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Stacking the deck [Editorial]

A year after Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledged to reinvigorate the city's civilian police review board, panel members say nothing much has changed. That's hardly surprising. The board still lacks the power to investigate citizens' complaints of police misconduct in a timely fashion, and its recommendations are routinely ignored by the department. A panel so toothless that even its own members publicly wonder whether their efforts are a complete waste of time obviously isn't accomplishing its mission as a mediator of police-community relations.

To his credit, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts recently has been holding a series of well-attended public meetings aimed at building trust between local residents and his officers. There's undoubtedly great potential benefit in opening a conversation that allows citizens to express their concerns directly to the city's top cop and for him to respond in a way that shows he takes their input seriously. But the results of such meetings are likely to prove ephemeral unless there is an institutional channel through which complaints can be followed up on in a way that convinces residents the problems they cite are actually being addressed.

That's one of the things the nine-member civilian police review board is supposed to do, yet it has neither the resources nor the legal authority to conduct its own independent investigations or to compel the department to discipline officers accused of misconduct. Instead, the panel is only empowered to review cases after the department has already completed its own internal probe and rendered a decision on the merits of the charge as well as what punishment, if any, is appropriate. More often than not, panel members say, the deck is stacked in the department's favor and against residents who complain.

Baltimore's current model of a civilian police review board in fact is very similar to the one that existed in New York City a quarter century ago. There, too, public pressure forced the department to create an institutional mechanism to review citizen complaints. But at least initially the process was wholly dominated by higher-ups in the department itself. The police took complaints, investigated charges and rendered decisions affecting its officers without any civilian oversight at all. In effect, the board was an extension of the department's own internal affairs unit, whose actions were closed to public scrutiny.

Fast forward to today, and New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board is an independent agency headed by a 13-member all-civilian board and employing more than 100 civilian investigators and other staff. The investigators take complaints filed by citizens, identify and locate witnesses, gather sworn testimony from the officers involved and issue reports summarizing their findings along with recommendations for disciplinary action that are forwarded to the city police commissioner. Each year the board processes thousands of complaints, about 6 percent of which result in disciplinary action.

Baltimore, with well less than 10 percent of New York's population, obviously doesn't need as large and elaborate a structure to deal with citizen complaints. What it does require, however, is a system equal to the task of investigating allegations of police misconduct with the same degree of thoroughness and integrity. New York's department and police union fought tooth and nail for more than 20 years to block the creation of an independent Civilian Complaint Review Board there; it's only to be expected that Baltimore will have to wage a similar struggle to put teeth into its panel.

What citizens should never accept, however, is the idea that police are somehow above being judged by the communities they serve — that civilians, in the words of city police union President Robert F. Cherry, shouldn't be handing down police officer discipline any more than "pilots should be disciplining attorneys, or plumbers disciplining doctors." What such statement's fail to comprehend is that the police are public employees who must be accountable to public scrutiny and criticism when they don't do their jobs or abuse their powers. If Baltimore's police review board is ever to become more than just a waste of time, that is the principle it must uphold.

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