Baltimore police should revamp misconduct probes, audit says

Even as the Baltimore Police Department faces criticism over its handling of an officer caught on video punching a suspect, an outside audit of the Internal Affairs Division has raised questions about the thoroughness and fairness of the agency's misconduct investigations.

A Baltimore lawyer who is a national expert on police discipline discovered "many flaws" within the Internal Affairs Division, including detectives who lack proper training, work under decades-old processes and are often pulled from their duties for other tasks.

Such shortcomings lead to incomplete investigations and hamper the agency's effort to build community trust, Karen Kruger concluded in a 21-page audit obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request. The study was commissioned by Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez for $5,000.

"Considerable efforts must be undertaken to restore confidence in the integrity of the police disciplinary system," concluded Kruger, the executive director of the Maryland Sheriffs' Association and an attorney at Funk & Bolton.

The disclosure of her criticism comes amid a public debate about the use of force by Baltimore police. A city surveillance camera captured an officer repeatedly punching a man at a bus stop near the intersection of North and Greenmount avenues. Attorneys for the man released the video last week, on the same day they filed a $5 million lawsuit against the officer.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who didn't see the video until Monday, blamed a mid-level manager in Internal Affairs for not alerting senior leaders about the June attack. The patrol officer remained on the streets until Monday, even though prosecutors and detectives had been investigating the incident for two months.

Many residents distrust the department, Kruger said, so the management and discipline of officers is critical. "In recent years, the BPD has fallen short in this area of personnel management," she said in the study, dated April 3.

Among her other findings:

•Internal Affairs officers need additional training to make sure investigations are complete, thorough and fair. They also need better legal advice throughout the probes to make sure the cases are successfully presented to trial boards, which determine guilt or innocence.

•Internal Affairs and district-level investigators are frequently taken from their jobs to supplement patrol staffing at special events and to cover overtime posts — a practice that Kruger recommended stopping.

•The division has used questionnaires to replace or supplement interrogations of officers accused of misconduct. The forms can be completed off-site with the help of any person, including officers' attorneys.

"These questionnaires are an ineffective investigative technique and the use of them diminishes the reputation of" Internal Affairs, Kruger wrote.

David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor who is an expert on police misconduct, called the problems a "systemic breakdown" in the agency.

"This is not something you can tweak or tune up," he said. "When Internal Affairs is broken, it affects the whole department."

Rodriguez, who joined the agency to lead the newly created Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau, said that nothing in Kruger's audit surprised him. As an outsider from Los Angeles, Rodriguez said, he needed the audit to provide a basis for strengthening the discipline process.

"I wanted a third-party validation from a local expert," said Rodriguez, who commissioned the study last fall. "It brought credibility to what I already knew."

The shielding of the officer who was caught on video beating the South Baltimore man in June mirrors issues Kruger raised in her audit.

She found "a curious division" in the way the Police Department classifies wrongdoing.

When one of the 2,800 officers uses excessive force or commits potential criminal activity, the actions are considered "ethics" violations. More general complaints are considered "misconduct," Kruger said.

That "artificial distinction" conveys a message that categorizing misconduct is simple and determined by potential penalties from a disciplinary matrix — similar to sentencing guidelines. Such arbitrary standards are a detriment to the agency and to individual officers, the audit said.

"It allows for inappropriate shortcuts and allows investigators, supervisors and commanders to avoid responsibility for making often difficult and unpopular decisions," Kruger wrote.

Harris agreed with Kruger's assessment of the way misconduct is classified. "That is really a concern," he said, adding that incidents of excessive force "are among the most serious possible violations."

While a state law shields internal discipline files from the public, the state Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights governs disciplinary process for officers across Maryland. It also is designed to protect the officers from overzealous superiors.

Kruger discovered an agency shortcut when it comes to that law: She heard anecdotal accounts about case documents being artificially backdated to prevent the statute of limitations from halting a potential probe. In some of those cases, investigators have sought prosecutor review to "take advantage" of an exception in the law that applies to criminal conduct, Kruger said.

