Baltimore Civilian Review Board — let's find a compromise on records

Members of the Baltimore Civilian Review Board recently felt compelled to file a lawsuit against the city to force police to turn over records the BPD — with an assist from the city solicitor — has wrongly kept out of their hands even in the face of a subpoena. Let that sink in for a minute. A panel whose job it is to investigate police brutality and other allegations of impropriety is so at-odds with city government that they had to go to court to try to settle the matter.

And so what has the city solicitor done about it? He’s warned the Civilian Review Board that they didn’t have authority to hire outside counsel and threatened the lawyer involved with sanctions if he persists.

This is so wrong in so many ways. We get that there’s always been a tension in police discipline cases between the desire to be transparent — which is almost always a good thing — with the need to protect sensitive information that, if released to the public, might compromise ongoing investigations or unfairly tarnish the innocent. Granted, it’s wrong to keep cases involving potential criminal behavior by officers out of the public’s view. That’s how police in this city lost credibility. That’s how the death of Freddie Gray escalated to violence and widespread protests so quickly. But it’s also wrong if information is leaked that causes innocent people to suffer or the guilty to go free.

This conflict over police records isn’t exactly new. Nor is it unique to Baltimore. But the city’s approach to resolving the matter seems especially misguided. Instead of sitting down and settling this, the two sides are escalating matters. When board members declined to sign confidentiality agreements because, they said, the agreements went well beyond what the law requires, City Solicitor Andre Davis denied them access to internal affairs records. Then the city started ignoring board subpoenas. And now, board members say, they can’t do their job at all.

Yet Mr. Davis also seems to understand how untenable the current situation is. In his letter to the board’s Eastern Shore-based attorney, Robin Cockey, the solicitor observed that while a lawsuit was unacceptable, Mr. Cockey’s third-party involvement — if it could help bring the two sides together — would be welcome. “It might be useful to have someone such as yourself, someone of sound judgment from outside the city who has no desire to foment pointless public outrage over a statutory regime that all agree needs revision, to serve as a truth-teller who can smooth out the edges of different points of view and bring closure to this ongoing debate,” Mr. Davis wrote.

So while Mr. Davis objects to the Civilian Review Board being represented by any lawyer other than himself, he acknowledges that his relationship with the board isn’t working. How could it, since he also represents the police? And the irony here is that Mr. Davis, a former federal appellate court judge, is no police department apologist. He took his current post strongly supporting the federal consent decree with the department and the cause of police reform. He has a reputation as a thoughtful jurist. Why is it so difficult to find common ground with the CRB? And why did this difference of opinion about whether the board will handle confidential information appropriately have to escalate into the current standoff?

The net effect of the impasse is to once again demonstrate to the world that Baltimore city government is dysfunctional. Mayor Catherine Pugh can’t be pleased. Baltimore’s homicide rate remains disturbingly high — the highest among major U.S. cities, according to a recent FBI report — yet the people who should be part of the solution are quibbling over process. Must the governor and state legislature intervene to clarify the authority of the Civilian Review Board? Or, conversely, does this really require a judge to straighten out city government?

The relationship between police and city residents is frayed enough these days that an impasse over how to review police misconduct — essentially how records are handled — is absurd and, frankly, a bit embarrassing to all involved. We would urge Mr. Davis and the board to sit down and negotiate a process that can satisfy all parties as soon as possible. If outside counsel is required to achieve this, that’s fine, too. Just get it done. The residents of this city deserve better.

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