Civilian Review Board says it has little power to police the police

Consent decree breathes new life into panel, but board still lacks full authority to punish officers

BALTIMORE — The October meeting of Baltimore's Civilian Review Board took place in a fluorescent-soaked room at a recreation center in West Baltimore. An audience of a dozen or so, a few of them police investigators, bore silent witness.

The rest of the spectators absorbed a litany of allegations against Baltimore police officers that included: multiple taser blasts followed by a stomping, a threat of being shot in the face for fleeing, and an officer accused of saying over his patrol car loudspeaker: “Why don’t you come into the street and say that to me so that I can run you over.”

Established in 1999, Baltimore’s nine-member Civilian Review Board, which is part of the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights, was relatively unknown until recently, and for good reason. It had only one full-time investigator, a meager budget and the power only to recommend discipline against police officers, but no way to ensure that it was actually meted out.

But the recent Justice Department consent decree to reform the city’s police department has breathed new life into the board, which sat a full complement of members for its November meeting.

The board also has a more robust budget than in the past, including funding for a second investigator to go along with a new director of the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights, Jill Carter, a former state delegate who is unafraid to advocate publicly for the review board to get more power.

“I don’t feel in previous years, from 1999 until about a year ago, this office or its mission was taken very seriously,” Carter said.

What has not changed yet is the review board’s lack of authority to hold Baltimore police officers accountable.

The commissioner’s decision

At present, as it was in the past, when the Civilian Review Board disagrees with the recommendation from the police department’s internal affairs division regarding a complaint about an officer, the case goes to the police commissioner, who has the power to decide whether or not to refer it to an internal trial review board.

Baltimore’s police trial board is staffed exclusively by police officers, who do not typically share their decisions with the public, including the Civilian Review Board.

"This is a huge problem for the Civilian Review Board in Baltimore and it's big part of the criticism about the CRB being toothless," said board member Blair Thompson, a former public defender who represents the Southeastern Police District.

"There’s nothing written in the law that says the police department has to tell us anything about what they do, so they're not going to do anything they're not obligated to do under the law," she added.

One of those laws the police often cite is Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which allows for up to two civilians to sit on police trial boards. However, the same statute also allows police departments and local governments to negotiate how their police trail boards will operate. In Baltimore, putting civilians on trail boards is expressly prohibited by the labor contract between the police union and the city. That contract is currently being renegotiated.

Another issue is the complaint system itself.

Because the Civilian Review Board is not well known, most people complain directly to the police about the police, board members say. And, by law, the police must share only those complaints with the review board that fall into the following five categories: use of excessive force, abusive language, harassment, false arrest, and false imprisonment.

In the past, the police department was accused of not sharing complaints with the board in a timely manner, or even in some cases before the statute of limitations on investigations expired.

Past board’s recommendations that conflicted with those from police internal affairs investigators were also ignored nearly all the time by the police commissioner, Carter said.

"I don’t want you to say we have power, because we don’t," said Bridal Pearson, a University of Baltimore professor who represents the Northern Police District and serves as chair of the board.

Pushing the envelope

The Baltimore Police Department's consent decree called for the formation of a Community Oversight Task Force to "review the functions of the Civilian Review Board (CRB), and whether there are impediments to BPD civilian complaint processes that inhibit the ability of the Baltimore community to seek accountability for police misconduct."

The task force met with the city's Office of Civil Rights regarding the the review board on Nov. 2. The task force now has 11 months from the effective date of the consent decree — which was approved by the court in April — to submit its report.

"Right now I think every member of the board is saying that part of our job is to push the envelope and make it clear what shortfalls we see and widely disseminate that," said board member Mel Currie, a retired mathematician who represents the Southwestern Police District.

"We’re not just members of the board,” Currie said. “We’re also citizens of this city. We can get the ear of the City Council, the mayor's office. What we have is an ability to push for more power and I think that we’re going to do that."

Carter’s office issued its own report to coincide with its meeting with the Community Oversight Task Force that detailed 15 steps “to make the Civilian Review Board effective.” The very first was to allow civilians to investigate and interrogate police officers, as well as requiring two civilians to sit on the internal police trial board, something expressly forbidden by the collective bargaining agreement between the police union and the city.

Other proposals included increasing the range of complaints the board can review, developing a resolution mechanism that doesn’t favor the department when it and the board’s disciplinary recommendations disagree and compelling the police department to inform the board of its internal disciplinary actions. The report also suggest more robust funding for the board, which has an annual budget of $556,000.

Carter hopes the Community Oversight Task Force will force some kind of change. If it was up to her, that change would be big.

“I don’t want an impotent civilian on the [police] trial board,” said Carter. “I want the civilian review board to be the trial board...that might be a little crazy, but I think that’s the future.”