"These are unethical actions that should not be tolerated if they were to occur again," she said.

Kruger recommended that the agency conduct a annual review of the Internal Affairs Division to ensure that all complaints are properly and fairly evaluated.

Police leaders have already implemented some of Kruger's recommendations; others will be completed in the coming months.

Besides stopping the "ethics" and "misconduct" classifications Dec. 15, the department will no longer rely on the disciplinary matrix when handing out punishment. At the same time, Rodney Hill, chief of Internal Affairs, will unveil new guidelines for the unit.

Other changes already made include toughening of trial boards, which hear disciplinary cases, by changing their makeup. They now consist of two command staff members and a lieutenant instead of a command staff member, a lieutenant and a person of the same rank as the accused.

As a result, the rate at which officers are held responsible has jumped from 57 percent to 88 percent, officials say.

Another planned change will eliminate the questionnaires used to supplement interrogations. Police leaders are also studying ways to keep officers from being pulled away from Internal Affairs for other duties.

The department has pushed to speed up the disciplinary process. Cases should now proceed faster because a trial board administrator has been selected, along with enacting an automated database to schedule hearings.

During a recent City Council re-confirmation hearing, Batts said he took over a scandal-plagued agency in September 2012 that was "skilled at catching bad guys" but was "disconnected from the community." At the time, previous commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III scoffed at Batts' comments, saying the agency "always tried to put the interests of the community first."

In recent months, more than 60 officers have been collecting paychecks while their discipline cases were being finalized.

The amount of time it takes to complete investigations and discipline officers is ineffective and doesn't deter them from committing more misdeeds, Kruger said in the audit.

That complaint was the most frequent one Rodriguez heard when he joined the agency. He acknowledged that the discipline process lacked credibility in the community — and the audit confirmed his belief.

"I heard from people that they lost faith in the system," he said.

That system is crucial — regardless of the size of the police force or city, Harris said. It's vital that Baltimoreans know complaints against officers are investigated thoroughly and fairly, he added.

"It's important for the Internal Affairs operation to be run with the highest integrity that can't be doubted," Harris said. "This is a signal that something is really wrong."

Michael E. Davey, an attorney at Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner who represents the police union, welcomed the audit's findings. He said he also discovered that discipline cases were being backdated. The department tossed out many after he complained, he said.

"It's accurate, if not understated," Davey said about the audit, noting recent improvements.

Batts' other moves to ease community tension have included the disbanding of an aggressive plainclothes unit that drew complaints about using heavy-handed tactics in targeting high-crime areas. He also created a "force investigation team" to examine questionable cases involving an officer's use of force.

Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake displayed outrage last week when talking about the officer caught on video beating the man at the bus stop. Batts pledged to overcome fallout from the incident.

"Again, these issues didn't take place or were not in built in the last two years," he said. "It's going to take more than the last two years to correct them, but they will be corrected."

On Friday, Rawlings-Blake said she welcomes the audit's findings and is committed to bringing more accountability and transparency to the police force.

"I'm not satisfied, and we will continue building on the progress we've seen, which is why I have also ordered a comprehensive review following several public safety forums we hosted throughout the city," she said. "Residents were very clear about the fact that they wanted to see more progress and accountability in the Police Department. We got the message, and we are acting."

During an interview in her office, Kruger said she was not surprised to hear that an Internal Affairs supervisor failed to alert police leaders about the June incident.

"If you have weak front-line supervisors, you're going to have problems," she said. "The police commissioner should not have to micromanage 3,000 employees. The supervisors should be empowered."

The audit took Kruger six months to complete. She said she did not meet resistance from employees during her research. Although she was not provided with "sufficient resources" for an exhaustive review, Kruger said the audit is a starting point for needed changes.

Kruger said she agreed that it is best to phase in her recommendations in the coming months, and commended Rodriguez for seeking outside review.

"It's been an elephant in the room for many years," she said about the problems. "This shows that this administration is serious about the issue."

mpuente@baltsun.com

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