Rebecca Nagle with No Boundaries Coalition speaks about the need for reform in the Baltimore Civilian Review Board and the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)

City Councilman Brandon M. Scott's idea to create an oversight committee to monitor the Baltimore Police Department's efforts at community engagement is a good one. The recent report by the Department of Justice on the city police's record of civil rights violations underscores just how much work needs to be done in that arena to rebuild trust between officers and those they are sworn to protect. Different police commissioners have had different ideas about (and degrees of commitment to) community policing, so an independent panel would offer some continuity, Mr. Scott says.

What's crazy, though, is that Mr. Scott, one of Baltimore's leading voices on policing and crime, can't actually make that happen. He is vice-chairman of the council's public safety committee, and he convinced his colleagues to support his idea in an 11-0 vote. But that doesn't mean anything because the Baltimore City Council doesn't actually have any authority over the Baltimore City Police Department.


For most practical purposes, the Baltimore Police Department is a city agency. The city funds its budget, the mayor hires and fires the commissioner — and clearly has final say on crime-fighting strategy. And the city is most definitely the one that's legally liable when officers commit misconduct.

But when it comes to oversight and policy direction from the legislative branch, the City Council plays no role. For reasons that perhaps made sense in the politics of 19th-Century Maryland, the Baltimore police department was established as a state agency, and it is governed not by the city's charter and code but by the Public Local Laws of Baltimore City, which are enacted by the General Assembly. As a matter of practice, the city's delegation in Annapolis is given courtesy by other lawmakers to enact changes to the laws affecting Baltimore alone, but at a time when the police are and ought to be subject to extensive reform efforts, the system is at best inefficient and at worst raises the potential for conflicting agendas.

Police departments in Maryland's counties are generally established by their charters or codes. They are subject to state laws — notably, the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights — but most, particularly in large jurisdictions, are also regulated by the local government. The Baltimore County code, for example, sets out the qualifications for police cadets, the terms by which the department must make reports and documents available to the public and the training officers must complete. Montgomery County's code specifies that the county health officer must attest to the physical fitness of all departmental recruits. Prince George's county code sets out rules of conduct for officers — for example, that they should refrain from personal conduct with those under investigation for criminal activity — and general parameters for the use of force.

But for Baltimore, regulation of the department is vested in state law. Since the 1970s, the mayor has had the ability to hire (with the council's approval) and fire the police chief, but most of the parameters for police operations are a matter of state law. Since the DOJ report, some critics have focused on a provision of the Public Local Laws that limits the commissioner's ability to fire anyone below the top echelons of police command. But there's plenty more in the code that could become an issue, depending on how departmental reforms play out.

The manner in which the commissioner decides which applicants to hire and which officers to promote is laid out in state law — a somewhat convoluted "rule of five" that is neither based on strict merit nor on the commissioner's judgment. The procedures, timing and terms of collective bargaining are in the state code, as is the manner of arbitrating disputes that may arise from it. The Public Local Laws establish the rules for disciplining or firing officers and give the commissioner the authority to pay for the legal defense of a police officer in a civil or criminal case if he deems it warranted. The Civilian Review Board is established in the state law, as are its composition, mandate and procedures.

Mr. Scott has a ready partner for his idea in the city's Annapolis delegation, Del. Antonio Hayes, who has pledged to draft legislation and lobby his colleagues to support it. Assuming he's successful, that means a law establishing the commission might go into effect next summer. If it were a local matter, it could be done in a few weeks. This commission probably wouldn't be controversial, but reforms that might come out of the DOJ report could be. Should they be decided by those people Baltimore voters elected to represent their interests in local matters, or should they be subject to votes by representatives from Garrett to Worcester counties and a possible veto by the governor?

The legislature's control over the Baltimore Police Department is an anachronism that serves no purpose at a time when city residents are demanding accountability and rapid reform. Whether the remedy involves a passing a law clarifying the City Council's authority to legislate on police matters or taking the department out of the state's purview altogether, the situation needs to change.