Bill to create city police review board approved

April 11, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

After more than six years of trying, Baltimore lawmakers won final approval in the General Assembly last night to create a civilian police review board.

The state Senate voted unanimously to approve the citizen panel, which would conduct independent investigations of complaints against city police officers. The bill awaits only the governor's signature.

"This is a board whose time has come," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city's Senate delegation. "This will give a chance for regular folks to know that their concerns about the police will be taken seriously."

The creation of the board comes a many of the nation's big cities are trying to grapple with deteriorating relations between police and the people they serve. Lawmakers called this a pre-emptive measure, so that Baltimore would be prepared to respond should citizens raise alarm about police behavior.

Broad powers for panel

The 12-member panel, replacing an existing police evaluation board, will be given broad powers to investigate questionable police conduct, including the ability to subpoena witnesses and review internal police documents. It will have nine citizen members and three nonvoting members from law enforcement circles.

For many years, legislators and Baltimore officials had a tough time deciding whether a civilian board would help foster good relations between city residents and the police force, or merely erode trust.

Wide support

But this year, the idea drew wide support, including the blessing of the mayor, the City Council, and nearly all of the city's 39-member delegation in Annapolis. Several lawmakers said the widely publicized arrest of state Sen. Joan Carter Conway at the scene of a city traffic accident -- an incident in which charges were later dropped -- galvanized their support.

FOP joins process

Recognizing the momentum building behind the idea, the city police union joined the process to give its input on how the board should be organized. The Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3 added provisions that would protect the rights of an accused officer, and punish anyone who made a false report to the board.

The union also made certain the ultimate power of the civilian panel would be to make a recommendation to the police commissioner on how a case should be settled.

"I don't want officers to be unduly concerned," said Officer Gary McLhinney, union president. "This is not a civilian takeover of our police department."

`A chance to be heard'

Despite the concessions, the sponsors of the bill -- Sen. Ralph M. Hughes and Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, both city Democrats -- declared its passage a major victory for people who fear that police do not conduct adequate investigations into their officers' behavior.

"I feel it will give Baltimore citizens a chance to be heard," Hughes said. "We're talking about people who have always felt they lacked a voice in matters pertaining to police."

In coming months, the mayor and council will select members, and city officials will make forms available in libraries, legal aid offices, the Community Relations Commission and every police station for people to file complaints. The board will review allegations of harassment, abusive language and excessive force.

Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, also a city Democrat, said he hoped the panel will help build trust between officers and the communities they serve.

"This is a great opportunity for them to work together," he said.

Kevin O'Keeffe, lobbyist for the city, agreed, saying he was "pleased that the legislature, police and citizens worked together to pass a bill that will improve confidence in the department."

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