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Improving relations among police and communities requires confidence, trust | COMMENTARY

As a former chairman of the Maryland Civil Rights Commission, I have long been aware of tensions between minority communities and police. In many places, hostility lurks just below the surface.

Incidents perceived as threatening by minority communities demand an appropriate response. That requires establishment of processes that command public confidence when dealing with complaints alleging police misconduct. The current national uproar about charges of police brutality stems in large part from the lack of such confidence.

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When members of a police department have been charged with killing suspects or otherwise violating their rights, I believe two steps are urgent. First, disciplinary proceedings must not be conducted by the department to which the alleged offender belongs. That responsibility should be transferred to a trusted third party to conduct an independent investigation, hold hearings and hand down a verdict. Second, police unions must not be permitted to determine the outcome.

In Maryland, the first problem can be solved by establishing a unit within the office of Maryland’s Attorney General to investigate complaints against police and to render binding judgments — subject, of course, to appeal to state courts. I regard this approach, recently adopted by the State of New York, as having a huge advantage in credibility over the current practice in some jurisdictions of transferring disciplinary proceedings to a different police department than the one to which the alleged offender belongs. An agreement on the structure and appropriate funding of this additional function should be negotiated between Attorney General Brian Frosh and the Maryland legislature.

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Second, local and state authorities should outlaw the inclusion in police-union contracts of any provision enabling the union to intervene as a matter of right on behalf of members in disciplinary actions. Unions should be allowed, however, to finance an officer’s defense and to testify or submit a legal opinion as a third party in disciplinary proceedings.

I support the creation of civilian review boards — but they should be limited to an advisory role. Police departments must retain the right to make an initial decision on whether to accept advice. The public interest lies in a balanced judgment that weighs recommended changes against potential consequences.

Should their recommendations be rejected, review boards can and should bring the dispute back to the appointing authorities for further consideration. Differences of opinion must ultimately be resolved by elected officials. Review board recommendations and police department objections should be made public and hearings conducted in open session. Public acceptance demands transparency.

Relationships between minority communities and police need to be addressed at a basic level. Expanding minority recruitment would be a useful beginning. Adopting a “best practices” approach to police training strikes me as imperative. Teaching methods to “de-escalate” potential conflict and to engage with the community deserve attention.

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Choice of appropriate partners for newly commissioned officers is crucial. Departmental “cultures” dictate quite a lot, and conveying the right attitude to newcomers is an important part of the intake process. Police chiefs and their deputies need to consider how cultural transfer takes place as a major criterion when partnering rookie officers in their initial field assignments.

I also suggest that local authorities take a hard look at the way in which 911 services are dispatched. Are there further choices available to 911 dispatchers in addition to police, fire and rescue squads? Specifically, are mental health professionals and social workers available in sufficient numbers to participate in calls where their skills might be useful?

The Marshall Project, which has specialized in coverage of this subject, might serve as a resource in addressing these issues. It has amassed a substantial collection of news stories, articles and other material containing names and views of people whom I would personally wish to consult before making any substantive decisions.

Norman I. Gelman (normangelman@verizon.net) is a former chairman and member of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, on which he served from 1998 until early 2015.

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