Panel calls for more powerful 'independent police accountability agency'

The task force reviewing civilian oversight of Baltimore police is calling for a more powerful “independent police accountability agency,” replacing the existing Civilian Review Board, which critics have complained lacks authority to hold officers accountable.

The Community Oversight Task Force, known as COTF, issued a 74-page report this month that recommends disbanding the Civilian Review Board, which currently investigates civilian complaints. In its place, the task force recommends creating and funding a stronger, fully independent oversight body with “full investigatory and subpoena powers.”

The task force members wrote that the current model is ineffective and the city needs a completely new system.

“Residents of Baltimore have no faith that the current system has the capacity to hold officers accountable when they engage in misconduct, and the police officers themselves lack respect for the system of oversight in its current form. Therefore, we recommend a completely re-imagined system of oversight, one that will keep officers accountable and bring justice to victims of police misconduct,” the authors said.

“Every viable civilian oversight agency has had to fight for their own independence. That’s when they get community buy-in. That’s a real, key point,” said Ray Kelly, chair of the Civilian Oversight Task Force, and a community advocate.

Residents have until Aug. 10 to give feedback on the recommendations, which will later be submitted to the federal judge overseeing the consent decree. The task force was created last summer as part of the consent decree reached between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016, after a federal investigation found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices. The nine task force members were chosen by the mayor over the summer and tasked with compiling the recommendations to strengthen police accountability.

The task force recommended staffing a new Civilian Office of Police Accountability to not only investigate complaints of police misconduct, but also “audit the police’s training, policies, and procedures; and conduct community outreach on policing issues.” The office would include a director, investigators, policy analysts and community engagement personnel. The proposed oversight structure would also include a Police Accountability Commission made up of community members.

To fully investigate complaints, the board recommends giving the new office access “to all BPD controlled data, evidence, and personnel necessary to complete its work.”

The new oversight model would also expand the types of misconduct that an oversight board could investigate. The current Civilian Review Board can review only certain types of complaints, which are categorized and provided by the police department. A Baltimore Sun review found that from 2013 to 2015, more than two-thirds of the police misconduct cases were not provided to the board.

When the current board makes recommendations for officers to be disciplined, the decision ultimately falls with the police commissioner. The task force report recommends that when a civilian oversight board’s recommendations for discipline are not followed by the commissioner, the commissioner should be required to make the reasoning public.

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. However, the police department accepted the board’s findings in only four cases.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, who previously served as the director of Baltimore's Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, which oversees the existing Civilian Review Board, said she disagrees that the city needs to start from scratch.

“I agree that it is not as effective because of the limitations,” such as the lack of resources and the restraints of the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, she said. But Carter said she would like to see the fundamentals of the Civilian Review Board continue.

Carter wrote a report in November with 15 recommendations that are similar to the task force’s but maintain the current Civilian Review Board structure, which includes nine city residents from each police district.

“I think we should use what we have and try to build upon it,” Carter said.

Bridal Pearson, chair of the Civilian Review Board, said he also disagrees with the recommendations, and that the members appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council in the past year are committed to their work.

“We’re fresh. We’re passionate,” Pearson said. “I think we are powerful if we are given the proper resources,” such as an independent counsel and a larger budget.

Some of the changes, even if approved by the judge, would require changes by the state legislature, such as the recommendation to bring the city police department — technically a state agency — under city control.

Kelly said he’s received mostly positive feedback from residents and some city council members. Although some officials have raised eyebrows about the $15 million cost to implement the plan, Kelly said it’s just a small portion of the police department’s budget.

The recommendations were created from best practices across the country, and were crafted after hearing residents’ input and concerns, he said.

He said members traveled to other cities and studied their civilian oversight groups, and worked with Chief Michelle Wirzberger, who heads the department’s consent decree compliance office.

She could not be reached for comment.

Kelly said task force members also had positive talks with members of the police union.

Gene Ryan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said in a statement that union officials met with task force members but differed on some of the recommendations, such as providing subpoena and investigatory powers to a new oversight body, and requiring changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

“We believe in the importance of civilian participation in an effective government but cannot and will not support anything that could lead to a potential persecution of our members,” Ryan said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

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