Baltimore police oversight board sues city police department to obtain internal investigative files

The Baltimore Civilian Review Board, a panel charged with reviewing police brutality and abuse allegations, filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to force the city police department to turn over records, escalating a dispute between panel members and the city’s top lawyer.

The board is joined in the case by 15 members of the public who have filed complaints against the police, alleging beatings, wrongful arrest and harassment.

Board members said at a news conference at their office that they filed the case to strike back against the secrecy surrounding police discipline.

“This idea that police can act in secrecy is not democracy to me,” said George Buntin, a board member for the city’s Western police district.

In July, the members of the board refused to sign a confidentiality agreement proposed by City Solicitor Andre Davis. Since then, the board has been unable to access the official police internal affairs records its members say are essential to their work.

The situation is complicated because the board, as a city agency, is represented by Davis, who is also the police department’s lawyer. The board and the members of the public retained a private lawyer to bring the lawsuit, and the suit could become a major test of the board’s independence.

Even should the board prevail in court, the practical effect of a victory is unclear because state law bars government agencies from releasing almost all information about police internal affairs investigations.

Davis has said the confidentiality agreement would not interfere with the board’s work, but the ACLU of Maryland has said it goes beyond what is required in state law.

Bridal Pearson, the board’s chairman, said it was important for the board to be able to share its work publicly.

“We will never sign an agreement that keeps us from fulfilling that sacred trust,” Pearson said.

Mayor Catherine Pugh appointed the board’s eight members; a ninth seat is vacant. A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment on the case, saying the city’s lawyers would respond in court.

In August, the board voted to subpoena the police files, but members say the department hasn’t complied. The lawsuit seeks an order from a Baltimore Circuit Court judge directing police to share the records from about 60 cases.

Robin R. Cockey, the board’s lawyer, said its subpoenas are as “compulsory as any you’d get from a court.”

“The police have ignored the subpoenas,” he said in an interview.

Cockey said time is growing short in some of the misconduct cases — under the state law governing police discipline, commanders must file internal charges in most kinds of cases within a year of learning of the alleged wrongdoing.

“That’s kind of a timeliness problem for the citizens who are joining in this suit,” Cockey said.

Citizens can file complaints directly to the board and it also reviews investigations by police internal affairs. The board recommends discipline to the police commissioner but has no power to impose sanctions on officers.

While the dispute hinges on competing interpretations of the law, the members of the public who have joined the case said at the news conference that for them, it touched fundamental questions of fairness and accountability.

Cierra Whye, one of the plaintiffs, said that officers entered her home without a warrant earlier this year and illegally arrested her after she called police to report the theft of her car. She was jailed for more than 20 hours before a court commissioner ordered her release.

“The commissioner said, ‘You don’t have any charges. Why are you here?’ ” Whye said. Whye received a ticket for leaving a car running but was cleared of the infraction, court records show.

Cameron McCarthy, another plaintiff, said he was taking his great-aunt to St. Agnes Hospital with his mother and six-month-old baby when he was reported as an active shooter. Police in armored vehicles and a SWAT team arrived, McCarthy said, and grabbed him — an outcome he said he doubted would have happened if he had been white.

“We have to have transparency in our society today. That’s the only way that we’re going to get better as a society,” he said. “I should not have to have conversations about race in America with my 8-year-old child because things like this happen.”

Holding police accountable and increasing public confidence in the disciplinary process is central issue as the city seeks to comply with the terms of a federal consent decree imposed after the U.S. Justice Department found a pattern of civil rights abuses by Baltimore officers.

But there are competing visions for how to achieve that.

One option would be to strengthen the Civilian Review Board. However, the Community Oversight Task Force, a panel established as part of the consent decree process, has proposed abolishing the board and setting up a new agency with powers to investigate police misconduct and audit police training and policies. The new body would be staffed with investigators, and the task force recommended that if the police commissioner were to reject the new agency’s disciplinary recommendations, he or she should have to explain the reasons publicly.

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