City senators push for civilians on police trial boards

Senators representing Baltimore are pushing to put two civilian members with full voting rights on police trial boards in the city to increase the department's public accountability.

Baltimore's Senate delegation met briefly Friday to discuss an amendment to a broader bill dealing with police standards and discipline. The senators agreed to a request from the legislative representative of the Police Department to delay a vote until Monday so Commissioner Kevin Davis could weigh in, but they appeared resolved to approve the change.


"We know that the public desires the right to participate, not as viewers but as participants," said Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, chair of the city delegation and a Democratic candidate for mayor.

The issue of how police are disciplined gained a higher profile in the wake of Freddie Gray's death in April after suffering spinal injuries in police custody — an incident that sparked rioting in Baltimore. Six Baltimore officers were indicted in Gray's death and await trial.


The city senators discussed amending the House-passed version of the police discipline bill. The measure provides for one nonvoting civilian member of the trial boards, which determine whether and how officers are disciplined for incidents of alleged professional misconduct. Trial boards now consist of three police officers.

Amendments were offered Thursday in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee allowing for voting civilian members in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, two majority-black jurisdictions with long histories of tensions between civilians and police.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the committee, ruled that the amendments required the approval of their local delegations before his panel could consider them.

The amendments would require that civilian members receive training in police procedures and rules before they could sit on the trial boards, but many police object to having civilians sit in judgment of officers for potentially career-ending allegations such as brutality.

The proposed changes also would exempt the trial boards' composition from being a subject for collective bargaining with police unions.

The state's police union has objected to letting civilians serve on the disciplinary boards, which they characterize as internal matters that require specialized knowledge about policing.

"We don't believe that a citizen coming into that environment has enough information to know the decisions that officers have to make," said Vince Canales, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police.

Canales said, for example, that there is a well-established policing policy that an assailant with a knife can become a deadly threat from 21 feet or closer, which is why officers are authorized to use lethal force at that distance.

"If you're a citizen sitting there for the first time, hearing something called the 21-foot rule, you have no idea," Canales said.

Advocates for changes to boost police accountability have been pressing for years to get community members placed on police trial boards across the state. While that remains the ultimate goal, they are pleased that civilians might at least be included in Baltimore and Prince George's.

Dayvon Love, co-founder of the black empowerment group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said few officers accused of brutality end up in court on criminal charges, so it is important to have a fair and transparent disciplinary system within police departments.

Having civilians on the board creates a "direct mechanism" for holding police accountable for their actions, Love said.


Advocates, including Love's group, the ACLU, Casa of Maryland and Progressive Maryland have been making their case to lawmakers by circulating a list of professional and licensing boards that include members of the public. Police are one of the few professions where the public is not involved, they say.

Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore's House delegation, said he believes that if the Senate adopts the amendments, city delegates would support them.

"Certainly, the Baltimore city House delegation would be amenable to the idea," he said.

The city's House delegation, like that in the Senate, is made up entirely of Democrats.

Anderson said that if the Senate adopts the amendments, the issue could be worked out in conference committee. He said that if the amendments affected only Baltimore, the House would likely approve them as a matter of "local courtesy."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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