Civilian board introduced to monitor police

April 06, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Trying to ease fears about police tactics, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley publicly introduced yesterday an oversight committee staffed with residents who will scrutinize officers' behavior.

The Civilian Review Board has subpoena power and a private investigator. Though its decisions are not binding, O'Malley said his choice for police commissioner, Edward T. Norris, will take recommendations seriously.

The 11-member board was established by the General Assembly last year, before O'Malley was elected. He made two of his own appointments yesterday and used the opportunity to assure residents that officers will be closely scrutinized under his watch.

"This is critically important to building confidence in our police force," O'Malley said at a news conference with members of the board.

Members have been meeting since October but have spent most of their time training. They have made no recommendations. All said they will be fair to residents and law enforcement.

"No one wants innocents to become victims" of police, said board member Leonard Scott, a Northeast Baltimore resident. "But we have to get a handle on crime."

This is the first time Baltimore police have had civilian oversight. A complaint review board existed for years, but it had neither subpoena power nor the backing of state law. It reviewed case folders of completed investigations.

Attempts to create a civilian review board repeatedly died in the state legislature. But a series of high-profile police shootings and the arrest of a state senator for allegedly impeding an accident scene gave supporters the needed votes.

The panel will not investigate large-scale corruption. It will focus on complaints that deal directly with police-citizen interaction: abusive language, discourtesy, harassment and use of excessive force.

Members will work independently of the department's Internal Investigation Division, which also looks into complaints and has the power to file criminal or administrative charges against officers.

The Civilian Review Board is composed of nine civilians -- one for each police district -- and officials of the police union and the Vanguard Justice Society, an organization for black officers. A police major is liaison.

The panel is chaired by Doreen B. Rosenthal, a Bolton Hill activist. She said members must meet at least once a month and that part of each meeting will be open to the public. Discussions of cases and interviews of witnesses will be conducted in private.

"We would like to get as much information as we can to the public," Rosenthal said. "That is part of our credibility."

State law requires that the panel submit a semiannual report to the police commissioner and the mayor.

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