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Rawlings-Blake eyes bigger role for police civilian review board

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she has asked her senior team to explore giving Baltimore's police civilian review board a "more impactful" role in the police disciplinary process.

"In order for us to be consistent across the board when we're talking about civic engagement, we have to make sure the ways in which we touch the public are impactful," she said. "I don't have answers on what, if any changes there will be. That's definitely something I am looking at."

The Police Department recently asked the civilian review board to review major "use of force" cases such as officer-involved shootings. But the board is not allowed legally to make recommendations on such cases, which, The Baltimore Sun reported Monday, prompted some frustrated board members to question whether their role was "perfunctory," citing their lack of authority.

The nine-member volunteer citizen panel, whose members are appointed by the mayor, has struggled with relevancy since its inception in 2000. Its recommendations are rarely if ever followed by the police commissioner, and several seats had been long vacant before Rawlings-Blake moved to fill them after a Sun article last year.

The board was created by the state legislature, and a move expanding its powers could require action by the General Assembly. Its powers also are restricted by the state Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, which governs the disciplinary process for officers across Maryland.

The president of Baltimore's police union said Friday that he does not want the board to have the authority to impose discipline but is open to finding ways to allow the board to become more involved.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has been trying to give community leaders an increased voice in police functions, particularly the police community relations council presidents, some of whom also serve on the civilian review board. Rawlings-Blake noted that the community relations council members have been allowed to sit in on internal promotions panels. The Fire Department also has included residents in that process.

"This is the first time community members are taking that much of an active role in what the departments, the police and fire departments, look like," Rawlings-Blake said.

Cities across the country continue to grapple with how to involve citizen oversight panels, which proliferated in the 1990s and are typically formed in response to a major controversy.

In February, the Washington Times reported that the District of Columbia's attorney general issued an opinion that the chief there was not required to discipline officers found guilty of misconduct by the Office of Police Complaints. That panel is often held up as a model for other cities — it has a $2 million budget, and its recommendations are often followed by the chief.

The Citizen Review Board in Atlanta was created after a flawed raid that resulted in the killing of a 92-year-old woman. The board was empowered to conduct investigations but received push-back from police, who believed it should only review the Police Department's internal investigations.

Officers there initially refused to acknowledge the board, then were ordered to appear before it by the chief but did not respond to questions, saying it would violate their right to due process. In 2011, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the chief had not followed any of the board's recommendations over the previous two years.


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