Police disciplinary process studied by City Council Probes could move outside department

August 20, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore City Council committee recommended yesterday turning over the process of investigating and disciplining police officers accused of misconduct to authorities outside the department in an attempt to end allegedly racist practices.

The five-member Committee on Legislative Investigations' recommendation is part of a three-year probe into complaints by African-American police officers that the disciplinary process is racially biased.

A study conducted in 1996 by a former officer showed that between 1985 and 1996, black officers were dismissed from the force three times more often than their white colleagues. The study showed that officers were being disciplined differently for similar offenses.

"No meaningful change will come to this problem until there is a change in the attitude at the top of the police department and at the top of city government with regard to how we police the police," Committee Chairman Martin O'Malley wrote in a report submitted to the Board of Estimates yesterday.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who sits on the five-member estimates board, said he wants to solicit input from police union officials and the department before taking any action.

"Hopefully, it will spur some objective discussion," Schmoke said.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier declined to comment on the report yesterday, saying he has not received a copy. Frazier has acknowledged that problems exist and has promised to ensure equal discipline in the department.

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, also an estimates board member, commended the recommendations, saying the council will likely take up the issue when it returns from summer recess Sept. 28 -- although only the mayor or the state could change the department's disciplinary system.

The committee recommended that administrative investigations of police be handled by the Complaint Evaluation Board of Baltimore City, a panel set up by the state to investigate police brutality complaints. Once administrative charges are made, disciplinary hearing officers outside the Police Department should determine whether rules were violated and what the penalty should be.

In addition, the committee wants the department to establish a panel with union representation that would review past disciplinary cases and provide redress for members forced out of the department through disparate treatment.

Officers can be disciplined for violating administrative rules including failing to show up for work, misusing a weapon and using excessive force. Penalties range from a reprimand to dismissal.

The investigation into alleged racial bias in the department began after several African-American officers contacted council members in 1995 and complained that the department's disciplinary hearings were racially discriminatory. The group also complained that officers making formal complaints about misconduct, corruption or discrimination became targets of retaliatory investigations by the department's internal affairs division.

Of 139 officers fired between 1985 and 1996, 71 percent were HTC African-American, according to the study done in 1996. African-Americans made up 35 percent of the force.

The review, conducted by a black officer who had been fired, also showed that 99 percent of the hearing boards contained at least two white officers -- a majority on the three-member panels.

The Community Relations Commission, a group that investigates and resolves discrimination complaints, verified the black officer's findings in 1996, concluding that the department likely engaged in discriminatory practices.

Bell is expecting a report to be issued soon on the matter by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is independently investigating black officers' complaints.

Leaders of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the police union, were out of town yesterday and could not be reached to comment on the committee report.

Representatives of Vanguard Justice Society, which represents black officers in the department, welcomed the recommendations as a starting point to initiate reforms they say are 30 years overdue.

"It's time that we look at how the Police Department handles policies," said Sgt. Richard Hite, president of Vanguard. "I'm hoping we can start the process of reform because we're splitting our department in half with this infighting."

Pub Date: 8/20/98

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