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Op-ed

Mayor Scott: ‘Transparency, accountability, and meaningful civilian oversight’ is the future of Baltimore’s police department | GUEST COMMENTARY

I was pleased to witness the passage of the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 (House Bill 670), seeing it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for meaningful police accountability reforms that have eluded Baltimoreans, and Maryland residents, for decades. Reforming our police department has been central to my entire career in public service and is one of the critical goals of my administration. The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has made historic improvements in the last few years under the leadership of Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison, much of it the result of the federal consent decree Baltimore City has been a willing party to since 2017.

BPD’s image has been marred by police corruption, inappropriate behavior and the mismanagement of taxpayer dollars. The actions of rogue cops have compromised the public’s trust in the ability of police officers to do their jobs constitutionally and productively. Reforming the department around constitutional policing is a prerequisite for residents to have confidence in their department. Without that trust, residents will continue to feel uneasy about helping our officers effectively prevent and solve crimes. Real, meaningful accountability is vital for building that trust up from the ground level.

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When I ran for mayor, I promised to transform our city’s approach to crime reduction, moving us from being focused solely on law enforcement to a comprehensive, holistic approach to public safety that centers on public health. I introduced my Comprehensive Violence Prevention Plan because equitable public safety strategies understand that evaluation and accountability are essential in building a brighter, safer future for our city. This plan includes ongoing assessment of our consent decree progress and mandates internal affairs training to ensure that all sworn officers should know how to conduct proper citizen complaint investigations, draft and submit formal charges, and conduct audits and integrity tests to ensure that our law enforcement officers are policing fairly and impartially.

House Bill 670 is now the law of the land, and jurisdictions across the state of Maryland, including Baltimore City, have been tasked with creating three interlinking civilian oversight boards through local legislation by July 1: The Police Accountability Board (PAB), the Administrative Charging Committee (ACC) and the Trial Board.

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This change will create an ecosystem for effective police accountability. Under the proposed legislation, the PAB will handle the intake of resident complaints of potential police misconduct cases, hold regular meetings with the heads of law enforcement, and issue public reports about the state of police misconduct in Baltimore City. The ACC will be the workhorse of the three oversight boards, tasked with assessing individual cases of alleged police misconduct based on the initial investigative findings of BPD, including reviewing body camera footage and making disciplinary recommendations. Finally, should a police officer receive discipline, a Trial Board will review the evidence and hear an appeal, should one be filed.

Thankfully, unlike other jurisdictions in Maryland, Baltimore City does not have to start its civilian oversight process from scratch. For the last 20 years, we have had the Civilian Review Board (CRB) to provide opportunities for civilian participation and oversight into specific types of police misconduct allegations. We cannot ignore the lessons learned from the CRB while we create the accountability structures outlined in House Bill 670.

After hearing concerns from the Civilian Review Board and advocates supporting civilian oversight in police accountability, my administration will be supporting two key amendments in Annapolis to strengthen the Police Accountability Boards here in Baltimore City. Our Administrative Charging Committees must have explicit subpoena powers and the ability to perform concurrent investigations into police misconduct cases, the same powers granted to the Civilian Review Board. These measures ensure that the findings of police misconduct investigations are accurate and can withstand public scrutiny. We are counting on our committed legislative partners in Annapolis to get these amendments through and enacted by the end of this session.

If the residents of Baltimore City don’t trust the police, there is no hope to curb the violence gripping our city, and the strategies we are employing to reform the underlying circumstances that lead to violence become harder to achieve. Transparency, accountability, and meaningful civilian oversight of the police are principles that will underlie Baltimore City’s Police Accountability Boards process. As your mayor, I am committed to getting it right because we cannot afford to do anything less.

Brandon Scott (mayor@baltimorecity.gov) is the mayor of Baltimore.


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