With relations between Annapolis' police and black residents at a seven-year low, city leaders are resisting persistent demands that a civilian panel be set up to review complaints about police brutality and misconduct.
Most officials say that they don't want one, that police review panels work best in cities, unlike their own, with predominantly minority populations. Above all, they say, a better defense against police racism is in place -- a black chief dedicated to rooting it out.
Still, two years into Chief Joseph S. Johnson's reign as the first black chief in a city where a third of the population is black, the department is experiencing its worse problems in the black community since 1989. In that year, state investigations looked into allegations that white officers were failing to back up black colleagues on calls.
In recent months, a white police officer fatally shot a young black man in one public housing complex and a crowd of angry black residents in another complex pelted police on a drug raid with rocks and broke their cruiser's windows.
"I am the first to stand up for my officers when they've done something right, but I'm also the first to admit when we've been wrong, too," said Johnson. "A chief is chosen to manage a police department and discipline his officers if the need arises.
"He shouldn't be given a way out of making a hard decision," said Johnson. "I think a board is too easy."
The evidence is still out on whether civilian review boards soothe the kind of tensions now rocking Annapolis. Nationwide since 1990, the number of review boards has more than doubled from 38 to 94.
That compares with the 15,900 other police and sheriff's agencies that operate free of civilian panel oversight, according to law enforcement experts.
Despite the low number, says Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, "there's just a growing recognition for the need of greater accountability. It creates a level of public confidence."
Experts say boards do provide a release valve in communities mistrustful of the law, but they remain rare because they are expensive and because police, such as Annapolis' chief, believe police should investigate their own wrongdoing.
"A civilian review board, whether it was intentional or not, would be viewed as a vote of no confidence in the chief, and I think a majority of the council supports him," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a black civil rights activist.
Many residents, though, say the chief's efforts to rid the department of racism and improve ties with the community have been too little, too late.
"Until you get people from the community sitting in judgment of police actions, you will not have a community that has trust in the Police Department," said Michael T. Brown, chairman of the Black Political Forum. "Chief Johnson is a role model to me and this community, but he is not the entire Police Department."
In Maryland, only Prince George's County uses a civilian panel to hear residents' complaints. The seven-member panel, chosen by the county executive, meets once a week to review completed internal affairs investigations against officers. Complaints range from excessive force to abusive language and harassment.
Occasionally, the Human Relations Commission, another county agency, does an independent investigation of the complaints, which the panel uses and compares with police findings.
The group may make a recommendation to the chief if substantial evidence exists for the complaint to go before a trial board, but the panel has no investigative powers and no authority to mete out punishment.
Baltimore has had a Complaint Evaluation Board since the mid-1970s, but it is made up of city and state employees, according to board Chairman Jerome Nicholas Jr. The group reviews cases of police discourtesy or excessive force but has no power to penalize officers.
Like the Prince George's County board, Baltimore's panel may make recommendations to the police commissioner, who has final say on disciplinary matters.
Mark Gissiner, president of the International Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said every police force could benefit by having more citizen involvement. A review board could also be a deterrent to willful, malicious misconduct by police, he said.
"The people who need police the most are people in low socioeconomic areas, and they're the people who distrust police the most," Gissiner said. "This is a process to reduce those fears."
He added, however, that "there is an inherent difficulty in getting the police culture to accept review boards."
"No organization can honestly look at its own," Brown said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist. That's just common sense."
Brown and several other community leaders in Annapolis have vowed to fight for a review board until city leaders relent.