Civilian review board lacks teeth but could press harder

CRIME BEAT

March 22, 2009|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Once a month in a conference room on the ninth floor of the Equitable Building on North Calvert Street, a small group of regular citizens from around Baltimore huddles over piles of complaints filed against Baltimore police officers.

The public is invited, though the public rarely attends. No one did at the meeting Thursday evening.

Discussions are intentionally vague; the agenda is cryptic, with only an occasional hint of what a case is about, who was involved and where it occurred. Board members appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council review internal affairs reports, but those documents don't get distributed beyond the board's inner circle.

Here's one of the more detailed discussions from Thursday evening on a complaint that an officer had used excessive force:

"Each of the police officers contradicted the other officers," said Charlene Bourne, who represents the Eastern District. "That's why I don't believe anything they said."

The member representing residents of the Southwestern Police District concurred. "One of the officers did say he used his fist," said William Brent. "I don't consider that a good technique unless someone is going upside your own head."

Members agreed that three officers involved in whatever this incident was used too much force, and their recommendation, by a voice vote, will be forwarded to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who makes the final determination. City police recently referred to this board as a public check against abuse during discussions of community trust.

The General Assembly established the Civilian Review Board in 2000 to examine allegations of brutality and abusive language, among other things, after a string of controversial shootings by police and the arrest of a state delegate whose charges of interfering with an officer at an accident scene were dropped by prosecutors.

The mayor, police commissioner and police union at the time fought the idea but finally, amid mounting pressure, conceded to the additional oversight and gave the panel subpoena power in exchange for limiting its influence to that of an advisory role, meaning it's another voice for the police commissioner to consider but no more.

The latest review board report covers Jan. 1 through June 30 of last year. During that time, the board reviewed 54 allegations of excessive force, only one of which was sustained by the Police Department. The civilian board, however, sustained eight of the allegations. For using abusive language, the department sustained one complaint out of 47, while the board sustained seven.

But there's no way to judge the board's effectiveness because the report doesn't say whether the police commissioner agreed with its findings.

Alvin Gillard, who heads the city's Community Relations Commission and oversees the board, told me that after 10 years, "To be honest with you, I don't think we have reached the full potential of the board. I would like the board to be more active, to take a more public posture. But reading and reviewing these cases takes a tremendous amount of work. It's a lot for a volunteer board.

"I think the challenge is going to be building confidence," he added. "I think people might want a board that has the ability to overturn decisions of the department, but that's not what the state allows us to do."

Civilian review came out of a need to restore community trust in police. "This is critically important to building confidence in our police force," then-Mayor Martin O'Malley said in April 2000 when he announced its formation.

A decade later, we're still trying to find ways to build that trust.

I think the board can maintain appropriate discretion yet reveal more about the cases under discussion. Giving this panel the authority to overturn the police commissioner would be a monumental move that would take legislative approval, change the very way cops are disciplined and usurp the power of the commissioner.

But the group can earn more influence, and, as Gillard wants, reach its full potential with a better accounting to the public, providing more detail on the cases they review and the rationale for their votes, and whether the commissioner listens to what they're saying. If the public understands what they are doing and can reasonably follow along, their recommendations will mean something.

The next meeting is April 16.

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