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Baltimore needs to be able to get rid of bad cops

Defenders of the system of discipline for Baltimore police have no moral authority left after the Gun Trace Task Force trials. The corruption they revealed — and the number of cases in which some of the guilty officers came to the attention of the department time and time again only to see minor punishment, if any — demonstrate a system that is broken from top to bottom. Mayor Catherine Pugh’s new effort to strip officers of protections afforded them under state law and their collective bargaining agreement do not go too far. They only scratch the surface of what needs to be done.

The Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police is complaining that Ms. Pugh’s push to give the police commissioner the authority to put civilians on the trial boards that determine whether officers have violated departmental standards short circuits the collective bargaining process. State law currently allows specially trained civilians to serve on such bodies only if permitted by union contracts, and Ms. Pugh’s desire to see that happen in Baltimore has been one of the points of dispute in the long-stalled negotiations between the city and the FOP. The truth is, the commissioner’s ability to create systems of accountability and standards and to see them properly enforced should never have been the subject of bargaining to begin with.

Mayor Pugh proposes a system in which a commissioner would get to decide the appropriate composition of a trial board — all trained civilians, all police officers or a mix of the two. The FOP argues that only fellow police officers are qualified to stand in judgment of alleged officer misconduct, which is absurd. Not only do non-practitioners sit in judgment of alleged violations of standards of licensure in a wide variety of professions, but we entrust civilians with no training whatsoever to render verdicts of guilt or innocence in our courts, no matter how complex the issues of fact and law. Given the history of sympathetic hearings by all-officer trial boards, we question whether they would ever be appropriate, but Ms. Pugh’s proposal at least has the virtue of making it perfectly clear that the person ultimately responsible for the conduct of Baltimore police officers is the commissioner. He or she would not be able to duck accountability.

The same principle underlies what will doubtless be the most controversial element of Mayor Pugh’s proposal, which is to allow police commissioners to impose discipline even in cases when a trial board does not sustain any of the allegations against an officer. We appreciate FOP President Lt. Gene Ryan’s concern that such a system would render trial boards pointless, but we believe that misses the big picture. As it stands, the role of the commissioner in the disciplinary process is somewhat problematic. Under current law, if a trial board sustains a complaint against an officer — even a minor, technical fault — a commissioner has the authority ot override the body’s recommendation for discipline and impose any penalty he or she chooses, including termination. A commissioner can now review the record of an investigation and trial board and previous complaints against an officer and, essentially, conclude that the trial board got things wrong — but only if it sustains a complaint of any sort, not if it doesn’t. That makes little sense. If a commissioner uses that power arbitrarily or unfairly, an officer retains the right to take the matter to court.

Even if Mayor Pugh convinces her former colleagues in the General Assembly to support her proposed reforms, they won’t solve the problem by themselves. The department still needs to be able to identify potential misconduct and to investigate it thoroughly and efficiently. Newly sworn-in Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa says he has ideas on that front, including random polygraph tests for officers, new units to find corruption and overtime fraud, and possibly restructuring Internal Affairs, perhaps even taking it outside of the department altogether.

Those efforts need to be successful and transparent. Both the public and the Department of Justice consent decree monitoring teem need to demand evidence that the BPD is just as dogged in investigating its own as it is in investigating crime on the streets. That means much greater openness around the police discipline process. Opening trial boards to outside observers was a good first step, but the department needs to do more than list the schedule by case numbers. The public needs to be able to see what complaints have been made against which officers and to learn the outcome. Both Mayor Pugh and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh have expressed a desire to re-evaluate the prohibitions on disclosing information about police discipline. Given what has happened in Baltimore, the legislature needs to listen.

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