House passes bill giving city right to set up board for police civilian review

Measure much different from Senate's version

fate remains uncertain

April 07, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

A bill to give Baltimore residents a new forum to hear complaints of police misconduct was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Delegates yesterday.

Several supporters of the proposed civilian review board hailed the 120-18 vote as a sure sign that after years of trying, they would deliver to Baltimore residents a neutral setting where complaints about police behavior could be aired.

"I've very pleased with the House vote," said Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat who has been a strong advocate for the bill. "We're almost there."

But others who have followed the proposal's halting progress through the legislature said its fate remains uncertain, in large part because the House and Senate passed very different versions of the same measure.

"There is a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time to do it in," said Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill. "I'm not counting on anything yet."

Hughes said his skepticism stems from years of trying, and failing, to get the General Assembly to allow such a board in Baltimore.

Similar measures have reached this stage, he said, only to perish because a compromise couldn't be reached in time.

This year, though, its prospects have looked bright. For the first time, the concept of a civilian board gained wide support from nearly every Baltimore legislator, as well as endorsements from the mayor, the City Council, the police commissioner and the police union.

City legislators forwarded a bill that would call for nine residents -- one from each police district -- to form a panel with three representatives from police groups.

The proposal called for the board to field complaints from residents, investigate them, and forward its findings to the police commissioner for action.

After the bill's sponsors addressed concerns union officials had about the rights of police officers, no opposition rose to fight the bill.

However, a combination of politics and concerns from key legislators left the bill stalled in House and Senate committees for crucial weeks during the 90-day legislative calendar.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, the Cecil County Democrat who heads the Judicial Proceedings Committee, prolonged the process because city senators had not supported many of his bills.

The House vote occurred yesterday with six days left in the session, and only after members of the Judiciary Committee spent hours, sometimes working well into the night, rewriting large portions of the bill.

A conference committee with representatives from both houses must iron out the differences and put forward a version that's acceptable to the full Assembly.

Most of the differences between the two bills are minor. One provision viewed by sponsors as crucial -- granting the board the power to issue subpoenas -- was preserved in both versions.

But some sticking points remain. Out of concern for the rights of accused officers, delegates added a provision that allows officers to question any witness that comes before the board. It also lets accused officers call witnesses.

Del. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said those additions were crucial in getting him to support the bill.

"These are basic rights," Giannetti said during committee sessions to amend the bill. "Without them, it would be a kangaroo court."

Hughes said he was worried the threat of harsh cross-examinations from accused officers would scare away witnesses. But Mitchell was less concerned.

"I don't want this to be seen as some kind of star chamber," he said. "This will be a place where fairness prevails."

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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