Baltimore Civilian Review Board: We need more authority to oversee police

The Civilian Review Board (CRB) of Baltimore City is the only entity authorized to conduct independent investigations of alleged police misconduct filed by members of the public, yet we appear to have a public relations problem. I am the presiding chair of the CRB; I find it imperative to make known a few of my observations about the board as they relate to the public and the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).

Many throughout Baltimore’s impacted communities possess minimal knowledge of the CRB's existence, even though the new board has been in operation for five months. They are not aware that complaints can be filed with the CRB instead of the BPD relative to police misconduct. It can be difficult for those from marginalized communities to file complaints against police officers with other police representatives due to lack of trust, fear of retribution and potential intimidation. Many complaints likely go unreported as a result of these factors. With that said, the board is already overwhelmed with a backlog of old cases and new complaints.

There is also a public trust issue for those who are aware of the CRB process. We are perceived as a paper lion lacking teeth. In my limited experience as a board member of the CRB, I must admit that our power is limited primarily due to the Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights (LEOBR). As the chair, I have no interest in symbolic service, so steps must be taken to remove this stranglehold so that the board can serve the Baltimore community as intended.

The Bill of Rights is a major impediment to the CRB's ability to provide substantive disciplinary recommendations of officers who have been found culpable by the board in cases of misconduct. It precludes the board from having access to police personnel files of the subject officer. The disciplinary matrix is based upon having prior knowledge of other occurrences of the same behavior; the greater the frequency of occurrences results in increased severity of the disciplinary actions. Because the board is blocked from having access to this valuable information, we cannot approach any complaint with a process of progressive disciplinary action. In each case, we must act as if it is the officer's first occurrence. This is a significant disservice to the community at large.

The Bill of Rights also limits the board's ability to subpoena the subject officer, which minimizes investigative potency in gathering and evaluating necessary information. These processes are antithetical to transparency.

The Civilian Review Board's investigative findings are often in conflict with findings of the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the BPD. For example, in a case of excessive force the CRB may have decided based on the preponderance of evidence that the officer was likely at fault and the BPD using the same evidence may have decided that the officer was not at fault.

Initially, when these conflicts arose, a retired judge associated with the BPD made the determination of which finding would stand. The findings were rarely if ever in favor of the CRB. Now the decision makers are from the Baltimore City Law Department, which is associated with the BPD. This may provide the illusion of a better process, but the CRB has been excluded. The CRB was informed about this change after the fact. Our board was not even consulted.

In both cases, the potential for implicit bias is a reality. Implicit bias is essentially a preconceived notion that impacts decision making. This is a problematic decision making model that will likely continue to support the findings of the BPD when there is disagreement with investigative findings. It is important to have an interdisciplinary team that includes a police representative, a board member, and a community representative for true transparency.

The Office of Civil Rights recently submitted a preliminary report to the Community Oversight Task Force (COTF) addressing the aforementioned issues and several others that serve as obstructions to transparency and relevant board effectiveness. The Baltimore community and other stakeholders should be made aware that if the BPD does not consent relative to the federal decree and make legislative changes needed while altering their practices and processes, the CRB will have limited authority to impact police reform. COTF and the independent monitor are an essential part of implementing the decree, but once they are gone the CRB will remain as a permanent fixture. The CRB is well-positioned to fulfill its purpose if we receive the authority and resources needed.

Bridal Pearson (bridalpearson206@gmail.com) is chairman of the Civilian Review Board of Baltimore City and a faculty member at the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.

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