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Not so transparent

A Baltimore City plan to create an online database listing the outcome of civil lawsuits alleging police brutality is being billed as a tool for making the department more transparent after a Sun investigation this summer revealed the city has paid out nearly $6 million to settle plaintiffs' claims of misconduct by officers. Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson, who devised the new policy, said posting the information online will dispel any impression the city is trying to hide officers' misconduct from the public. But though the database clearly is a step in the direction of reform, we have doubts that it will deliver sufficiently on that promise.

The city frequently settles complaints of police brutality out of court — typically by agreeing to pay only a fraction of the damages alleged — rather than take such cases to trial. It costs the city less to resolve cases through settlements and doesn't require it to admit wrongdoing by officers. Moreover, settlement agreements routinely contain so-called non-disclosure clauses, which prevent plaintiffs who receive an award from talking about it publicly. Plaintiffs who violate that restriction risk losing their monetary payment.

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Mr. Nilson says the city will consider changing the requirement that plaintiffs remain silent after a settlement is reached, but there's no guarantee it will actually do so. The most he's willing to offer is a review of "best practices" in other cities to determine whether Baltimore's policy should change. That's not much of a commitment.

Moreover, while lawsuits against the police will be available online, the posts may not include details about the specific instances of brutality or misconduct alleged. That's no better than what we have now with the brief summaries currently given the city's Board of Estimates, which must approve all payments larger than $25,000. Critics charge that in the past such summaries have been used to hide the nature and extent of alleged abuses, leaving the public and other city officials in the dark about how widespread the problem is or whether the same officers are responsible for multiple complaints of misconduct.

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The more fundamental problem with just posting lawsuits against police online is that such information contains no independent findings of fact. That's because when city settles a case it doesn't necessarily concede the truthfulness of the allegations. All the public sees is that the city decided to resolve the case out of court rather than take it to trial. But there's no way of knowing why it did so or whether the outcome resulted in any disciplinary action being taken against the officers involved. Posting complaints online may give the public an easier way to tote up how much the city is paying out, but without an independent body to investigate such complaints the public still won't know much more that it does today about the nature of the abuses being litigated.

That's why if the police department is to be truly transparent, the city must establish an independent citizen review board with real powers to investigate complaints of police misconduct and compel the department to discipline officers who abuse their powers. New York City currently has such a panel, staffed by 100 civilian investigators and other employers who can take citizen complaints, locate witnesses and gather sworn testimony from officers implicated in misconduct. It's a far more effective body than Baltimore's toothless citizen review panel, which can't even begin its work until after the police department has finished investigating itself.

What city residents want to see is a recognition by top officials that police officers are accountable to the public they serve, that no officer is above the law and that the department stands ready to discipline the wrong-doers in its own ranks. The department needs to show it can police itself before it can win the confidence of those it is sworn to protect. Mr. Nilson's plan is a welcome reform as far as it goes, but it doesn't do nearly enough to make the department truly transparent and accountable.

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