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Give Baltimoreans a voice in fixing police-community relations

How can Baltimore fix police-community relations without a functioning Civilian Review Board?

There are many reasons that Baltimore's police and community relationships are frayed. Some will take a long time to fix, but there are also some basic things we have failed to get right for far too long. Take, for example, Baltimore's Civilian Review Board.

To give our neighbors a way for their voices to be heard on police misconduct, we need a functional, transparent and accountable Civilian Review Board. Unfortunately, Baltimore's Civilian Review Board is not working today. A third of the board seats are vacant. And those who do serve have voiced their own frustrations over the board's lack of a meaningful role in providing transparency for years. We have to do better.

While it is important to balance adequate public oversight with providing due process for officers, other cities have found a way to make it work. Baltimore currently requires complaints to be filed in person at one of just a few locations (including police departments). They must be signed by the complainant, and in some cases, they must be witnessed by a notary public. The process is confusing, opaque, lacks follow through and generally discourages the public from taking action.

An effective and transparent system for investigating civilian complaints of misconduct is a critical element of a police department's accountability system to prevent the use of excessive force. So said the Department of Justice in their investigation of the Cleveland police department. This foreshadows what is to come in the DOJ's investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. Why wait? Baltimore needs reform and we need it now. Here are simple solutions that would reform our system for the better:

1.Allow for complaints to be filed online, as New York City does.

2.Anonymous complaints should be permitted. According to the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, all complaints, including from anonymous and third party complaints, whether signed or unsigned, should be investigated.

3.Citizens should be able to track the status of their complaints, online, with an assigned case number. New York does that, too.

4.Vacant board seats should be filled now with community leaders who are trusted voices in the areas they represent.

5.Additional investigators should be hired to assist the board to conduct full and thorough investigations. According to the board's website, "[a]lthough the Board was created without a budget, [then] Mayor Martin O'Malley identified funds to hire two professional investigators to assist the Board…" Assuming this information is still accurate, over eight years after Mr. O'Malley left office, the staffing seems wholly inadequate to respond to current demand.

6.Defined guidance on the steps that should be taken in order to conduct a thorough investigation is needed.

7.Defined timelines for review must be established.

8.The board must establish systems to track its performance and decision-making regarding complaints. The board should track the types of complaints it receives, against which officers, and whether those complaints were sustained, unfounded, administratively withdrawn, or closed for other reasons, and what, if any, discipline resulted.

The above reforms will provide Baltimore's citizens with a meaningful way for their voices to be heard on police misconduct, and they will provide the police department with timely information needed to make in-field and training practice changes. Baltimore City's leaders should act without delay to put in place these simple reforms to make the Civilian Review Board a meaningful tool for Baltimore's citizens. Delays now will likely result in mandates for change from the Department of Justice.

Brian Hammock is a resident of the Homeland neighborhood, which is located in the Northern Police District (one of the districts with a representative on the Civilian Review Board). His email is bhammock@gmail.com.

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