Mayor criticizes police handling of video case and calls for plan to address brutality

Rawlings-Blake says changes needed to Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights

September 17, 2014|By Luke Broadwater and Erin Cox | The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake criticized the Police Department's handling of a high-profile police brutality investigation on Wednesday, and said she had directed the police commissioner to develop a "comprehensive" plan to address brutality in the agency.

Speaking to reporters at City Hall, the mayor said top commanders should have quickly seen a video of an officer repeatedly punching a man, and should have moved immediately to take the officer off the street.

"It is outrageous," Rawlings-Blake said of the conduct of the officer shown in the video, whom authorities have identified as Officer Vincent E. Cosom. "We have a situation where we know that video was held by the police, yet the people who needed to see it didn't see it. That's a problem."

A police surveillance camera captured the incident on North Avenue the night it happened in June, and a department monitor flagged the footage, officials have said. Though prosecutors and detectives from internal affairs were aware of it, officials said, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said he didn't see it until Monday — the day it was made public as part of a $5 million lawsuit filed against Cosom. Cosom remained on the job until he was suspended with pay Tuesday.

"It's clear there is a bottleneck somewhere" that kept top officials from seeing the tape sooner, Rawlings-Blake said. "Everything I saw was a concern to me. It wasn't handled right [during] the incident. It wasn't handled right afterward. Either we don't have the right procedures or they weren't enforced. Either way, we have to do better."

She said she was prepared to lead a charge to weaken Maryland's police "Bill of Rights," which some critics say is too protective of officers.

The law mandates that disciplinary actions against police go through a three-person trial board that makes decisions based on the preponderance of the evidence. Before the board's decision, the police commissioner may suspend an officer without pay only if he or she is charged with a felony.

The law gives officers 10 days to get an attorney before they can be questioned by superiors, and lets the attorney strike members of the trial board hearing the case. Additionally, the law states an officer may not be investigated on a brutality accusation unless it was made within 90 days of the incident.

Several Baltimore lawmakers said they planned to seek changes to the law, but supporters of the act warned against sweeping changes that could undermine an officer's rights.

Gene Ryan, vice president of the city police union, said the law simply gives an officer "his day in court."

"She's been giving it a bad rap. It's a due process law," Ryan said of the mayor. "If the investigation proves this officer was wrong in what he did, he should be punished. Let's give him his chance first."

Del. John W. E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican and former law enforcement officer, said diluting the bill of rights could lead to public officials firing officers for political reasons, not necessarily because the officer had done anything wrong. And Cluster said the bill of rights already allows for officers to be fired for even minor infractions if they reflect poorly on the Police Department.

He warned against changes that would give superiors "too broad of leeway to fire someone without giving them due process."

The video footage from the North Avenue incident appears to show Cosom launching an unprovoked attack on a man named Kollin Truss at a bus stop. Cosom lands a series of blows on Truss.

Two other officers are seen in the video not intervening. Police identified those officers Wednesday evening as Officer Dominic Gerber, a five-year veteran with the department, and Officer Christopher Dunlap, a two-year veteran.

Batts has said he was shocked and outraged by the video. City prosecutors have said there is a criminal investigation into the matter, while police said they planned to present a case to a grand jury.

Cosom will continue to collect his paycheck while on leave. His base salary is $61,000; with overtime, he earned $69,000 last year.

"I thought it was very important that he be off the streets," Rawlings-Blake said. "I've looked at [the video] several times. I've tried to figure out under what circumstances that was the right thing to do. I can't figure it out. I don't want to see this type of thing happen again."

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, who chairs the city's House delegation in Annapolis, said Baltimore's lawmakers were eager to partner with the mayor on the effort to change the law. Anderson said some want to see the city's Civilian Review Board granted more powers.

"Several of us have already been talking about taking a look at it," he said. "The civilian review board doesn't really have any teeth. It doesn't require the mayor or the police commissioner to act in any specific way. They don't have the ability to redress grievances. If people feel powerless that's not a good thing for us."

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