Reconsider the state commission on Baltimore police corruption, Mayor Pugh

For all we learned about the corruption in the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force during this year’s trial of two officers, there is still plenty more the public needs to know. We need to know who else knew or suspected what was going on. We need to learn what deficiencies of accountability and oversight allowed such a brazen criminal enterprise to flourish inside the department. We need to be certain that the department is adequately pursuing allegations against additional officers that came out during the trial. And we need to give the task force’s victims the opportunity to be heard.

Mayor Catherine Pugh says she opposes state Sen. Bill Ferguson’s proposal to create a state commission to investigate those matters, not because she resists the idea of such a review but because she believes it is redundant of efforts the Police Department is already making. She said Wednesday that Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa has started reaching out to donors to fund an independent commission, and she noted that the department is already under scrutiny as part of Baltimore’s consent decree with the federal government. We could understand if she is wary of the idea of a state commission injecting itself in the middle of all that.

Nonetheless, we think Senator Ferguson’s idea is a necessary one, for several reasons.

First, the Baltimore Police Department is, technically, a state agency and has been since the Civil War. The mayor can hire and fire the police chief, and city taxpayers fund the department, but laws governing it are enacted on the state level. How much the City Council could do to restructure the department or force changes to its operations is unclear. If the state might eventually be asked to implement reforms that have proven difficult in the past — for example, placing civilians on trial boards over the Fraternal Order of Police’s objections or opening up police disciplinary records for public review — it will be beneficial for the state to be involved in the process. If more money from the state winds up being part of the answer, that’s all the more true.

Second, creating an independent investigatory commission through legislation means the body would have subpoena power. An independent commission created by the police commissioner might not be able to get all the documents or witnesses it needs.

Third, enacting legislation to create the commission establishes the requirement that its proceedings be open to the public. Mr. Ferguson’s proposal does allow for documents to be shielded or testimony to be taken in closed session, but only if five of seven members agree. Since appointments would be split between the Senate president, House speaker and governor, no one faction would be able to make such a decision. Given the degree to which the Gun Trace Task Force scandal amplified mistrust of the department, openness is crucial.

So, too, is independence, which is a fourth reason a state commission is necessary. Even if Mr. De Sousa brings in outsiders to run and staff an investigation, there remains a risk that many in the public will discount its findings because the process originated with the very department that’s under scrutiny.

Finally, the consent decree monitoring team’s mission is not to help the department move past the Gun Trace Task Force scandal. Certainly, some of the reforms it will require may target the deficiencies that allowed the corruption to occur. But it won’t necessarily seek the details about what happened or whether any higher-ups in the department were implicated, and it won’t necessarily provide an opportunity for those who were robbed or framed by the corrupt officers to tell their stories. After the task force trial, we need truth and reconciliation between the department and the public, and a state commission is the best way to get it.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad