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Achieving police accountability through civilian oversight in Baltimore

Last week’s Baltimore Sun articles “Police policing themselves criticized,” about the desire for more civilian oversight of Baltimore police, and “Mosby Gives List to Police,” about the state’s attorney identifying potentially hundreds of dishonest city officers, highlight the persistent problem of police corruption and misconduct within the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). Unchecked police misconduct continues to cause debilitating harm to the community and significant liabilities for the police and the city, all while undermining the well-intentioned efforts of BPD to reduce crime and create a functioning police force that protects and serves all citizens.

Two years into the federal Consent Decree mandating comprehensive reforms at BPD, Baltimore still lacks a system of civilian oversight of police that has the authority and resources to effectively address police wrongdoing. Creating a fully empowered Civilian Office of Police Accountability that is sufficiently independent from influence by elected and unelected city officials is urgently needed to deter police misconduct and restore trust between the police and the community.

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A detailed blueprint for such a system has been developed. Baltimore’s Community Oversight Task Force (COTF), mandated by the federal consent decree between the BPD and U.S. Justice Department and comprised of nine volunteer city residents, spent a year researching and assessing national civilian oversight models. The task force, of which I am a member, then developed a police accountability system for Baltimore based on national best practices and tailored to Baltimore’s unique social, economic and political realities. On September 10, 2018 — more than a year ago — COTF submitted its recommendations to the public and to the U.S. District Court of Maryland.

COTF’s proposed Civilian Office of Police Accountability would have investigative, auditing and community outreach responsibilities, and would make information about sustained police misconduct complaints available to the public on an ongoing basis. Civilian oversight models with these components have proven effective in deterring police misconduct in many cities throughout the United States. A recent analysis of police misconduct files made available to the public in Chicago showed that much of that city’s police misconduct was perpetrated by repeat offenders. Armed with such data, citizens can demand accountability, and police departments can rid themselves of problematic officers who smear the good name of those who do their work with integrity. Civilian oversight is not the enemy of all cops; just the corrupt ones.

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It is time to catch up to other cities and make police accountability a reality for Baltimore. A system that effectively addresses police misconduct will work for our city as it has for others. We must find the courage and political will to make these reforms a reality. Implementation of COTF’s recommendations will require resources and a series of law changes, including to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR) and the Maryland Public Information Act, which inhibits the transparency of police misconduct by prohibiting public access to misconduct records. As we approach the 2020 legislative session, let’s elect leaders who will create a civilian oversight system for the Baltimore Police Department that roots out “bad apples” and gives our city a fighting chance at building trust between the police and the community.

The authors are members of the Community Oversight Task Force.

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