Police-community tension -- it's a matter of distrust

WILEY A. HALL 3rd

March 17, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Four years ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke created the Police Advisory Council, partly in response to growing discontent with the way the department responded to complaints of police brutality.

But retired Judge Solomon Baylor, the former chairman of the council, says police brutality remains a problem here and the department remains unresponsive.

"I personally have sat in on a number of [police trial board] hearings that have disgusted me to no end," said the former Circuit Court judge, who is still a member of the 10-member citizens panel.

"This is an issue that conjures up a lot of anger in me," Judge Baylor continued. "We're not talking about 50 years ago. It is still happening. Police are still defensive. I've talked to many people who say they refuse to file a complaint because they're sure nothing will be done. Well, I'm sad to say, they're right."

Judge Baylor is not the only citizen charged with monitoring complaints against police to express disgust with the process.

"Most people," said Gertrude Hack, who now chairs the council, "feel the system is not working. I've talked to quite a few community leaders and they feel there is quite a bit of excessive force and the department isn't responding."

Many past and present members of the city's Complaint Evaluation Board, the public agency charged with reviewing the department's investigation of complaints against officers, say they are equally discouraged with the way the system works.

"I don't think the process is working -- the CEB is too much of a rubber stamp," said one former member. "Part of the problem is the make-up of the board. Most of us are attorneys or members of the law enforcement community. It is not truly representative of real, ordinary citizens."

Added Alvin Gillard, who represents the city's Community Relations Commission on the CEB, "If you have an individual who has been victimized in some way, it is very, very difficult for them to understand or accept that the Police Department conducts an investigation of itself and the police commissioner judges the results of that investigation."

In fact, members of the CEB are sharply divided on the issue.

The members connected to the law enforcement community tended to applaud the department's responsiveness. Citizen representatives tended to condemn it. Members say CEB votes on individual cases often split along the same lines.

Said Jerome A. Nicholas Jr., the board's representative from the City Solicitor's Office, "You have isolated incidents all the time, but when you do, the Police Department responds to them in a prompt and thorough manner."

Countered another member, "I'm not so sure the incidents are all that isolated and I'm not so sure the Police Department moves all that rapidly. Practically the only complaints that are sustained are the ones where an officer breaks the code of silence and testifies against a fellow officer."

Possibly the latest publicized case of alleged excessive force occurred on March 2, when a 29-year-old drug suspect died of a ruptured spleen while in police custody. The state medical examiner has ruled the death a homicide. The case is still under investigation.

Since 1989, the CEB has reviewed investigations of nearly 500 complaints of excessive force or discourtesy. Complaints were sustained in 18 cases and referred back to the department for punishment or a hearing before a departmental trial board. Police would not reveal the final disposition of those cases.

Meanwhile, nearly 65 percent of all complaints were dismissed as "unfounded" because of lack of evidence. With no power to conduct its own investigations or subpoena witnesses, the CEB agrees with departmental recommendations nearly 98 percent of the time.

Critics of the system charge that although the department's Internal Investigations Division conducts vigorous probes of complaints, investigators rarely take the word of civilian witnesses over their own officers and many potential witnesses are discouraged from coming forth.

"We [the Community Relations Commission] see people when they file complaints," said Gillard, "and it is clear to us that they are sincere. They are not just filing complaints to get back at the officer. Some members of the board and the IID are convinced that there is vindictiveness involved."

The city has been trying to build a good relationship between citizens-- particularly those in poor neighborhoods -- and police for more than two decades. But it has always half-stepped.

The latest fad is dubbed "community policing" and it involves decentralizing the department and using foot patrolmen to get closer to the neighborhoods they serve. The program is supposed to take five years to fully implement.

But true confidence will never come until the department literally opens itself up to public scrutiny. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a number of other groups have long recommended the appointment of an independent civilian review board with investigatory powers.

They believe, and I agree, that citizens can be trusted with that kind of responsibility.

But the Police Department doesn't trust the public to treat its officers fairly. Neither does the mayor.

Until police learn to trust us, a great many citizens will never trust them.

And community policing?

It will remain just a fancy name for the status quo.

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