Much has been written about the powerlessness of Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board to hold police officers accountable. Most blame police departments and the union for blocking attempts to expose miscreant officers, and an internal culture that shields and perpetuates wrongdoing.
There may be truth in these accusations. But they divert attention from the complicity of political leaders, who have cynically taken advantage of a deeply flawed state law to co-opt the board and institute a sham process that blunts criticism, muzzles opposition and obfuscates abuse. Why? To insulate the city from liability for racist, oppressive and unconstitutional policing.
In Baltimore, the buck stops at City Hall.
The 1999 statute that created the Civilian Review Board empowers a group of ordinary citizens to scrutinize misconduct complaints through a community lens, by conducting independent investigations and issuing findings and recommendations. What the statute left out, however, was funding and a staff to do the job.
Instead, lawmakers assumed the city would fund operations, as it had for the old Complaints Evaluation Board it replaced. But that board was a wholly different creature: It was dominated by city officials and stakeholders who outnumbered ordinary citizens. The new Civilian Review Board, by contrast, put Baltimore residents in charge, excluded city membership and downgraded stakeholder groups to non-voting advisors. Faced with the specter of a people’s takeover, the city used its power of the purse to seize control, subordinating board members to the will of city employees.
City officials justified the silent coup with a self-serving, highly irregular interpretation of the law, and proceeded to unilaterally create the rules for how oversight would function and what information board members could see. Over the years, as board members sporadically raised concerns over sluggishness in filling vacancies, expired cases and inadequate investigative capacity, the city tightened its grip.
It named the director of the Office of Equity and Civil Rights, a mayoral appointee as administrator, although the law required an administrator to be “independent.” For years it hired just one investigator; even after it added a second, we believe they lacked the skills and formal training to produce high-quality investigations. The city failed to maintain Civilian Review Board files, depriving successive boards of an institutional memory and historical perspective. It provided only superficial, if any, training for board members, in contravention of the statute.
The Office of Civil Rights submitted annual budget requests in the name of the Civilian Review Board — $675,000 in FY 2020 — based on performance measures that board members never saw or approved, for funding over which they had no say. The city wielded the Maryland Open Meetings Act as a cudgel to forestall attempts at insurrection. When the board sought legal advice to resolve its concerns, it was precluded from consulting anyone outside the law department — the same department that defends the city and the Baltimore Police Department from lawsuits. The city discouraged Civilian Review Board members from adopting bylaws, losing the drafts proposed over the years; when members recently took up the issue anew, the city insisted that bylaws were subject to approval by the law department.
Usurpation of civilian oversight has left a trail of broken promises for those seeking justice for being manhandled, disrespected, racially targeted, brutalized and denied protection by the police departments scarfing up their tax dollars. In June 2019, there was outrage when the circuit court dismissed disciplinary action against 12 Baltimore police officers found to have committed misconduct because internal affairs did not bring charges within a year as the law requires. But that same month, city staff presented the Civilian Review Board with six complaints to adjudicate, five of which had expired.
What passes for civilian oversight in Baltimore is merely a façade that obscures more than it reveals and ultimately keeps the status quo intact. In 2018, an expert panel convened by the consent decree concluded that Baltimore’s civilian oversight process was “antithetical to police accountability” and should be scrapped. In the 2019 legislative session, several bills to improve the board failed. This year, Senator Jill Carter’s transformative bill for a fully funded, autonomous, citizen-run oversight agency had to be withdrawn.
Baltimore residents have waited 20 years for a real voice in how they are policed. They should not have to wait one minute more.
Jillian Aldebron (email@example.com) is a former member of the Civilian Review Board of Baltimore City. Roland N. Patterson, Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the Baltimore City Police Review Board Coalition and Marvin L. Cheatham, Sr. (email@example.com) is president Baltimore City Police Review Board Coalition.