Police review bill OK'd by panel

Measure to create civilian board sent to Senate floor

April 01, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

A legislative committee gave new life yesterday to a bill that would create a civilian police review board in Baltimore, voting unanimously to send the measure to the Senate floor.

Until yesterday's vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the bill was idle in both houses of the General Assembly at a time when movement is crucial to secure passage.

The bill, which would create a citizen panel to review allegations of police misconduct in Baltimore, has support from the city's mayor, council, police commissioner, police union and its state legislators.

But for reasons political and philosophical, two powerful committee chairmen had been preventing the bill from going to a vote.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, had said he was holding the bill to send a message to city senators had not voted his way on unrelated matters.

In the House, Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, objected to language that would give citizens the power to issue subpoenas.

With only 12 days left of the General Assembly's 90-day session, the bill still faces a race against time to navigate several more stages of the legislative process.

"This was the first step down a difficult road," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill. "But I feel much better about the bill's chances today than I did yesterday."

At the same time the Senate panel was voting, Vallario was assigning a House subcommittee to devise a compromise to help move the bill out of his committee.

A group of seven Judiciary Committee members met for about an hour yesterday, and agreed to meet again this morning, to resolve lingering concerns about the bill.

Chief among those is Vallario's worry that the power to subpoena witnesses and documents is not proper for a civilian panel. His views were echoed in the subcommittee by Del. Thomas E. Hutchins, a Charles County Republican who is a retired state trooper.

Hutchins said he believes a citizen board should act only in an advisory capacity. As an advisory board, citizens could hear complaints and review internal affairs investigations, but not conduct a separate probe.

"If a citizen of Baltimore is reluctant to go to the police, an advisory board gives them another avenue by which they can make a complaint," he said.

But backers of the measure said residents need something more. They said residents don't trust police to investigate themselves and want to create a board that may call witnesses ignored by internal affairs detectives.

They also noted that a separate, parallel investigation could help silence public outcry when a police officer has been wrongly accused of misconduct. If a civilian review board finds an officer acted properly, the panel's findings are less likely to be viewed as a whitewash, several city legislators said.

Throughout yesterday's meeting in the House, representatives from the city said they believe some type of citizen review board needs to pass this session.

"I can't emphasize enough the level of concern and the skepticism that's out there in the public," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat who is vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee. "We can't leave here without passing this bill."

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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