if they need it, around their mental health, economic opportunities, addiction, and other needs.”
The initial deadline for the group’s recommendations had been Wednesday, but U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing consent decree implementation with the help of a monitor team, granted a three-month extension last month.
The group’s draft report is now due June 30. Once submitted, the public will have another 30 days to comment on the report before it is finalized and adopted.