Civilian oversight panel required by Baltimore consent decree behind schedule amid internal dissension

A panel of local residents tasked with reviewing civilian oversight of Baltimore’s police department has fallen behind schedule and plans to seek more time to compile its recommendations.

The request comes amid dissension in the ranks of the Civilian Oversight Task Force, but has more to do with the current March deadline being “overly optimistic,” said City Solicitor Andre Davis, the city’s liaison to the task force.

Mandated by the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, the task force is reviewing the functions of the existing Baltimore Civilian Review Board. That civilian panel reviews citizen complaints against the police department alleging excessive force, abusive language, harassment, false arrest and false imprisonment.

The task force also is reviewing “whether there are impediments to [Baltimore Police] civilian complaint processes that inhibit the ability of the Baltimore community to seek accountability for police misconduct.”

Davis said the panel has functioned professionally, but needs more time to come up with its recommendations.

“I have attended task force meetings,” Davis said. “They are conducted professionally in an open fashion, in a transparent fashion.”

Marvin McKenstry Jr., the task force chair, said things are “going great,” despite the need for more time.

“We have really gotten an idea of what it is we need to do. We’re at the point now where we’re ready to move forward and start laying out our recommendations,” McKenstry said. “We’re organized. Everyone is enjoying working together.”

That assessment conflicts with another provided this week by Valencia Johnson, one of the nine task force members appointed by Mayor Catherine Pugh last summer. Johnson submitted her resignation from the panel on Wednesday, alleging mismanagement, secrecy and laziness among her fellow panel members.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun on Friday, Johnson said the group has accomplished little, in part because McKenstry has a too-cozy relationship with police and has blocked her efforts to get answers from the police department about how it disciplines officers and responds to citizen complaints.

Johnson also questioned the panel’s recent receipt of nearly $100,000 from the Open Society Institute of Baltimore to hire an outside consultant to assist the panel, saying the consent decree intended for the work to be done by the task force members.

“Why are they hiring people when we are the ones who are supposed to be doing the job? Why do we need $100,000? Use the $100,000 for other things,” Johnson said. “It’s crazy. I’m sitting here like, ‘Y’all are wasting my time. What do you need an assistant for? You aren’t doing anything now.’”

Several other task force members did not respond to requests for comment or directed questions to McKenstry.

Pugh’s office declined to comment, referring questions to Davis.

Davis said Johnson “just has a different view of how the organization is to be operated,” and thanked her for her service. But he also said the task force is “moving forward in a positive way” with her replacement: West Baltimore activist and community leader Ray Kelly, of the No Boundaries Coalition.

Davis said Kelly is known as someone with “high integrity” capable of “community engagement as good as anybody in Baltimore,” who “would not associate himself with an organization or an entity that was not operated with the best intentions toward the people of Baltimore.”

McKenstry also praised Kelly, calling him a “tremendous asset.”

McKenstry declined to comment on any of the task force’s findings to date on the civilian oversight of police in Baltimore, saying “it’s best that our recommendations speak for” the panel once they are completed.

Davis said the task force hopes to secure approval from U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar — who has ultimate authority over implementation of the consent decree — to extend the March deadline for the task force’s recommendations until June 30.

The consent decree requires the city to fund the task force’s work. Davis said the OSI-Baltimore grant is simply assistance to help the task force members do their job, not to replace them with consultants.

Tara Huffman, director of OSI-Baltimore’s criminal and juvenile justice program, agreed, saying a large portion of the grant will go toward hiring a single “work horse” who will provide administrative assistance, writing up and compiling the work of the task force members.

“They are going to take all of their directions from the task force, not from us,” Huffman said. “I've been very clear from the very beginning that this is not OSI-Baltimore telling the task force what it should be doing.”

Funding under the grant also can be used to purchase flights for task force members to visit other cities that have strong civilian oversight models for police, to fly in experts in the field to discuss issues with the task force members, or to purchase advertising or refreshments for a series of public hearings that the task force wants to hold in the community.

The grant funding was OSI-Baltimore’s idea, and based on the organization’s assessment that the task force’s mandate would require “a lot of work” of its members, who are all volunteers with other jobs, Huffman said.

“We reached out to the city and said, ‘Hey, in addition to whatever support you may want from us, we want to offer support to the oversight task force if you think that’s appropriate,’” Huffman said.

OSI-Baltimore declined to provide the grant agreement, which it said was accepted by the Baltimore City Foundation on behalf of the task force.

Lenwood Ivey, the president of the foundation, could not be reached for comment.

Jill Carter, director of the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights, which oversees the work of the Civilian Review Board and has interacted with the task force during some of its weekly meetings, said she was not available to comment on Friday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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